Who does not love a good story?
For me, stories are why I love being a language teacher.
Sharing share stories with my students opens them up to a whole new world of exciting ideas and perspectives.
From relating ordinary life events to epic pieces of literature, a lot of our communication, our decision-making and our understanding of the world function through storytelling.
Why not use stories to teach language as well?
Teaching vocabulary can be fresh, exciting and something your students look forward to by using collaborative storytelling.
To facilitate this, American educator Blaine Ray developed a fantastic teaching method that uses storytelling in a classroom setting. He called it “Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling,” or TPRS for short.
From personal experience, TPRS cannot be beaten. It can be a challenge to get it working and reach this flow of student participation, but it is very much worth it. Once it gets going, it engages the whole class.
Unlock Your Students’ True Potential with German TPRS
You need to overcome your students’ hesitations and make them feel comfortable to “publicly” improvise a story in a foreign language. If you can provide comprehensible input and draw them in, they will be delighted to use their brains, tap into their creativity and come up with an exciting story. TPRS may be demanding of the teacher, but it is also greatly rewarding.
Instead of forcing students to listen to you or read textbooks, TPRS will engage them and teach key German vocabulary in a highly entertaining way.
You choose the words, set up the framework and spin a yarn with your students that employs this vocabulary. You can use a range of techniques and tools to assist you, but the most important thing is to understand the basics:
- Repeat the words as often as possible.
- Check for student comprehension.
- Take the occasional break for pop-up grammar.
- Write it all down afterwards.
The result will be a story your students will not forget.
Why German TPRS Is Awesome
There is a multitude of reasons to use TPRS in your German language classroom. How many do you need?
Let’s start with one: A TPRS session is tailor-made for your students and is something they can relate to. That means you can scale the difficulty and complexity and use it for different groups and skill levels.
Another reason: No one gets left behind. TPRS is slow but inclusive and takes great care to address everyone, no matter if they are shy or outspoken.
Do you still want more reasons?
How about this: TPRS is extremely immersive and interactive. Or, as your students will call, “not boring!” Like using inventive teaching resources or other great immersive techniques, it simply is fun and rich in variety.
If you still need more reasons, we could go on and on about:
- How TPRS teaches vocabulary and grammar in context.
- How it ties words to images and stories.
- How it increases brain connections and embeds the lessons in your students’ long-term memory
But how about we skip that and rather get cracking at the actual method and how you can use it?
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3 Steps to TPRS Success
So how does the magic happen?
Of course, you do not just gather your students to read a story together. TPRS is a teaching technique with a clear structure that is easy to understand and implement.
1. Choose Your Vocabulary
As always, you need to do some groundwork before the fun begins. The better your preparation, the easier you can improvise during the lesson and still ensure your students get the maximum out of it.
The first and most essential step for TPRS is list-making.
Not your grocery list.
Not a list of your favorite movies.
You need a list of vocabulary words. Language and storytelling revolve around them, so choose wisely.
First, decide on the target vocabulary. This should comprise three or more terms you want your students to learn. Then, connect them to your overarching curriculum.
Second, you need general vocabulary, a larger list of words your students already know and can use to construct the story. If this is not your first TPRS session, this list should include target vocabulary from previous sessions.
2. Engage in Storytelling
The vocabulary is half of the process, the story is the other.
You start with an outline and then you ask a large number of questions to have your students contribute to the story and to make sure they understand the general idea.
You can either take a pre-made story (for example the ones on Vorleser.net) and have your students listen to it in the classroom. Then, stop the recording and ask your students to continue the story themselves.
The other option, which might require you to improvise more, is to tell a brand-new story together with your students; you will find useful tools for that further below.
3. Pop-ups, Saving and Comprehension Checks
Pop-ups: Pop-ups are contextual grammar explanations you sprinkle in during the lesson. Imagine them like sidebars or actual pop-up windows on a website. Do this by pausing the story and giving your students a concise explanation of the rule you just used in the storytelling.
Saving: Have you ever played a difficult computer game? You need to constantly save your progress so you do not lose everything you have accomplished.
The same is true for TPRS.
Give (or better yet, have your students give) regular recaps of the story so far.
- Where are we?
- What is character X doing?
- How did we get here?
- What are the characters trying to do?
- What will happen if they succeed or fail?
Doing this ensures that nothing gets lost between class sessions.
Comprehension checks: Saving is good, but it does not achieve much if you are not giving comprehension checks.
When you do TPRS storytelling, you go one line at a time, and then you recap and ask questions. During the whole process, you stay in German as much as possible, but check for comprehension when necessary. For successful TPRS, everyone needs to be on board at all times, and it is your job to keep them there.
Repeat sentences and ask questions as often as necessary. There is no such thing as too much repetition within TPRS.
- Choose the slowest learner in the group as a “barometer student” and only proceed if you are sure they have understood everything.
- Ask simple questions about the contents of the story so far.
However you do it, a successful comprehension check is vital for getting everyone to participate and learn.
Setting up a Great TPRS Session
Now that we have laid out the TPRS skeleton, here is the meat that goes on your TPRS bones.
First off, when you start a TPRS session, introduce the target vocabulary clearly and concisely. Everybody should understand it without any guesswork involved. You will use the vocabulary a lot during storytelling, so you need to put it in place before anything else.
It is imperative to build the story around the target vocabulary and include it as often as possible. For example, if the vocabulary includes a color, have lots of things in that color appear and ask your students about the color of each new element they introduce to the story.
Story Is Key
After the vocabulary is clear, introduce the framework of your story. How are you going to tell it and where will it begin?
To engage your students, use one of the following themes:
- Personalization: The students themselves and their hometown.
- Unfamiliarity: An alien world, ancient China or a tropical port city.
- Over-the-top: Think action movie. Do not worry about logic. Just fill the story with colorful characters and explosions.
Use this phase to think about props and possible media tie-ins for true multimedia storytelling.
If you are looking for ideas that will enhance your German classroom, check out FluentU.
Adding FluentU to your curriculum gives you an ever-growing list of German resources, and this makes FluentU great for stand-alone curriculum or supplementary material to enhance your TPRS content.
The Value of Participation
Assign setting elements to each student.
For example, make one student responsible for a specific character’s actions, or for all vehicles that come up, or all plants, all locations and so on.
Alternatively, you can have students contribute to the story in turn. The important part is to include everyone, so that they pay attention and catch up on the target vocabulary.
The Adaptation Well
Depending on your available time and creative energy, it might be difficult to come up with original story hooks for your classroom, especially if you plan to use TPRS often. And why wouldn’t you?
Fortunately, you need not torture your brain. There is a wealth of stories out there you can adapt, starting from old German fairy tales and the illustrated “Struwwelpeter” to other great classics.
Proceed slowly when telling the story in collaboration with your students.
TPRS is not and should not be a sprint. As mentioned, repetition is important to keep everyone on board and make sure they understand the vocabulary.
Unlike in classic teaching scenarios, it is not just you talking to your students. You are developing a story together.
Have your students contribute in turn or ask questions and pick the most promising answer.
Put them in charge of specific setting elements or characters, and make sure the story connects with them either through participation or personalized content.
Tools of the TPRS Trade
You can use images and videos, gestures, demonstrations and pointing to real-life objects to help students understand. Even if it may seem silly to you, it goes a long way to make your students remember the lessons and turn the classroom into a multimedia theater.
Take an Improv Class
You do not have to re-invent the wheel. Improvisational theater, or “improv,” is very similar to collaborative TPRS storytelling. As such, it provides a lot of useful rules and techniques.
Improv also stresses the importance of establishing location and being as specific as possible. For some useful ideas, check out Tina Fey’s or Ben Rosenfeld’s list of improv techniques.
Lessons from the Theater
Just like improv has great overlap with TPRS, so does traditional theater, in particular regarding rehearsal techniques. Use the lessons learned in 2,500 years of theater to help you optimize your TPRS classes.
Make Use of Story Generators
Use an online generator to kick-start your storytelling creativity. Great for beginner students, simply plug in some German words into the story and get started. You can even use it as a story seed that helps you to avoid getting stuck during the beginning TPRS phases where you are trying to come up with a general theme.
As you can see, we were not lying when we said TPRS takes time to set up! But it is also a great way to have students explore and have fun with the German language.
Dennis Mombauer is a German who currently lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as a freelance writer of fiction, reviews, and essays on climate change and education. He co-publishes a German magazine for experimental fiction (Die Novelle—Magazine for Experimentalism) and has published various short stories, poems, and one German-language novel.
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