Too Much of a Good Thing: How to Max Out on TPRS Success
Too much of a good thing is a good thing.
At least according to country music star Alan Jackson.
And my guess is that language teachers who have used TPRS in their classrooms to bring learning to life through stories feel that way, too.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, it stands for Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling, and it is a foreign language teaching method that was developed by Blaine Ray in the 1990s.
It is a three-step process that includes vocabulary instruction, using that vocabulary in a class storytelling experience and a follow-up activity.
Since the method is slow and repetitive, students have more than ample opportunities to learn the content of a lesson, which usually focuses on around three new vocabulary words.
You can find an extended discussion of the method here.
What this post will focus on is a simple, straightforward, step-by-step method for the storytelling aspect of the lesson.
It won’t take long for you and your students to understand why TPRS is, in fact, such a good thing.
What Are the Advantages of TPRS?
Before we get into the specifics of storytelling, it is worth taking a few minutes to talk about why TPRS is such an effective method for the language classroom.
TPRS offers lots of advantages for language students.
TPRS is tailored to exactly what your students need to learn.
You choose the exact vocabulary a lesson covers as well as the grammar points you include. Since you make up the lesson yourself, you don’t have to go along with vocabulary and grammar predetermined by a textbook or curriculum.
TPRS is perfect for true beginners.
It can be conducted in the target language only or combined with the students’ first language. That means you can give them as little or as much second language content to learn as you would like. Because of this, you can choose just enough new material to challenge your true beginners without overwhelming them like many “beginner” lessons do.
When you use TPRS, you connect with multiple learning styles.
Of course you are talking, which brings in your aural learners. But you are also gesturing, asking students to participate and relying on their creativity to some degree as they make up the story. That will appeal to your kinesthetic and visual learners, too.
You could also use videos to complement your TPRS lessons. You could connect your TPRS to a story or an authentic situation where the target language is being spoken.
No one gets left behind.
This is one of the hallmarks of TPRS. So much of the lesson is repetition—what you are teaching today as well as what you taught before. And you only move on to more material when the very last student in class understands. This way, everyone stays on the same page and keeps up with the class.
It involves students.
Not only are you asking students comprehension questions throughout the storytelling process, you are also asking them to create the story. The only limitations are their imagination and the vocabulary they already know.
Grammar is taught contextually.
There are no grammar lessons with TPRS, well, no traditional ones, anyway. With TPRS, you teach grammar as it comes up in the story. When students need to know a grammar structure, you take five minutes to explain it in context, and then move on. This is known as “pop-up” grammar instruction. It is practical, quick and memorable.
TPRS for All! A 9-step Guide Anyone Can Use
It might seem intimidating at first to come up with an entire story on which to base your class lesson, but once you break it down into steps, it is really quite simple.
Step 1: Choose vocabulary.
Before starting any story, come up with a list of vocabulary you can use in your story. You will have three different types of words on this list:
- Vocabulary your students already know.
- The target vocabulary you want to teach.
- Any cognates between their first language and the target language.
Choose three words from the target vocabulary list (or more or less depending on what is more appropriate for your class, but three is generally good). Then, feel free to use as many words from the other two lists as you need to for the story.
Keep your story to these words, and don’t be discouraged if the list isn’t long. You will add new words to the vocabulary bank with every lesson you teach.
Step 2: Choose a main character and a problem.
You can really get creative here. I have seen TPRS stories starring characters ranging from a blue duck to Selena Gomez. Choose someone who appeals to your students and a problem that ties into the vocabulary you want to teach.
Step 3: Choose a setting that is memorable.
There are several ways to make a memorable setting for your story.
- One way is to choose someplace bizarre, like the moon or the top of a tree.
- You can also choose a setting that is personal to your students, like your classroom or a local hang-out joint.
- You can make a setting exaggerated to make it memorable. Instead of setting the story on a boat, set it on a submarine in the deepest part of the ocean, for example.
- You can make your settings very visual by hanging posters around your room in which your stories can be set. That beautiful beach picture can serve as more than just a reminder of your upcoming vacation.
Step 4: Gather any props that will help in telling your story.
You might have a stuffed blue duck at home (it could happen!) or you might bring in a coffee cup and a menu to serve as props for your story. Anything and everything is a go.
If you don’t have the right props handy, pictures work great, too. The goal is just to have something students can see and feel that connects them with the story you are telling.
Step 5: Tell the story one line at a time.
We are to the actual storytelling at this point, but we are not taking off at a run. Tell the story to your students, but take it one line at a time.
You may choose to tell the story bilingually, especially if you have true beginners, or in the target language only.
According to Douglass Crouse, ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) recommends staying in the target language 90% of your classroom time, and TPRS is a great way to achieve that level of immersion.
As you tell the story, do lots of comprehension checks and only move on when everyone understands.
Keep your checks to:
- Simple questions that students can answer with a word or two.
- Eliciting actions or motions that go along with the target vocabulary.
Step 6: Have students stop you when they don’t understand.
You don’t want to lose anyone as you teach, which is part of why you go so slowly in this style of lesson. So stop if anyone does not understand.
You might consider predesignating a signal, such as clapping or making a time-out sign, that students can use if they do not understand what is going on. If anyone makes the sign, back up and go over that last bit again.
Step 7: Explain grammar in pop-up style.
This step isn’t as much a “step” as the others, as it can happen anytime during the story. As grammar points come up, explain them to your students. Keep your explanations short, simple and related to the story. And then move on. No conjugating verbs in list format here.
Step 8: Ask students to participate.
This is another step that happens throughout the storytelling process. As you work your story towards a successful resolution of the problem you have selected, ask your students to decide how the plot goes. This video is a great example of a teacher incorporating her students’ ideas into her storytelling.
Step 9: Do follow-up activities.
In the class period following your storytelling, do some follow-up activities to reinforce the information students learned.
A reading is a great follow-up activity to do.
Start by reviewing your story and the information students learned the previous day.
Then have members of your class read a passage that you have either written based on the story you told or that you have reverse engineered to connect with the previous day’s lesson. Have students read independently and to themselves rather than as a class for this activity.
You will want three types of vocabulary in this reading:
- Vocabulary your students already know.
- The target vocabulary from the lesson.
- The next set of target vocabulary—the words you will be presenting in your next TPRS lesson.
Have students translate the reading word by word (feel free to let them use a dictionary, though monolingual in the target language is usually a better choice than a bilingual one), and don’t put a lot of emphasis on the new vocabulary. Simply use it as first exposure in preparation for the next lesson.
Encourage students to make personal connections to what they are reading to make it more memorable, and stick to pop-up grammar explanations in this step, too.
A reading isn’t the only effective type of follow-up activity. This download from Joe Neilson recommends a handful of others, including dramatization and teacher-directed writing.
So whether you consider yourself good at teacher improvisation or not, TPRS is an effective and engaging method your language students will love.
Give it a try, and you may find you agree with Alan Jackson that too much of a good thing is a good thing.