TPRS: How to Deliver Unforgettable Language Lessons with Story Time
Want your classroom experience to be the stuff of school legends?
Long to be the teacher that all the students love to hang around and chat with? You know, the one that students fondly remember after years have gone by.
Want to really get those key language skills drilled into your students’ brains?
TPRS might just be your way to the Promised Land.
What Is TPRS?
TPRS is, simply put, a fun and effective method of teaching foreign languages in a classroom setting. It’s a philosophy and a set of tools that teaches vocabulary in a highly comprehensible and contextualized manner.
TPRS stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.
You know at first glance what the two activities at the heart of this technique are: reading and storytelling. But, as you will soon realize, this is not your run-of-the-mill “reading” and “storytelling.”
With TPRS, grammar instruction and correction takes a backseat to word comprehension. It focuses on over-learning vocabulary words (eg. nouns, verbs, adjectives) and phrases through “non-repetitious repetition.” This way, your students will not only have fun, they will be learning effortlessly as well.
TPRS was developed in the 90’s by Blaine Ray, a Californian teacher of Spanish. He had his start by borrowing techniques from another teaching method called TPR (Total Physical Response) developed by James Asher. TPR’s philosophy, and consequently that of TPRS, is that a second language is acquired very much like the first—meaning students in our classrooms are learning foreign languages in the same way that babies absorb their first languages.
Rather than relying on overtly teaching grammar, we need to expose our students to the language and make the language come alive for them. They need to hear the words as much as they can, over and over (just as we did as babies), in helpful contexts and in many different, interesting ways.
Doing this will engage the students’ long-term memories and facilitate the genuine acquisition of language. This will allow them to better communicate when using the language in conversations and to understand it when they hear it in authentic media such as the videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
How TPRS Solves Teachers’ Most Common Classroom Headaches
Lack of Interest
TPRS solves the interest problem by having storytelling at its core. We all know that our students, whether they be a bunch of 6 year olds learning Spanish or an evening class of working professionals learning German, love a good story.
The story is an opportunity to flood your students with the “non-repetitious repetition” of your target vocabulary.
Think of a story as a vehicle, a pick-up truck if you will, for teaching the language. It doesn’t matter where the pick-up truck goes, what happens in the story or how it ends. Metaphorically speaking, everything important is loaded in the back of the pick-up truck anyway. All the techniques, the exaggerated gestures and non-verbals—borrowed from Asher’s TPR method (Total Physical Response)—the role-playing and interactive fun, are all embedded.
TPRS teachers animate their stories. They move around, gesture wildly, raise their voices or bring their voices down to a whisper. They ask students to act out the scenes. They move in different places in the classroom to go to the different locations in the plot.
What makes the method unique is that it offers opportunities to repeat the target words without it being rote and dry. And, in addition, teachers seek to personalize the lessons by allowing the students to decide the outcomes and details of the story. Because of this, students become more engaged with it. They are invested in what happens with the characters. They helped shape it, after all.
Lack of Comprehension
Just because a lesson was delivered doesn’t mean a lesson was received. TPRS actually checks if the students understood. As will be discussed later, TPRS establishes the meaning of words early and reinforces them. This is done via direct translation, by visual stimulation, even demonstration. A variety of techniques is employed to make the meaning of the words crystal clear.
“Comprehension checks,” usually in the form of a question, determine if the lessons are understood. In a German class, a teacher might say: “Guten Morgen, class! Now, does anybody know what Guten Morgen means?”
A unison answer from the class is a good indicator of understanding. An eerie silence is not good. A cacophony of sounds means students are still getting there and the teacher needs to help them some more and run yesterday’s lesson again. Perhaps slower this time.
Through storytelling, the words become animated in an engaging context. Students see how the words are used as events in the story unfold. This bolsters their understanding of the vocabulary. Not to mention, the continuous repetitions ensures that understanding lodges into their long-term memories.
As you will notice later, pacing in TPRS is really slow. If you think about it, TPRS naturally solves the comprehension problem simply because the teacher doesn’t move onto the next lesson unless mastery is achieved in the present one.
Lack of Recall
TPRS guns for compelling inputs, or lessons that stay with the students long after the noise in the classroom has died down. Since you’ve got interesting techniques (role-playing, interaction, gestures, pictures, etc.) on top of interesting material (story), the recall problem is implicitly solved.
By dealing with the first two problems of Interest and Comprehension, TPRS paves the way for recall.
Sitting in a TPRS directed class, students will not only be having fun by joining activities, they’ll remember more of the lessons. They’ll recall those stories! Like the one with the “blue duck”—(a story which we’ll take up in the next section.) Because of your “blue duck” story, your Spanish students will remember that azul is the Spanish word for blue. They’ll always remember that little darling duck going into the city, seeing all sorts of things that had the same color as him. The kids in that class will grow up and never forget that duck and, boy, what a strange color he had!
So, now that you know how TPRS solves your classroom headaches, wanna give it a try?
I know, I would.
The 3 Steps of Teaching with TPRS
We can break down the TPRS teaching method into three major steps for greater ease:
1. Pick target words and establish their meanings.
2. Tell a story using the target words.
3. Give your students a reading that uses the target words.
Let’s flesh out their details and get into the specific techniques used in each step.
1. Pick target words and establish their meanings
TPRS begins and ends with choosing the specific words that you want to teach your students.
What words or expressions do you want your students to know during the next lesson? Pick just 1 to 3 target words. It may not sound like a lot, but we limit the number of target words taught in any given lesson so we can sufficiently emphasize them and ensure that they’re committed to students’ long term memories.
When you’re done choosing the target words, immediately establish their meanings for your students.
The fastest way of establishing the meaning of new words is by translation.
Write the translations on the board. So, for example, if your target word is the French verb sauter (jump), write “SAUTER = JUMP” on the board. This will provide the initial stimulus for learning, and the class can glance at the board any time they forget during the lesson.
Another way of establishing meaning is by displaying pictures. In the case of sauter, you might want to show your class a series of pictures of people jumping.
Another way is by demonstrating sauter itself. Show what the word means by jumping several times. Ask volunteers to do it. Ask the class to jump and give props to the highest jumper!
Still, another technique of anchoring the meaning of words is through gesturing.
Let’s say your target word is the Spanish word comer (eat). Pair it with a gesture of your choosing which illustrates the word. For example, use your left hand as an imaginary plate and move your right hand as if you were bringing food to your mouth. Do this action every time you say comer.
Let your class observe it. They’ll anchor the visual of you hoisting food into your mouth with comer before too long.
Then, let them all act it out as a class and as individuals. The movement itself will serve as another memory aid.
We establish meaning early in TPRS. We don’t keep students guessing what the words mean. One of the foundational concepts of TPRS is comprehensible input. Every word that comes out of the mouth of the teacher must be perfectly understood by the students.
Every word that comes out of the mouth of a teacher must be perfectly understood by the students.
Now, how is that even possible, much less in a foreign language class?
TPRS teachers use a mental technique called staying in-bounds.
It means that at no particular moment in class will you allow the foreign words to become vague or be open for guessing. If a teacher, for example, writes the Spanish expression: ¡Buenas Noches! (Good night), she better make sure that her students know the translation for every word in that expression.
If not, then that’s considered “out of bounds” and she should return “in-bounds” as soon as possible. She’ll hold off moving forward with the lesson and make sure everybody understands every word in the expression.
Students will slip through the cracks faster every minute that she doesn’t get them back. The longer her lesson goes, the more difficult it is to get them back in the right track. So she needs to get them back in the first instance.
[Early in the school year, you stay “in bounds” by using plenty of English when establishing the meaning of foreign words. But over time, when the learning compounds, you can use more and more of the target language to explain the meaning of new words and still stay “in bounds.” That’s because you’ve taught the previous vocabulary words effectively and have integrated them into your students’ long-term memories. Using the target language too much too early will leave gaps in your students’ understanding.]
Now, how does the teacher know that the meanings of the words have been established and the class has understood? How does the teacher know that all those pictures of people jumping, or the games where everyone looks for the highest jumper in class, have actually worked?
TPRS has comprehension checks to make sure that the teacher and her class are on the same page. Questions serve as comprehension checks.
For example, when teaching the Spanish expression ¡Buenas noches! (good night), the teacher asks questions like:
What does buenas mean?
What does noches mean?
What does ¡Buenas noches! mean?
When do we usually use “¡Buenas noches!”?
Can you say that to your pets?
It’s 5 in the morning, can we say “¡Buenas noches!”?
Once the teacher has strong indicators of comprehension, she moves on to the next step.
A technique TPRS teachers use to know that it’s time to progress in the lesson is: observing the barometer student.
This is the student considered to be most challenging in class. Teachers pay special notice on him/her during comprehension checks and pace the class to that particular student. This means that a teacher only moves on to the next lesson when the “barometer” student has shown evidence of word comprehension and has internalized the lesson.
When a TPRS teacher realizes that the student needs more time, she gives it. The rest of the class benefits by over-learning the lesson, which is all part of the process anyway.
Moving to the next step is a recognition that knowing the meaning of those words, at this point, is only short-term memory. Many teachers stop here and add a new set of target words. It’ll probably be forgotten after recess.
Just because they know what “Buenas Noches” means today, doesn’t mean they’ll know it tomorrow or a week from now.
TPRS distinguishes itself by understanding that we need to transfer this knowledge into long-term memory—for the students to really acquire the language.
2. Tell a story using the target words
Let’s say you want your students to really learn that target vocabulary and integrate it into their long-term memories. Let’s say one target word is the Spanish word azul (blue).
You’ve established azul as the Spanish color blue in Step 1. You then build a story around it.
A typical TPRS story would go something like this:
Teacher: Once upon a time, there was a baby duck whose color was azul. [Shows a picture of a blue duck.]
Teacher: What color is azul? [comprehension check]
Teacher: Right! Azul is Spanish for the color blue.
Teacher: The baby duck is color azul.
Class: [nods in agreement].
Teacher: [points up] Azul, like the color of the sky.
Teacher: [points to her blue blouse] Azul, like the color of my dress.
Teacher: What is the color of the baby duck? [Pointing to the picture]
Class: [in unison] Azul!!!!!
Using a variety of statements and questions, the teacher goes on to repeat the target vocabulary as many times in the story as possible.
Teacher: Is the color of the baby duck red?
Teacher: Is it green?
Teacher: Is it azul?
Teacher: [exaggerates a bit] Are you sure?
Teacher: Azul, just like the sky? [gestures up]
Teacher: Azul, just like Cindy’s dress?
Teacher: Oh right, Cindy’s dress is white. Azul is blue.
Teacher: Azul, just like my dress? [points to the dress for the class to see]
Teacher: Azul, just like Ben’s shirt? [points to one of the students]
Teacher: Oh, so you mean azul is the color blue!
Notice that the teacher has told only one sentence in the story so far, but has repeated the word azul over a dozen times. A second line in this story that could really explode the repetition possibilities would be: He went to the city and saw a great many wonderful things. Then you can list all the blue things that the blue baby duck saw.
Two things you will notice with TPRS stories are that they are highly interactive…and that they go very slow.
The technique used here is: Parking
Parking is when teachers temporarily stop the progression of events in the story and go into vocabulary review/teaching mode. Teachers “park” after one or two sentences and hammer on the target words. (The story, after all, is just a vehicle.) It is common that, in a single story, you’ll be able to repeat the target vocabulary 300 times. Each repetition is accompanied by gestures, pictures and examples.
Remember when I told you that TPRS stories are not the run-of-the-mill kind? This is because TPRS stories have plots that are not set in stone. The class has a say in what happens in the story and the details it contains.
This storytelling technique is called: Personalizing
You involve the class by asking them questions that will help make move the story forward, just like they do in improv. For example, if you’ve got a story about a little blue duck who goes to the city for the first time, you might want to ask, “Where do you think the little duck goes first?”
The class will give a variety of answers. Pick a good one and run with it. Let’s say, someone shouts “The store!”
So you go, “The little blue duck steps inside the store and saw many wonderful things. What kind of store is it?”
“A chocolate store!” shout some of your students.
You continue engaging them by asking, “And what did he buy?”
“M&M’s” shouted one of your kids.
Use this to hammer in “azul” as one M&M color.
Move the story forward with the details your students give. Use them as opportunities to go back to your target words. The more you practice this, the sharper you become with those repetition opportunities.
By personalizing, your stories will engage and amaze the students, especially the kid whose answer you picked. (Why? Because what were the odds that he guessed what the little duck will actually buy in the store!)
Unlike other stories where the actions and the details have been pre-determined, your story is actually still live, open for the curious leading of your students.
This is what makes TPRS stories unique and so engaging for the group.
3. Give a reading that uses the target words
The final step in TPRS is the reading part and will still involve the target vocabulary you’ve been teaching in Steps 1 and 2.
You’ll know that you’ve done a thorough job in establishing meaning and supporting it with the story when you run out of time to do the reading in the same class period.
Reading often takes place a day after you’ve done steps 1 and 2. When starting the class, don’t immediately proceed to the reading selection. Review what was taught the previous day. Go through step 1 again. Re-establish the meaning and make the translation fresh in the mind of your students. Do gesturing and comprehension checks again, for example.
Remember when I said that TPRS reading is not your run-of-the-mill kind of reading?
In TPRS, “reading” is basically translating. So, give your students a written story in the target language.
Translate each word (if possible) and each line of the story as a class, making sure your students understand how each line is slowly unveiling the story.
Lead the class in pronouncing each line both in the native language and the target language.
At this point, if you feel you absolutely need to explain a bit of grammar, you’ve got, at most, 5 seconds to do it. Seriously.
You can for example say, “Class, in Spanish we use la for females and el for males. Since Maria is a girl, we use la when we describe her.” Then you leave it at that. Don’t worry if you feel like you’re not teaching them enough. Do that many times throughout the year and those 5 seconds will add up. Your students will get it. Most teachers explain a grammar rule and then move on to the next. They never circle back to it in the rest of the school year!
The technique of teaching 5 seconds of grammar is called pop-up grammar. Grammar is taught, not as a rule, but in the context of a story.
The main thing to remember? Keep your focus on the words of the story.
There are three types of words that should be in there:
- Target words that you want to hammer in.
- Previous target words that you want to review.
- The next set of target words that you want to take up in class.
By including the previous sets of target words, you will remind the students of what they already know, further cementing their understanding of those words. By including future target words in the reading, you give your students a taste of what’s next. This technique is called bridging.
It is putting old and new words side by side in order to simultaneously review the old, introduce the new and hammer on the present targets.
Since new words are included, you should take the time to explain to them what the new words mean—not as thoroughly as you would when you actually do step 1 for them, but enough so students can understand and get through the story. (In essence, when you “establish meaning” in Step 1, it would be the second time that your students would have met the material.)
When you’re done translating and explaining the story to your kids, ask them if they had a similar experience. Which of the characters did they like? What will they do if they were in a similar situation? Ask them what moral lessons can be taken from the story. If there are cultural insights you can share, all the better.
This technique of going a step further, asking the students for their personal thoughts and experiences and going beyond the story is called enriching.
Enriching works by providing more memory anchors in the mind. If the story contextualizes the lesson, enriching personalizes it so that the lessons not only become memorable, they become personal.
So that, my dear friends, is what TPRS is all about.
It’s a personally rewarding method of teaching a foreign language that will engage your students. Try it in your next lesson! Bet you a dollar your students love it.