Introduction to TPRS

Updated December 30, 2017

The TPRS teacher has one main job in the classroom: to speak [the target language] in a way that all the students can understand at all times 1.

TPR Storytelling or Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling is a language teaching method developed by Blaine Ray, a Spanish teacher, during the 1990s. While Ray began with Total Physical Response (TPR), classical TPR is now a relatively small part of TPRS 2. Instead, TPRS draws from the research of researchers like Bill VanPatten and Stephen Krashen who hold that the best way to help students to develop fluency and accuracy in a language is to expose them to large amounts of comprehensible input. Thus, the steps (see below) and techniques of TPRS help teachers to provide this input by making the language spoken in classroom both comprehensible and engaging. TPRS techniques play a large role in other comprehensible input-based methods such as MovieTalks.

Steps of TPRS

TPRS is broadly divided into three steps. In step one the new vocabulary structures to be learned are taught using a combination of translation, gestures, and personalized questions; in step two those structures are used in a spoken class story; and finally, in step three, these same structures are used in a class reading. Throughout these steps, teachers make the target language more comprehensible to the students by carefully limiting vocabulary, constantly asking comprehension questions, and by including very short grammar explanations known as pop-up grammar. Many TPRS teachers also make use of other comprehensible-input based activities such as reading a class novel or One Word Images.

Step 1: Establish Meaning

  • Summary: Write the new language on the board with its English translation and provide as many contextualized repetitions of the new vocabulary phrases (target structures) as possible. This lays the foundation for student recognition of the structures during the story-asking (step two).
  • Target structures: You can read more about target structures in this article; however, essentially they are the new vocabulary phrases for the lesson. Generally it is best to limit the lesson to less than three target structures so that the teacher can focus on them and provide lots of repetitions for students. Three possible target structures in English would be doesn’t want, needs to go, and would like.
  • Write structures: The new structures are written on the board (or projected) in different colors (for clarity) and translated into the students’ native language if a shared native language is available. You can learn about why TPRS uses the L1 to establish meaning in this article, but essentially, it is used because it is efficient. If students forget what a phrase means, they can glance at the board and check the meaning at any time.
  • Gestures: The teacher may elect to practice the new phrases using gestures, in a style modeled after traditional TPR. This gives the students the chance to get used to how the phrases sound before hearing them in context. It is also intended to keep the atmosphere of the class relaxed and conducive to learning 3. When the teacher later moves to story-asking, performing the gesture while saying the structure aids the comprehensibility of the language.
  • Mnemonics & extras: If the teacher has any mnemonics or other memory aids to help students remember the word, they can also be introduced in this section, though they are not necessary.
  • PQA: Then the teacher asks questions about the students using the target phrases. These questions are known as Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). For example, if the target structure was likes to eat, some PQA questions would be “What do you like to eat for dessert?” or “What did you like to eat as a kid?” To ensure that these questions are comprehensible to the students, the teacher uses a variety of techniques such as comprehension checks. The details discovered by the teacher from PQA are often used as the basis for step two, the class story.

Step 2: Spoken Class Story 4

  • Summary: When students know what the new language means, it’s time for them to hear the structures many times in the context of a spoken class story. This story is usually short, simple, and interesting, and will contain multiple instances of the target structures used in context. The language is spoken slowly and clearly, so that students understand it and begin to acquire the language that is used. The number of times the structures are heard is further increased by the circling questioning technique.
  • Ask, don’t tell: The teacher does not so much tell the story as ask the story. The teacher will usually use a skeleton script with very few details and then flesh the story out using details provided by the students in the target language, making a personalized story for each class.
  • Add details: Using the circling technique, teachers can ask for these new details while maintaining the comprehensibility of the target language. Advanced TPRS teachers are able to improvise and develop stories from student answers to questions about the day’s vocabulary structures (PQA). The focus is always on the target structures. Adding details makes the story interesting to the students because they’re the ones doing the creative thinking! The reason to ask stories instead of telling them (à la Story Listening) is that it gives students increased ownership. Together they determine the characters, the setting, the details, etc.
  • Maintain comprehension: If students do not understand, they will not acquire. To keep language comprehensible, TPRS teachers have developed several strategies:
    • Pause and point: While you are speaking the language, you will want to pause and point to the words on the board when you use them. Point to a spot, keep your pointer there, and take a slight pause to make sure that everyone has the chance to link up the spoken language to its meaning and spelling as they see it in front of them. Pausing and pointing every time that the new language is used requires discipline, but it is important for keeping the language comprehensible.
    • Stay in Bounds: In-bounds structures are anything that is comprehensible to your students such as proper nouns, cognates, previously acquired structures, and the current focus of your lesson. To the greatest extent possible, you should attempt to limit your word choice to these things; however, if you find the need to use a word that is incomprehensible to your students while story-asking (an “out of bounds” word), you should write it on the board with a translation. It might be helpful for you to keep a running-list of in-bounds structures that your students have acquired.
  • Acting: The actions in the story may be acted out by volunteers from the class. When the teacher makes a statement that advances the story plot, the actors will act out that statement and then wait while the teacher continues with the circling questions. Ideally, the actors will act in a humorous, emotional, or otherwise memorable way. This helps students to make visual and emotional connections to the new language structures they are hearing. By using actors, the teacher is able to easily incorporate verb forms other than the third person singular.
  • Three locations: The story will often take place in distinct locations. The main character in the story may start off in one location with a problem that they need to solve. They may move to a second location, where they try to solve the problem, but fail. Then they may move to a third location where they resolve the problem. This narrative device is used to maximize the repetitions of the target structures, to make the story easy to understand, and to make the target phrases easy to remember.
  • Retelling: After the story has finished, the teacher may retell it in a briefer form, or he/she may ask the students to retell it in their own words. They might retell in pairs, groups, or one (high-achieving) student can retell the story in front of the class. This allows them to use the structures that they have just learned.

Step 3: Reading

  • Summary: Step 3 is where the students learn to read the language structures that they have heard in the previous steps. All readings in TPRS are comprehensible to the students, which means that there is a very low ratio of unknown words (if any); however, the reading can often be at a slightly higher level than the spoken class story because cognates are more visible, and the input is under the reader’s control (i.e. by re-reading). Overall, reading takes up about 50% of the time in a TPRS classroom.
  • Class reading: While a number of reading activities are used in TPRS, the first and most common is a class reading in which the students read and discuss a story that uses the same language structures as the story in step two. Sometimes it can be the exact story in written form, or it can be an entirely different reading that uses the same structures. For example, when Martina Bex does her unit with the target structures of runs, walks, and sees, she does a non-fiction reading using those structures that teaches about bull-fighting. Using the structures in a new context is more helpful for language acquisition than simply writing the class story because we don’t want our students to merely memorize the class story. One simple way of creating a novel reading experience is called parallel reading in which the teacher takes a class story and changes all of the details (i.e. the characters, locations, the goals, etc.).
  • Reading process: There are many reading activities to use with the story. However, the most basic form of class reading involves translation. The teacher will begin the reading by reading the story aloud, and then students will translate it aloud into their first language. Translation is used in this way to ensure that all students have an accurate understanding of the language’s meaning.
  • PQA: While reading, teachers will also discuss the reading in the target language with the class by asking personalized questions. For example, if the reading is about a character who has a car, the teacher would ask the students if they have a car, what type it is, etc. Then the teacher can compare the student in the class with the character in the story.
  • Pop-up grammar: While reading is the best time to do pop-up grammar. These 5-10 second explanations of grammar are based on meaning and help students to understand the text.
  • Cold character reading: In Chinese, Japanese, and other languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet, teachers use a technique called Cold Character Reading to introduce the written form of the language that was used in the class story.
  • FVR: After class novels, the next most common reading activity is free voluntary reading, where students are free to read any book they choose in the language being learned.
  • Shared reading: The final common type of reading is Shared Reading or Kindergarten Day where, as in first-language literacy activities, the teacher brings in a children’s picture book and reads it to the students, making it comprehensible through circling and other means.

Criticism of TPRS

Below you will find some common criticisms of TPRS as well as the rebuttal arguments given by Blaine Ray and Carol Gaab on the blogs of Chris Stolz and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell.

Is TPRS always weird?
Does TPRS require a lot of energy?
TPRS seems very teacher-focused. I'm worried that my administrator won't like that during my evaluation.
Why don't students in TPRS classes speak more?
Don't TPRS stories get monotonous?
Isn't it impossible to recreate first language acquisition?
Is TPRS really unstructured?

Frequently Asked Questions

Does TPRS reach all types of learners in the classroom? Even students in special education?
Does TPRS really engage all students?
Can I do TPRS one day a week and still see the benefits?
How many teachers are using TPRS?
Is there a way to scaffold the story-asking process?
How is TPRS different from immersion?
Is TCI the same as TPRS

Conclusion

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, I completely understand. In this article I tried to describe some of the important tenants of TPRS, but it’s hard to learn TPRS through reading alone, and I am also FAR from an expert on TPRS. To truly learn TPRS you need training or at least a large dose of demonstration videos, and even then, it will take several years to become proficient in all of the things that I summarized here. If you have any questions or suggestions for improving this article (i.e. things that I failed to mention or explained poorly), please let me know in the comments below.

References

  1. Terry Waltz, TPRS with Chinese Characteristics: Making Students Fluent and Literate through Comprehensible Input, Kindle Location 456-457. New York: Squid for Brains (2015).
  2. Bryce Hedstrom, Understanding TPRS (2011).
  3. Ben Slavic, TPRS in a Year, pp. 12–13 (2007).
  4. Judith Dubois, How to Ask a Story (2016)/
  5. G. P. Cantoni, Using TPR-Storytelling to Develop Fluency and Literacy in Native American Languages. In Revitalizing Indigenous Languages (1999).
  6. Suwilai Premsrirat and Dennis Malone, Language Development and Language Revitalization in Asia (2003).
  7. Chris Stolz, Stories Saving Language: Notes on Learning & Teaching Okanagan (2014).

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