TPR Storytelling (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling or TPRS) is a method of teaching foreign languages. TPRS lessons use a mixture of reading andstorytelling to help students learn a foreign language in a classroom setting. The method works in 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 three steps, the teacher will use a number of techniques to help make the target language comprehensible to the students, including careful limiting of vocabulary, constant asking of easy comprehension questions, frequent comprehension checks, and very short grammar explanations known as “pop-up grammar”. Many teachers also assign additional reading activities such as free voluntary reading, and there have been several easy novels written by TPRS teachers for this purpose.
TPR Storytelling prioritizes the development of fluency over grammatical accuracy. Proponents of TPR Storytelling, basing their argument on the second language acquisition theories ofStephen Krashen, hold that the best way to help students develop both fluency and accuracy in a language is to expose them to large amounts of comprehensible input.The different steps and techniques in TPR Storytelling help teachers to provide this input by making the language spoken in class both comprehensible and engaging. In addition, TPR Storytelling uses many concepts from mastery learning. Each lesson is focused on just three vocabulary phrases or fewer, enabling teachers to concentrate on teaching each phrase thoroughly. Teachers also make sure that the students internalize each phrase before moving on to new material, giving additional story lessons with the same vocabulary when necessary.
TPR Storytelling is unusual in that it is a grassroots movement among language teachers. After being developed by Blaine Ray in the 1990s, the method has gained popular appeal with language teachers who claim that they can reach more students and get better results than they could with previous methods. However, so far it has seen little support from publishersor academic institutions. Teachers have instead published their own materials and teaching manuals, and training in TPR Storytelling is generally offered at workshops by existing TPRS teachers rather than at teacher training college.
TPR Storytelling is broadly divided into three steps, with each being regarded as essential for a successful program.
Step one: establish meaning
In this step the students are introduced to the new vocabulary phrases for the lesson. Generally only three new phrases are introduced; this is considered the maximum number that can be effectively taught in a lesson. Limiting the phrases like this allows the teacher to focus on them and provide lots of repetitions for the students. This emphasis on thoroughly learning new material is designed to give the students a feeling of confidence.
The three phrases are written on the blackboard, or another place where the students can easily see them, and are all translated into the students’ native language. If students ever forget what a phrase means, they can glance at the board and check the meaning at any time.
The teacher then teaches 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.
Then the teacher asks questions about the students using the target phrases. This is known as Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). To ensure these questions are comprehensible to the students, the teacher uses a variety of techniques and comprehension checks. Depending on the responses from the students and the atmosphere of the class, these questions might lead into a scene or skit often referred to as extended PQA. The details discovered by the teacher from PQA may also be used as the basis for the class story.
The goal of the teacher during step one is to provide as many spoken repetitions of the new vocabulary phrases, in context, as possible. Ideally, students should instantly recognize the words when they hear them again in steps two and three
Step two: spoken class story
In step two, students hear the three vocabulary phrases 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 vocabulary. The number of times the vocabulary is heard is further increased by the circling questioning technique. TPRS teachers aim to say each new vocabulary word at least 50 times in the course of a story, and it is not unusual to hear the words 100 times.
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. Using the circling technique, teachers can ask for these new details while still keeping the language completely comprehensible. Advanced TPRS teachers are sometimes able to improvise, creating stories solely based on the students answers to questions about the day’s vocabulary structures.
The actions in the story are acted out by volunteers from the class. The teacher will usually try and select actors who won’t be intimidated in order to keep the atmosphere as relaxed and fun as possible. 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.
The story will often take place in three 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 vocabulary, to make the story easy to understand, and to make the target phrases easy to remember.
After the story has finished the teacher may ask the students to retell the story, allowing them to use the phrases they just learned. This can be in pairs, in groups, or one student retelling in front of the class.
Step three: reading
Step three is where the students learn to read the language that they have learned through listening in steps one and two. There are four basic types of reading activities used in TPRS. The first, and most common, is the class reading, where the students read and discuss a story that uses the same language structures as the story in step two. The next most common activity is free voluntary reading, where students are free to read any book they choose in the language being learned. The other activities are Kindergarten Day, and homework reading. For Kindergarten Day, the teacher brings in a children’s picture book, and reads it to the students in class. Homework reading, like the name implies, means assigning specific reading for students to do at home
The class reading is the most common type of reading activity in TPR Storytelling. TPRS teachers will typically include a class reading as part of every TPRS lesson. This reading is based on the story that the students learned in step two – sometimes it can be the same story, and sometimes it uses the same language structures but with different content. The students will have learned the language structures used in the reading very well during parts one and two, so students will often be able to understand most of the story on first view.
The teacher will often begin the class reading by reading the story aloud, then having the students translate it into their first language. This translation could be done with individual students, or chorally with the whole class. As the students already know the language structures very well, they can often do this at a natural speed. If necessary, the teacher can help them translate any words they don’t know. This process ensures that all of the students know all of the words in the reading.
Next, the class will discuss the reading in the target language. To help make the discussion 100% comprehensible, the teacher will use the same TPRS techniques as in step two. Also, the teacher may make use of the pop-up grammar technique, where grammar points contained in the reading are explained very briefly – often 5 seconds or less. The discussion can touch on a wide range of topics related to the reading. Usually the teacher will ask questions about the reading itself, and about the students and their lives. Discussions of culture and even history are possible, depending on the content of the reading and the level of the students
Free voluntary reading
Many TPRS teachers include Free voluntary reading (FVR) in their foreign language programmes. The research for FVR is very strong, and has consistently shown that FVR is as good or better than taught language lessons. Free voluntary reading can be done in the classroom or at home, but any teachers prefer to focus on spoken stories in class, as it is hard for students to get this input outside school. However, TPRS teachers often educate students about FVR in class, introducing books for them to read, and giving advice on good reading practic
Kindergarten Day refers to the practice of the teacher reading a children’s picture story book to the students. The name is intended to conjure up the image of being read to as a child, but the activity can be done with any age group. The teacher reads to the students, showing them the pictures, asking them questions, and generally making the outline of the story comprehensible. This is designed to help students develop a tolerance for ambiguity when listening to the target language.
Like the name implies, this is a specific reading that is assigned to all students for homework. The teacher can give a quiz on the reading when the students get back to class. This can be used to prepare students for a class discussion, but it is usually only used with advanced students as at home the students may have no-one to turn to if they get stuck.