Have you ever heard anyone say “Well, I took Spanish for three years in high school, but all I can really say is “No hablo español? Or “Yah, I took two years of French, but I can’t even order a crepe?” I have heard that so many times, even from young adults recently out of high school, and even from my own students (!). You have probably heard it too - from classroom students to homeschool students, young to old, online to text book- it’s a fairly universal complaint.
So, now that my last child has graduated from homeschool, I finally had some time to really research this dilemma. And guess what?! Much to my glee and surprise (and some sadness that I hadn’t discovered this earlier for my kids!), I found a teaching method that clearly and enjoyably tackles the ‘I can’t say a thing in...” problem! TPRS - “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling" - is method whose strength is making ‘happy talkers’ out of foreign language students. In other words, fluency. A TPRS foreign language class is based on the principle that one acquires language through repeated, comprehensible, compelling input. In a TPRS class, teachers and students spend most of the hour weaving together an imaginative story around a few key phrases. The repetition of high frequency words, and the high level of interest and engagement work together so that the student picks up vocabulary and grammar without even realizing it. Because of this, TPRS students exhibit fluency and long term retention in their foreign language.
"The principle makes sense, " I thought. Then, when I watched a few TPRS classes on youtube, I found myself picking up French and a little Mandarin, without even trying. That convinced me to try TPRS for a year with my classes of homeschool students. The results were stupendous - so much so that I've created this blog to introduce homeschoolers to TPRS, and the related acronym, CI (Comprehensible Input) (In another post, I talk more about my personal experience teaching Spanish before TPRS and with TPRS) But first, take ten minutes and watch a TPRS class in action, using these video links.
Intrigued? Read on!
Q: WHAT IS TPRS?
A: TPRS, in a nutshell, is a method based on the idea that input - compelling, comprehensible, repetitive input - is the key to second language fluency. Therefore, TPRS provides a lot of interesting, conversational repetition of a few phrases during each class, building student confidence, and building vocabulary and grammar in a painless, natural way. In traditional language learning, grammar and vocabulary instruction take up a large part of the lesson. To be sure, the traditional grammar and vocabulary are often made more palatable with games, songs and other activities. In contrast, in TPRS, grammar a never appears as a full-on lesson, but does ‘Pop-Up’ in very short (15 second) mini lessons as the hour progresses. There is no memorizing of weekly vocabulary lists in TPRS either. Still, because of high interest in the content, and the repetition, the student picks up the vocabulary and the grammar anyway. (TPRS in some ways mirrors the way a baby/toddler learns to speak, but in other ways it is different.)
Q: WILL TPRS WORK FOR HOMESCHOOLERS?
A: Yes! Most homeschoolers may not have heard of TPRS, just as I hadn’t until last year. It’s a new name to us, but it’s based on concepts very familiar to most homeschooling parents:
- We learn better when happy and relaxed.
- We learn better when emotionally and physically engaged in the subject matter.
- It’s important to teach to the student, not to the textbook, or to the test.
- Grab those teachable moments!
- Foster creativity.
TPRS typically does require a teacher and a group of students - so it is worth the effort to make that co-op language class happen. However, there are some media-based alternatives if you just can’t find or create a group class.
Q: WHAT DOES A TPRS LESSON PLAN LOOK LIKE?
A: Here is how a typical TPRS class unfolds:
1. The teacher writes 3-4 phrases in the foreign language on the board and their meaning in English.
2. Then, teacher and students agree on gestures to help them remember the meaning of the phrases. The class practices the gestures a few times, with eyes open and eyes closed.
3. Next, the teacher launches into a very conversational time of ‘personalized questioning’ (called PQ) which engages everyone while providing LOTS of repetition of the key phrases.
4. After the phrases are quite well practiced, the teacher begins a story, based on the phrases, and invites the students to offer ideas at each step of the story. Student volunteers act out the story as it progresses. The teacher continually circles around each new piece of data in the story, using the key phrases and asking questions about the story. The students respond with 1-word answers. The questions are not hard - the point is to get those key phrases repeated. The students enjoy the story because they have added in their own zany twists (ie. There is a huge JB concert, in a secret room, under the 7-11 and the tickets cost $1000 ), so they don’t really care or notice that the new phrases keep coming up (80 - 100 times in 45 minutes - I am not kidding!). The students are also enjoying the story because they all understand it - due to the student actors, the circling, and the pre-learning of the key phrases no one is left behind.
5. Next, some students retell the story orally, the class reads a retell of the story or a similar story, and then students write their own version of the story.
6. Reading easy-to-read stories and novels, on your own and together as a class is also an important part of TPRS.
Q: COULD YOU EXPLAIN THAT PART ABOUT THE ZANY STORY AGAIN?
A: Sure! First let’s look at these phrases on the board, and invent and practice some gestures for the phrases:
vuela - he/she flies
aterriza - he/she lands
tiene sueño/hambre - he/she is tired/hungry
….OK, we’ve got the gestures and phrases memorized. Now, let’s weave a typical TPRS story together. We weave it together in Spanish, or whatever the target language is. We go slowly, using words everyone knows (mucho, poco, Mississippi, baño), or cognates (pánico, teléfono). The teacher asks the students for each detail - nombre? color? problema? - as the story grows. The teacher also constantly circles back to review the details "¿Se llama María?...¿Se llama Marisol?...¡No! Correcto, no se llama María. No se llama Marisol. ¿Cómo se llama la mosca?.. ¡Exacto, se llama Margaret!"
You see? .... By the time Margaret is safely unstuck from Alex’s mouth, we’ve had students act out the parts of Margaret and Alex, we’ve looked at the situation from a few different viewpoints(“Margaret, how are you?”… “I’m TIRED!”) and we’ve used our focus phrases, (often pointing to them on the board or gesturing appropriately) close to 100 times each. Now, the only things stuck are the focus phrases, stuck in the brains of our students!
Q: OK, SOUNDS FUN. BUT WHAT ABOUT GRAMMAR? WHEN DO THE STUDENTS LEARN TO CONJUGATE?
A: TPRS students learn grammar by picking it up naturally, almost like a baby does. 15 second grammar pop-up lessons touch on grammar items without detracting from the story, but TPRS classes don’t do grammar drills. Also, the story-asking progresses with students giving one word answers - complete sentence answers are not required. Research has shown that people acquire grammar structures in a certain order, which rarely matches up with textbook order. That means you’ll start using masculine/feminine correctly when you have heard enough of the language spoken so that your brain just gets it. Your ability with masculine/feminine, surprisingly, does not depend on how many ‘el/la’ worksheets you complete. I know that sounds weird, but think about your own experience. If you took Spanish, for instance, you learned about el/la (masculine/feminine) very early in first-year Spanish. How often do you get it correct even now, or how often did you make mistakes with el and la even in second and third year Spanish?
So TPRS ‘shelters’ vocabulary (uses a limited number of new words) but does not ‘shelter’ grammar. Everything is said grammatically correctly, even subjunctive phrases and commands, and eventually, when it’s ready, the brain gets it.
That said, not every TPRS teacher ditches grammar lessons completely, but they do recognize that the usefulness of grammar drills is limited. When the language class gets to the AP level, for example, students will probably have some typical traditional grammar lessons, so that they can edit their more complicated written essays. Also, in classroom situations where a teacher knows their students will have a traditional-method teacher the following year, TPRS teachers will go over the grammar in a traditional way to help the students to transition. I read about one teacher, who after using TPRS for the whole year, was able to cover all the grammar in the traditional textbook in the final three weeks of class, because the students already ‘knew’ the grammar - they had acquired it, without trying, from their TPRS stories.
Q: IS IT HARD TO TEACH WITH TPRS?
A: To be honest, it’s fun and not that hard. You ‘circle’ around the phrases, asking all kinds of questions that only require a 1-word answer from your students. The hardest thing for most teachers is going slowly and carefully enough to make sure everything is comprehended by all the students. So you slow down, enjoy your students and their answers, you make eye contact, you applaud and otherwise encourage participation. Students enjoy the class and the stories they create. All ability levels experience success because they are understanding the stories! Also, prep time and homework correcting time are a lot less with TPRS!
Q: WELL THEN, IF YOU ARE GOING SO SLOWLY, ISN’T IT BORING FOR THE STUDENTS WHO ARE QUICKER WITH LANGUAGES?
A: Surprisingly not. The faster student’s mind is racing ahead with a new idea for the story, thinking of ways to express it, probably thinking more in the target language than ever before. Also, during the free writes, the faster student will probably write more, and look at the board less. He or she will choose more complicated books for home reading. I think the key is that all students recognize the difference between learning short-term for a test, and really acquiring fluency in a language. They truly appreciate and enjoy the fact that they are acquiring fluency.
Q. CAN I SEE SOME MORE DEMONSTRATIONS?
A. That’s easy! Here is a list of some great, fascinating examples of TPRS in action, on Youtube. Watch different ones in different languages, because that is the point: TPRS makes language comprehensible. Maybe you will pick up a little French or Japanese just from watching these demonstrations of the TPRS method!
Spanish I TPRS- Alina Filipescu A great introduction to TPRS! In this video, Alina goes over the gestures and jumps into a story that the class had started previously, about a fast food place called ‘Curry in a Hurry’, and a pair of friends, and an elephant or two....You can see these high schoolers answering, participating, and acting out the story in a really friendly and positive way. (Note: You don’t see the PQ in this video.)
French 1 - Ben Slavic -'Reed' This is French 1, an entire class period. The story develops something like this: ‘Reed’ is sitting in Café du Monde in New Orleans, drinking 2 coffees and smoking 3 cigarettes, when all of a sudden Jessica Alba...... Ben Slavic has a whole TPRS channel on Youtube, to complement his books about TPRS, and he is very good at this technique. Ben has inserted notes into the video to explain what he is doing at each step.
Blaine Ray videos
Blaine Ray is the one who invented the TPRS technique in the 90s and he still gives workshops. Watch him in a variety of situations:
- Teaching Spanish to high schoolers: La besadora del año
- Teaching English to Brazilian 5th graders: lastest cei movie for youtube
- Teaching Spanish to Chinese adults: Teaching Spanish with TPRS in China
Japanese 1 - Motoka Chiba - 'Superman' Here's a challenge!
Q: IF TPRS WORKS SO WELL, WHY DOESN’T EVERY LANGUAGE TEACHER USE IT?
A: That’s a good question, and I think ‘Tradition’ has a lot to do with the answer. It can be hard to change, especially if you are not convinced of the need to change.
There has been some research comparing TPRS to other methods, and as you can imagine, how to measure ‘success’ is a big question in designing these studies. Is success a good grade on a textbook exam, or on the NY State Proficiency exam (which focuses on fluency, not grammar), or on the teacher’s own exam? Or is success measured by the student’s enjoyment and retention of the language? Or by whether or not she signs up for Spanish 3?
TPRS is somewhat controversial in the classroom school world - some teachers love it, some districts have adopted it, and some teachers don’t really like it at all. There is a lot of anecdotal data both ways. I have just completed a review of the research, and I’ve listed a few typical articles at the bottom of this blog. My research review looks at 27 comparative studies. Based on the studies I reviewed, TPRS stacks up well against other methods. About 70% of the long-term studies show TPRS students doing better than their peers in traditional classrooms or classrooms with other teaching methods. PLUS: You can also read a 2015 review of the research by Lichtman.
But the proof is in the pudding. I have now adopted TPRS for a year in my homeschool classes, with great results! I truly believe that TPRS is a tool that almost all language students, including homeschooled students, can benefit from. The successes my students enjoyed, their engagement in class, the way they used Spanish in their lives outside of class, and the fun we had each week were unprecedented. (Again, TPRS also takes far less preparation than a traditional class - not a bad benefit!)
You know, as homeschoolers, we are free to pick and choose, taking the best parts of whatever we find, and adapting it to the needs and personalities of our children and to our family goals. So, maybe some of my classical homeschool friends will take my advice and adopt TPRS, but will add a 20 minute grammar lesson in there somewhere. (OK, classical friends, you can breathe now! :-)). Maybe some teachers will choose to avoid the more shocking story suggestions our students offer - (eg. ‘SMOKING THREE CIGARETTES!’ as in the youtube video, Reed, referenced above. But, ya gotta have a sense of humor! Actually, in that story poor Reed has his <something very valuable - I won’t spoilt it> stolen. That’s what you get for trying to drink 2 coffees and smoke 3 cigarettes at the same time!). Maybe, on snack breaks, lovers of hands-on learning (like myself) will cook enough crepes with their class to sink a ship. (Cooking, crafts and games can add another source of repeated, comprehensible, compelling input. Many TPRS teachers will add other "CI" - ‘comprehensible input’ - activities to their TPRS classes for a change of pace.) It’s all OK - teach to the students, not to the textbook or to the method. And maybe, we hope, because of the success they experience in their language class, our children will actually use their foreign language to help out a fellow human being and make him (or her) smile!
Q: WHY HAVEN’T WE HOMESCHOOLERS HEARD ABOUT TPRS?
A: Well, it’s new, developed only in the 1990s. So to get it to the homeschool community, someone would have had to learn TPRS and adapt it for homeschoolers, talk about it, and advertise workshops to homeschoolers. That is just starting to happen (ie. this blog).
Q: $35,000 QUESTION!!! HOW DO I USE THIS INFO TO HELP MY CHILDREN LEARN SPANISH?! OR DUTCH?
If you are hiring a teacher or looking into a program, ask them the specifics of the method they use, and find out if it is similar to TPRS. Key ideas to look for are repetitions, engagement, personalized questioning, limited vocabulary, story-asking, reading novels, and writing. ‘TPR’ (Total Physical Response) and ‘CI’ (Comprehensible Input) are components of TPRS that teachers might use. ‘TI’ (Total Immersion) is different from TPRS in that TI does not use any English (TPRS teachers use English 5 - 10% of the time, to explain the 3 phrases and for the Pop Up mini-lessons). There may be some commercial language programs in your area that use the TPRS method.
If you are teaching just your own kids at home, there is actually a video series out now to teach Spanish using TPR and dramatization, which is about as close asone can get to TPRS on video, withouthaving the teacher actually pop out of the video screen and converse with the students. It’s called Excelerate, and you find it at exceleratespanish.com. Year 1 and Year 2 are for sale. It’s only $139 and is worth a look, for any age. calicospanish.com is a TPRS-style video program for ages 3-6, approximately. For more info on this and other media based programs, read here.
If you yourself are teaching, or thinking about teaching, a homeschool foreign language class or co-op, I really suggest you look into the TPRS method. There are a lot of good dedicated teachers out there, but U.S. students aren’t retaining their language skills. I’m a really good creative teacher, and we live in Southern California, but before TPRS my students weren’t using or retaining their Spanish any better than anyone else. So I’m excited to teach with TPRS from now on!
Watch some of the videos I listed above. Then, if you decide to try TPRS, scan through this blog. You’ll find everything you need to get started with a TPRS language class - how-tos, curriculum comparisons, links to more youtube demonstrations, homework and exam suggestions, links to websites, workshops and materials. “But,” as LeVar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow, “you don’t have to take my word for it!” Here are some other websites, besides mine, with lots of information on TPRS and CI.
- tprsbooks.com and Blaine Ray youtube channel,
- benslavic.com and Ben Slavic TPRSMyWay youtube channel,
- susangrosstprs.com for great how-to articles,
- fluencymatters.com materials and videos by Carol Gaab and others.
- brycehedstrom.com, for materials and a very helpful list of ‘Links’ to these and other websites.
Hasta la próxima, mon ami!
“A Comparison of TPRS and Traditional Instruction, both with SSR.” Dziedic, Joseph. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching. March 2012, p. 6. (Comparative data on 4 classes - same instructor, different methods). Accessed 7/30/2015. http://www.ijflt.org/images/ijflt/articles-spring-2012/IJFLT.Dziedzic.3.12.pdf
“An Analysis of the Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) Method.” Alley, David and Denise Overfield . (review article) Ch. 2 of Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Joint Conference of the Southern Conference on Language Teaching and the South Carolina Foreign Language Teachers ‘ Association. Accessed 7/30/2015. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED503097.pdf
“Measuring the effectiveness of a TPRS pilot course in Spanish at the 100 college level”. Bustamanet, Maria Carolina. (dissertation abstract). Accessed 7/30/2015. http://gradworks.umi.com/14/70/1470219.html.