TPRS 101: A Guide to Storytelling in the Spanish Classroom
Inside: A look at the basics of TPRS, a storytelling method for providing comprehensible input.
TPRS is a hot-button acronym in language-teacher circles: you love it or hate it, right? It’s a wonderful tool for many, while others are turned off by images of extroverted, energetic teachers thinking up bizarre stories all day long.
But wait! TPRS is a broad, flexible method that can help you get away from vocabulary lists your students forget in a week, and on the path to true language acquisition.
In this post, I’d like to clear up some of the myths surrounding TPRS, lay out the basic steps and adaptations, and then provide some video examples of TPRS from everyday teachers.
Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling was one of the first CI-based techniques I learned. The first attempts were terrible flops (I mean awful), but I stuck with it and I’m so glad I did.
Even as I’ve put many other tools in my CI box, the skills from TPRS are foundational to other strategies like Movie Talk, Persona Especial, and others. It’s been transformative in my teaching and I encourage you to spend a little time find out about it.
First, let’s talk about a few common TPRS myths:
- TPRS = CI. Remember that CI is a thing: messages students understand. TPRS is only of many ways to providing quality CI.
- TPRS = Crazy and Weird. Truth be told, many teachers do rely on the weird element to make their stories interesting. But it’s not a rule that stories *must* be strange!
- Being a CI Teacher = Doing TPRS Everyday. You can do it everyday, if you want to. You can never do it, and still be an effective CI teacher..
Now that those are out of the way, let’s talk about the origins of TPRS.
Blaine Ray and TPRS®
Before we dive into the actual steps of TPRS, let’s take a look at its origins. TPRS was first created by Blaine Ray, a Spanish teacher in the 90’s who was influenced by the TPR Method (Total Physical Response) — hence the original name of “Total Physical Response Storytelling.”
According to BYU Methods of Language Teaching page,
“Ray had experienced success in using Total Physical Response to teach Spanish, but sought ways of helping his students move beyond TPR commands to more narrative and descriptive uses of language.”
Blaine Ray was also following Stephen Krashen’s research into Second Language Acquisition, and the vital importance of comprehensible input for language learners.
Krashen describes the power of reading and storytelling this way:
“Language acquisition proceeds best when the input is not just comprehensible, but really interesting, even compelling; so interesting that you forget you are listening to or reading another language.”
From these SLA principles, Blaine Ray began to develop his storytelling method that provided interesting language to students in context, with a healthy dose of repetition for long-term acquisition.
The Steps of TPRS
TPRS is generally divided into three main steps:
- Introduce New Targets
- Co-create a Story with the Targets
- Write and Read the Story
I am just going to provide a basic overview of each step. There is so much more to say about each one, so if you would like a full, detailed account of each one with examples, this document from the ever-generous Bryce Hedstrom will help you immensely.
1. Introduce New Targets and Establish Meanings
Traditional TPRS uses a targeted approach: the teacher selects specific target structures (usually three) and centers the story on those phrases.
Before starting the story, the teacher introduces the targets (usually by providing a direct written translation in English). All the students should be clear on exactly what the targets mean.
Then, the teacher spends time establishing meaning, in order to provide meaningful repetitions of the targets. This can involve the following options:
- Create gestures (as seen in the original version of TPR-Storytelling): spend time doing TPR with the phrases.
- PQA: Personalized Questions and Answers that the teacher asks the students, focusing on the targets. (If the target is “listens to music” the teacher can ask what music they like, when they listen to music, etc.)
- Showing memes or pictures that illustrate the targets, and discussing them.
2. Co-Create a Story Between the Teacher and Class
Even though TPRS is often called a storytelling method, this step is often referred to as storyasking because it is really a collaboration between the class and the teacher.
Either way, the teacher is responsible to guide the story process, which is all oral at this point. The teacher is actively soliciting help from the class to create the story, while adjusting questions to stay comprehensible (they can be open-ended, yes or no, or either/or). If you want to see what the teacher-class exchange might look like, scroll about halfway down this article from Carol Gaab on storyasking.
As the story progresses, the teacher will encourage the students to add details, check for comprehension, and circle. At all times, the teacher is seeking to stay 100% comprehensible, writing down any “out of bounds” language that may get used in the story creation process.
The traditional storyasking process often looks like this:
- Create the main character and setting, and describe both.
- Create the main problem or conflict of the story (often that the main character wants something).
- Create three scenarios in which the main character tries to fix the problem (often the first two attempts are unsuccessful and the third resolves the conflict).
- End the story and describe how the character feels.
Here are some variations on storyasking together:
- Use student actors: you can select certain students to act out the characters as you narrate the action. Sometimes the teacher will talk directly to the actors and solicit information from there (instead of just “la chica va a la tienda,” you can ask directly “¿Vas a la tienda o a la escuela?“)
- Use props or visuals in the story.
- Some teachers, especially those getting started, already have a rough outline in mind or even a full script, while other teachers might leave the storyline wide open.
- In Blaine Ray demos, he encourages his classes to respond with an enthusiastic “oooh” as he describes certain details. Some teachers do this, and some don’t.
- Capitalize on the bizarre: often, stories get “crazy” or “weird” elements added to them to add interest and make it memorable to students.
3. Write and Read the Story
Here we come to the “r” of TPRS: reading. As a newbie, this was a step I didn’t always follow up on, and now I see that was a big mistake!
Reading is perhaps the most crucial factor in our students gaining proficiency in their new language:
“People acquiring a second language have the best chance for success through reading.” – Stephen Krashen
Many teacher do a reading the next day, when they’ve had the chance to type up the story. Others assign the job of transcribing the story to a certain student (perhaps a heritage student) during storyasking, some even write a summary of the story with the students, while projecting the screen for everyone to see. This gives the students the chance to watch the writing process and the teacher can review and elicit details in real time while she writes.
With TPRS in its traditional form, the class would always read the story and translate it sentence by sentence. (If you are unsure of this practice or the use of L1 in the classroom, the end of the this article from Carol Gabb is helpful.) Reading the story together is often the time when a teacher can do “pop-up grammar,” a very brief in-context explanation or note on a certain grammar point.
One problem with simply typing up the story and stopping there, of course, is that the students already know the story and can anticipate the details. Many teachers provide alternate versions for reading to maintain suspense. This could be the original version of the story you wrote before the class created their own, or swapping stories between classes.
Either way, reading is absolutely a pillar in TPRS classroom. As it has evolved, here are some variations for reading you’ll find in many classrooms:
- Readings that use similar targets: this could be non-fiction, lyrics from songs, another story, or anything related that is comprehensible to the students.
- FVR or SSR (Free Voluntary Reading or Self-Selected Reading), in which the students have time to select texts/novels/books to read on their own.
- Whole-class novel units, in which the entire class works through a level-appropriate novel together.
TPRS Demos and Videos
Sometimes the best thing is to see a strategy in action! Here are some great videos from everyday teachers demonstrating storyasking/storytelling in their classrooms.
Storytelling with Adriana Ramírez:
Collaborative Storytelling with Eric Herman:
Story Creation with Alina Filipescu:
TPRS with Sarah Breckley:
Storyasking with Grant Boulanger:
Michele Whaley Demos TPRS in Russian:
TPRS with Martina Bex:
I hope these resources are helpful as you explore the Persona Especial process! If you have more ideas to add, please let me know in the comments below!
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