Co-Building A Story

The following day I attended Carol Gaab and Kristy Placido’s excellent session on building a story with the students. They started off by telling us that questions are the key to storybuilding. This is partly based on Eric Jensen’s book, Brain-Based Learning, in which he says that asking questions elicits deeper thinking. This is because when we answer yes or no questions, the brain continues to unconsciously process alternatives. And better yet, questions help to camouflage repetition so that students don’t get bored.

The content of a story can come from many different places. For example, you could use a cultural legend, a previously-planned “hook” to get students’ attention, or students’ answers given during PQA. Remember that while students can guess the details of the story, the teacher is the one who chooses the detail to include. When you are rejecting a student’s answer, avoid making them feel bad by conveying that although their answer was a great idea, that is just not how it happened in the story.

Once you have selected the content, plan your story by selecting 1-3 structures, depending on the age of the students. Focus on what is cognitively possibly. In other words, keep in mind how much new info students can actually handle. Next, create and select a character. You can use students, celebrities, animals, or even students’ family members. As a guideline, try to use 1-2 characters or more as the story/grammar requires.

Always keep in mind the purpose of the story – to teach the structure(s). Use them right from the beginning of the story. Remember that while details are fun and interesting, and they allow you to move the story forward and keep the students’ interest, you should ensure that you don’t go off on a tangent. Only continue adding details if the students are still engaged and are still getting repetitions. Don’t forget to go slowly and deliberately. The goal is not to finish, it is to engage students and get repetitions of the structures. By getting students to listen, they are able to acquire the language.

When co-building a story with students, it is important to LISTEN to them. Start by acknowledging their response – smile, nod, repeat it to the class, shake hands, laugh, or ask the class to give them a round of applause. Reiterate the information and attempt to encourage more responses. You can do this by asking the question, then selecting students to answer. Tell the class that so-and-so “thinks it’s possible that…” Always ask for input from students even if you have the detail already planned out. After several students have responded, select the best answer or give your own. Try to make it a NOVEL idea – something that is perhaps the opposite of what is expected. As you continue to ask the story, designate a different space in the classroom for each location in the story. Get the students up to act out the different parts and coach them to act so that they can act to the best of their ability.

Some miscellaneous tips that Carol and Kristy offered were also very helpful. They suggested using previous knowledge that you have gained about the students in stories. This adds personalization and thus creates interest on the part of the students. Only write down enrichment words on the board which are going to be used a lot in a story. If you write down every new word, it gets confusing for the students. When writing structures on the board, save the use of subjects for students in higher levels and underline the ending and the subject to show the relationship. Try to use one prop that has some sort of emotional tie to the students (ie. a well-known local person). One of my favourite tips was to use a “dialogue of the day”. Plan it in advance and have it written on the board so that it is ready for students to use.

Most importantly of all, remember that if you don’t make the story COMPLETELY COMPREHENSIBLE, half the students will simply check out.

Source: Carol Gaab and Kristy Placido, NTPRS 2011, Handout

Circling with Balls

I was one of the lucky few who was able to sign up for Ben Slavic’s session in the afternoon. I couldn’t wait to see his presentation, and it did not disappoint. I feel like I gathered so much information that it will be difficult to put it all into a single post! One of the reasons that is was so helpful is that he actually treated the audience the way he would treat students in his classroom rather than as TPRS teachers. This was nice because I really saw how and why some of his ideas work the way that they do.

Ben started out the session by going over the list of words he keeps in his classroom. This list comes from words that may be in the curriculum or are high-frequency, but are not necessarily covered in stories. He usually does five words per day, and starts out simply by saying the word in English and doing a gesture with it. He then has students suggest any connections they can make between the target language word and the English word in order to help themselves remember what it means.

Right from the beginning of the “class”, Ben made us feel good about being in his class. He started by teaching us the signal for “I don’t understand.” He uses a swooping of one fist into the palm of the other hand. He also made sure that students wouldn’t be afraid to actually use the symbol by having the entire group practice it and saying “I love to see that you understand, but I need to know if you don’t.” and “It’s my job to make you understand.”

Next he went through the process of having students apply for jobs, which is the part that I really found interesting. In his classes, Ben has a bleater, a professor, a door-knocker, a doorbell-ringer and many more. These students must apply for a specific job by competing against several other students. The best student will be selected from the group, thus making them feel important and creating a sense of belonging. Since there are many jobs and they change students frequently, everyone in the class gets a chance to feel like this. I had read about these jobs in Ben’s books, but I didn’t really understand until I experienced it myself how important they were and how much comic relief they provided when things got slow. I loved how Ben acted so disappointed when a student would miss a cue. He gave them a chance a few more times, but if the student continued to do poorly, they would be fired and a new student appointed. This kept students on their toes and therefore they paid close attention to the story.

Source: Ben Slavic, NTPRS 2011, Handout


This session with Michael Miller and Barb Watson was one that I was really looking forward to. I need to work on incorporating more personalization into my classes and I think I gained some insight on how to do that. Michael suggests that we actually focus on getting to know as much about the students as possible and make the language secondary to that goal. His reasons for this were that it builds rapport between the teacher and students, it helps eliminate negativity, and it allows the teacher to discover commonalities and uniqueness. While looking for these commonalities and uniqueness, it is helpful to compare and contrast different students as well as to maintain eye contact and do frequent comprehension checks.

We were lucky enough to get to watch a video of Michael in action with a real class full of students, which I think helped us to visualize much more clearly what the process involved. He started out by introducing a single structure – the word “famous”. He then asked students questions about who is famous, who is famous in their families, if they were going to be famous, and who is famous in the class. The students seemed to enjoy the PQA and got really into it, all of them competing to give a funny answer.

I liked how Michael’s focus was on getting to know his students, and his questions didn’t seem forced or directed anywhere. He was willing to go with the flow and follow where the students led him with their answers. I think that is something that I will have to work on in the future as often my attempts as PQA seem stilted and just doesn’t flow quite as nicely as his did.

Source: Michael Miller and Barb Watson, NTPRS 2011, Handout

Contrastive Grammar

On the morning of the second day of the NTPRS conference in St. Louis, I was lucky enough to attend Susie Gross’ session on Contrastive Grammar. Betsy Paskvan was the co-presenter of the session and did a TPRS demo in Japanese for us. We started out with the basics of how to do pop-up grammar. The idea is to link the grammar units to meaning and sense in order to help them go into students’ long-term memory. This is done by keeping each pop-up very short (2-5 seconds) and including it in every part of every lesson. By repeating these little bits of grammar all year long while keeping them in context, eventually students will “get it”. This is the part of the lesson that really is “learning” rather than “acquisition,” therefore we should not devote any more than 5% of the class time to it.

Susie also stressed the writing of the target phrase in black and the translation in black, while saving red and green to highlight grammatical components. Though it doesn’t matter what colours you use, it is important that you are consistent for the entire year. The idea behind this is that the colour helps students’ brains to “notice” grammar. However, we must recognize that some aspects of grammar are late-acquired no matter what a teacher does. Usually late-acquired grammar is grammar that does not cause a significant difference in meaning, such as gender. Be sure not to overfill the board with vocabulary though, as it confuses the students. Keep it limited only to what is necessary.

Contrastive grammar is different from pop-up grammar because it contrasts multiple grammatical points. Generally you want to contrast something students already know with something they don’t know. The example that Betsy did involved comparing the past tense (new) with the present tense (already known). Start by doing a grammar pop-up on the part that is already known, just to refresh their memories, then introduce the new material. Once you have done this, you can then circle the new structure and while doing so, contrast it with the old structure. This way the students are still focused on the meaning rather than the grammar itself.

The most important point that I took away from this presentation was that we should ask different questions to students of different levels. This is where TPRS has a major advantage as compared to traditional language education – differentiation is built in. I knew that it was important to ask differentiated questions during circling, but I had not previously thought to apply it to grammar pop-ups. For slower processors, you can ask meaning questions (ie. What does _____ mean?) or parsing questions (ie. What does the -o on the end of the word mean?). The answer can even be written right on the board for them to see. Average processors can be asked to translate a slightly different phrase than one on the board or to describe the difference between two phrases. Superstars can go one step further and apply the grammar to a new word, either in the target or native language. The important thing is to make students feel successful by giving them a question that you know they are capable of answering.

I found that I learned a great deal from this session and especially enjoyed the Japanese demonstration. But it took some practice and skillful coaching for me to feel comfortable adding it to my circling strategies!

Source: Susan Gross and Betsy Paskvan, NTPRS 2011, Handout

Embedded Readings

Michele and Laurie’s session on Embedded Readings was a real eye-opener for me. There are numerous things you can do with embedded readings, and the best part is how successful they make students feel. I know it made me feel like a genius when I was easily able to read a very long text in Russian after only a one-hour lesson with Michele.

Basically they described an embedded reading as the way to address a text that would otherwise intimidate your students. This is achieved by either paring down a text or building it up from scratch so that students start reading a simple version of the text and work their way up to reading an advanced version with more details and more vocabulary. An embedded reading should be made up of three or more levels, thus providing students with the scaffolding they need to get to the “top” level.

In order to build up a text from scratch, the presenters suggested following these steps. Start by writing a short, basic story. The first level is very basic, and should be easy for all students to understand. It is more or less a summary or outline of the final level. If the base story is too hard for your lowest level kids, it is TOO HARD! Next ask yourself some questions about the story. Answer these questions in order to add details to the story. You can also add details to people and places and you can be more descriptive by adding adjectives and adverbs. Once students have read the base story, they can move on to the next level. One idea is to have them underline or highlight the added parts after they have read it through once. For the third level and higher, simply ask yourself some more questions about the story and fill in the answers, while adding as many details as you can.

A couple of other tips that were suggested during the session were to try putting each sentence on it’s own line in the reading, thus making the text more readable and less intimidating, and to create embedded readings from songs in order to make music comprehensible. I found this idea really interesting as I love using music in my classroom but have struggled with making sure it is comprehensible.

Source: Michele Whaley and Laurie Clarcq, NTPRS 2011, Embedded Readings – Presentation & Handout