Alaskan TPRS Magic

On Monday afternoon of the conference, I chose to attend Michele Whaley and Laurie Clarcq’s session. Michele was originally quite alone in her discovery of TPRS, since she lives up in Alaska, and because of this, I felt that I had a lot in common with her. I know of only 5 TPRS teachers in Canada, including myself, and they are spread across the country. I’m sure there are a few more that fly under the radar or just aren’t on the moreTPRS list, but basically the TPRS method is unheard of in Canada and the majority of my colleagues have never even heard of it.

At the session, Michele talked about how in Alaska they began with only 5 teachers who were interested in making some changes in their classroom to move closer towards TPRS. Michele wanted to have a group of teachers all using TPRS that could work together, and so she spent a great deal of her own time holding regular meetings and sending out e-mails to teachers to get them to come to these meetings. Of course, the key to getting people to come to the meetings was simply providing food! She also put a lot of effort into getting the TPRS gurus like Scott Benedict and Laurie Clarcq to provide training, as she was starting out with TPRS herself and still had a lot of questions. In order for people like this to join the meetings in Alaska, Michele had to become very familiar with video conferencing, and at times she had multiple computers with different people video conferencing in and had to arrange all the monitors so that everyone could see each other. I can only imagine the technical headache that was!

The most inspiring part of this session was that over the course of three years of efforts on the part of a core group of TPRS teachers, nearly 100 Alaskan language teachers have now attended TPRS meetings, classes, webinars and conferences! And now the core group consists of about 25 teachers who meet regularly to coach each other and exchange TPRS tips.

I think it’s great that this group of teachers, and especially Michele, has taken it upon themselves to go above and beyond. They are so committed to the TPRS method that they don’t just want to use it themselves, they want everyone around them to know how great it is and they want to provide support for anyone wanting to start using it. My new goal is to someday create a similar group with teachers in my own province. And after this session, I will definitely be turning to Michele for help!

Source: Michele Whaley, NTPRS 2011, Presentation

Are We Doing A Story AGAIN?

On Monday afternoon, I decided to switch to the advanced workshop sessions, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss Carol Gaab’s wonderful session! The phrase that Carol repeated often during this session was that “the brain craves novelty.” With each new idea that she brought up, she repeated this statement over and over again. Clearly it was important!

The first tip that Carol gave us was to organize and manage and display our vocabulary. Put 1-3 core structures on the board with translations and pictures if desired. Write the target language words in one colour and the English words in another colour. These words make up the core curriculum you want to teach. Then as the story progresses, you can write enrichment vocabulary on the board as well. These words can be planned words or spontaneous ones that arise during the story, and they are meant to provide supplementary vocabulary for the high achievers. They should also be written in two different colours and they should be the same colours as before, so as to remain consistent, however they should be in a separate area of the classroom or on a different area of the board so that they remain separate in the students’ minds.

You can also post other information, such as a dialogue of the day and/or a phrase of the week. When posting the dialogue of the day, a question and answer make a good pair. So you could use a combination such as “Have you seen _____?” and “No I haven’t.” The phrase of the week should be something common but also fun, like “Holy cow!” or “Whatever.” Carol also suggested posting the question words according to their context, rather than putting them all in the same place in the classroom. So the “where” question could go by a map, the “when” question could go by the clock, and so on.

A fun way to add novelty to your stories is by using props. even if you have quite an exciting collection of props, students will get bored of them by the end of the year. However, you can keep them “novel” by rotating them through your classroom. Instead of students having access to all the props, all the time, just bring in a few specific props every week or every couple of weeks. You can even tailor these props to the stories you plan on telling during that time. When the students get bored with those props, just rotate them out and bring some different props in! Carol had some great props, but my favourite ones were the faces of famous people that she had printed out and stuck to a popsicle stick. That way students can hold up the faces in front of their own when they are acting. Other great props such as hats, abnormal body parts, glasses, blow-up props, fake foods, and empty containers can be brought from home, found at a Dollar Store or MacFrugals, or purchased from websites such as or

When you are circling, it is important to create novelty as well. One way to do this is by varying the types of questions you ask. We know that questions can be yes/no, either/or, and open-ended ones, but you can also try using fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice questions. Comprehension questions should be mixed in with these types of questions. Ask mostly group questions, but ask some individual questions as well. A good ratio would be 1 individual question for every 4 group questions. Remember that students must be able to answer these questions successfully, so ask differentiated questions based on students’ ability. Try starting with the easy questions for the slower processors and work your way up to difficult questions for the faster processors. If a student seems to be struggling with the answer to a question, make it into an either/or question or point at the answer on the board to make it easier for them. Remember that we are not trying to catch students, we are trying to make them feel successful and smart. Also be sure to say the student’s name, then pause before asking the question. This allows them time to refocus their attention if necessary before they have to answer.

You can also vary the type of response you want from students. To add further novelty to yes/no questions, students can respond with the phrase of the week, funny noises, or gestures instead of a simple yes or no. For example, students could bark if the answer is yes and meow if the answer is no, or do thumbs up/thumbs down. They could also hold up one of two cue cards, depending on the answer. When you ask a group question, instead of always having the students respond chorally as a class, you can have them tell the answer to a partner instead. Partner work is frowned upon somewhat in TPRS, because it is more of an output activity, but sometimes you can use moments like these as short brain breaks for both the students and the teacher.

A great technique that Carol showed us to use while students are up acting was the “Voice from Behind” technique. She uses this for beginners and when teaching dialogue that includes difficult-to-pronounce phrases. She hides behind her actor and uses her own voice to say the phrase, while the actor mouths what she is saying. To get the two to match up better she squeezes on the actor’s arms for each syllable and they open their mouth whenever they feel the squeeze. It makes for a pretty entertaining performance, and I can imagine students loving it. Along this line, you could also have them lip synch for singers and bands or famous speaking voices (ie. actors, politicians, etc.)

With TPRS, we are used to using stories to provide comprehensible input, however you can mix things up by using other sources. Carol suggested online tools such as:

  • Jibjab: make funny flash movies using pictures of real peoples’ heads and cartoon bodies
  • Blabberize: make a talking picture with a moving mouth
  • MakeBeliefsComix: make your own comic strips
  • Voicethread: add voices to photos as they tell a story
  • Xtranormal: make your own 3D movies
Other sites such as Señor Wooly are great for providing comprehensible input through music as well. Music can be used in different ways too, not just to provide input. Playing background music that is 60 beats per minute facilitates student work, while 90 beats per minute is better to prepare them for a high energy activity. It can also be used very effectively during stories as sound effects or as background music to set the tone. TV theme songs are great for this, or you can use different types of music depending on the situation, such as romantic music, upbeat music, or even orchestral music to portray a menacing situation.
A variety of visuals are also available for us to use, including Google Earth, maps, posters, photos, props, costumes, plants, and large boxes. This is in addition to the actors we already use, and they are important because human beings are visual creatures. Students like to see things when we talk about them.
One of the most important points that Carol made that was really helpful to me was to vary the sources for storylines so that students cannot predict what is coming next! We all know that PQA can often lead into a good story, but you can also create stories based on culture, current events, history, etc. You can also prepare a story skeleton and let the students provide the details, or you can even ask the students in advance what kind of story THEY want to do.
Basically this session made me realize that I need to keep working to make stories new and exciting to my students. This may seem like a lot of effort, but Carol made a good point throughout the session. She said that we don’t have to use these techniques every day, nor should we. We should use them sparingly, every few weeks, so that we can keep our classes interesting throughout the year.

Source: Carol Gaab, NTPRS 2011, Handout

Storytelling in Other Disciplines

In this article Elizabeth Peterson talks about using storytelling in other subject areas, such as history, in order to make the content come alive for students. I’m sure all TPRS teachers will agree with her that “actual storytelling is something we don’t do enough of in school.”

Russian Lesson

During the second half of the morning on my first day at the NTPRS conference, Katya showed us what it would look like, and most importantly, what it feels like to be a beginning student in a TPRS class. I found that it was very interesting to have the tables reversed, and though I taught with TPRS 100% of the time last year, I realized that there were several improvements I could make in order to be a better teacher. First of all, I was going way too fast, so it’s no wonder half the class was usually completely lost! In Katya’s demonstration, she went so nice and slowly that I felt like learning Russian was easy – imagine that! In my classes I was probably also losing students because I wasn’t personalizing enough.

As an adult language teacher and a person who loves languages, I was very motivated to learn Russian with Katya. However, I think even if I had been a student who wasn’t very “good” at Russian, the story she created with us would have been entertaining and interesting enough for me to WANT to understand it. The other thing I noticed was how much more fun and funnier the story was with a good actor up at the front. Katya picked the perfect actor and we all enjoyed the story more because of his antics. Next year I want to try to get more actors up as I did not do this enough last year. I found it difficult because the kids would start acting up as soon as they got to the front of the classroom, and they couldn’t stand up there long enough to let me get through all the circling.

While she was teaching, Katya was also very aware of how comfortable her students were feeling in Russian. She picked out a few barometer students (students who had missed the first part of the lesson) and went back to them several times to see check that they were still understanding everything. I like that she did several comprehension checks when we had to close our eyes and hold out our fingers. I think it would be a more accurate assessment than if students had their eyes open, because they don’t have to be embarrassed about not understanding. She also checked comprehension several times in English, simply by asking “What did I just say?” and that was also very effective.

Throughout the lesson, Katya made sure that we were all participating fully. At the start of the lesson, when we gave half-hearted answers, she made us do it again until it was satisfactory. She often made us do something several times until it was right, and in this way she trained the whole crowd, just as we have to remember to train our classes. TPRS is very different from what most students are used to and it takes some time to get them to figure out the whole process. It was great to see this classroom management aspect of TPRS in action.

For me, the best part of the lesson actually came after NTPRS was already over. Now at home, I still remember those Russian structures that she taught us, which goes to show the power of TPRS!


Brain Rules

The first morning of the conference was packed full of information. I already knew a lot about the basics of TPRS, so that part of the workshop was mostly review for me, but I found the section of Donna’s workshop on brain rules to be very interesting. As teachers I think many of us recognize that our students have a hard time paying attention and remembering what they have been taught, but we often don’t know why or how to prevent these problems.

The problem of getting students to pay attention all comes down to this one small fact: people don’t pay attention to boring things. However, we know that our students must pay attention in order to learn, so how can we achieve this goal? Unfortunately, approximately 90% of what people learn in a class is usually forgotten within 30 days. So if we want to be the exception to this rule, we must be exceptional teachers! There are several ways to encourage students to pay attention, which increases the chance that what we are teaching will go into their long-term memories.

One way to get attention is to give students “novel stimuli.” This explains why in TPRS we often add unusual or unexpected details to our stories. Using emotion also works to get students’ attention and it has the additional benefit of improving the long-term memory storage of whatever it is associated with. This is why it is so effective to create stories that cause laughter. Not to mention it’s just more fun! Finally, because most of what we learn is visual, dramatization and props are other effective tools for many students.

Learning about how memory works can helps us to understand why students often don’t remember what they have been taught. This is an issue that I found more relevant to traditional teaching than with TPRS, but it is still helpful to hear why students used to forget so much of the grammar and vocabulary that they were supposed to have learned. And it also explains why TPRS works so well. Basically there are 2 types of memory: declarative and non-declarative. Declarative memory is what we use to memorize facts, so this is where learning ABOUT a language (as in the traditional method) would fit in. However, this is backwards because when we learn a language naturally, it actually takes place in non-declarative memory, since it is a basic motor skill.

On the other hand, TPRS works so well because we don’t try to force students to analyze something that was never meant to be a conscious process. Since information is remembered best when it is meaningful, contextual and elaborate, we also increase the chance of students remembering when we use the structures in personalized stories with lots of detail. The more details you add to your stories, the better students will remember.

So basically TPRS teachers have been following these brain rules without even realizing it!

If you would like to read more about the brain and how it works, check out the book Brain Rules by John Medina.