Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) is a comprehensible-input based method of teaching foreign languages that was developed by Blaine Ray and continues to evolve to this day.
Blaine taught high school Spanish in California, and in 1980, he discovered the Total Physical Response (TPR) method developed by James Asher. In this method, students respond physically to commands given by the teacher in the target language. While he had some success with this method, he found that students soon became bored and lost interest in responding to his commands. He continued using TPR for 3 years, but in 1983, Blaine’s familiarity with Stephen Krashen’s theories on second language acquisition led him to begin using stories as a way of providing students with comprehensible input, while also keeping them engaged. Blaine Ray’s method was originally known as Total Physical Response Storytelling due to the original focus on TPR, but it has evolved into what is now called Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.
There are several major differences between the traditional method of language teaching and TPRS. In a traditional classroom teachers provide grammar rules and vocabulary lists to students and students are expected to learn the language through output and meaningless, repetitive written exercises. On the other hand, in a TPRS classroom teachers provide students with large amounts of comprehensible input in context and students are not expected to output the language until they are ready. Grammar is taught, but the focus is on the difference in meaning that is signalled rather than the rule itself. Grammar lessons in the TPRS classroom or “pop-ups,” as they are called, are generally no longer than 3 to 5 seconds in length and are always taken from a meaningful context, such as a story. Basically, in a traditional classroom students LEARN ABOUT the target language and in a TPRS classroom they actually ACQUIRE the target language. Modern-day TPRS consists of 3 essential steps which you can read about in detail below.
Remember that there are many different ways to accomplish these steps. Every teacher does it in their own way and adds a little personal flair to the method, and that is a good thing! Just remember that your goal is for students to acquire the language and that you want them to enjoy it too. And if you are just starting out with TPRS, keep in mind the saying that got me through my first year as a TPRS teacher: “Even bad TPRS is better than no TPRS!”
Step 1: Establish meaning.
Before starting, the teacher should have in mind 3-5 target structures which students will acquire. A “structure” can be a single word, but is usually a short phrase. For example, “wants to have” is a commonly taught structure at the beginning level. These structures are often verb-focused and they should be high-frequency structures which occur naturally and often in the target language. The target structures should be written on the board in both the target language and the native language (usually English), with all the target language words in one colour and the native language words in another colour. The teacher then goes through and says each structure in the target language and then in English. Often the teacher does a gesture with each structure which the students mimic. At this point, some TPR could be incorporated into the lesson by having students perform each action in different ways.
Step 2: Ask a story.
Once the meaning has been firmly established in the students’ minds, the teacher can move onto asking a story. Many teachers have a basic skeleton story in mind before they start, but an important part of TPRS is letting the students personalize the story with their own answers. The teacher starts off asking the story by saying a statement, such as “There was a boy.” This statement should be made fully comprehensible to the students, which can be done in several different ways. Key words or phrases that will reoccur throughout the story can be written on the board (again in the target language and with the translation) as “enrichment” vocabulary or the teacher can simply sandwich the phrase by saying it aloud in the target language and the native language. An example of this technique in Spanish would be: “chico, boy, chico.” To promote student engagement and show that they understand, many TPRS teachers require their students to say “ooh” or “ah” whenever a statement like is made. TPRS teachers also stop frequently during this step to assess student comprehension through “comprehension checks.” A comprehension check can be as simple as saying “What did I just say?” or it can involve the whole class closing their eyes and showing the percent they understand by using their fingers.
After the teacher makes a statement such as the above, “There was a boy.”, he/she circles the statement. This means that the teacher takes each part of the phrase and asks several questions about it. This objective of this technique is to say as many repetitions as possible of the target structure, while camouflaging this fact from the students. In circling, the teacher has several question options: a question with a positive answer, a question with a negative answer, an either/or question, or a question-word question using who, what, where, when, why or how. Once this phrase has been successfully circled (approximately 12 questions per statement), the teacher moves on to another statement. With each statement, the teacher can either use pre-prepared details or have the students contribute their ideas for the story. Usually the funniest or most unexpected detail will be used to maintain student interest or create a comedic effect. Eventually, with the addition of each new detail, a story will emerge. Often, a TPRS teacher has student actors act out what is happening in the story while they are circling. This provides students with a clear mental picture as to what is happening in the story.
Grammar is not sheltered in these stories, which means that the teacher can use any grammar that is natural for a native speaker to use, as long as it is made comprehensible to the students. Vocabulary is sheltered, so the teacher tries to stay “in-bounds” by using as much vocabulary that is already known to the students as possible. Whenever the teacher must go “out-of-bounds,” he/she simply has to make it comprehensible to the students.
Step 3: Read.
The final step in the sequence is reading. Some TPRS teachers will have a reading prepared ahead of time, while others use readings that they have typed up after asking the story with their students during the previous class. The details of the class story can be the same or completely different ,but the structures that the written story focuses on should be the same as the oral story. There are many different ways to do readings in a TPRS classroom, but one of the most common ways is to have the class decode the text chorally. The teacher starts out by reading one sentence in the target language. Then the class reads out the English translation all together, while the teacher points at each word one-at-a-time in order to keep them in time with each other. However, since the brain craves novelty, and students will quickly get bored of reading like this every time, teachers should switch up reading activities often by having students read in groups or in pairs, translate sections as a group and present to the class, fill-in-the-blank while the teacher reads, etc.
For more information, check out Fluency through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray.