Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling
Linda D’Argenio, Ph. D.
Mastering a second language within the limited time available in schools can be a challenging goal for students. Language teachers are always hunting for effective strategies to facilitate language acquisition and keep students motivated. A useful distinction in this regard is between language learning and language acquisition. Language acquisition refers to the largely intuitive process through which we become able to produce language via exposure and repetition. Think of very young children continuously listening to family members talking or being shown objects and told their names. They will eventually associate specific sounds with corresponding objects or situations. Once these sounds and the accompanying concepts are internalized, the child will eventually try to reproduce them to initiate communication.
Now, think of an individual who finds himself or herself in a foreign-speaking country. As with the child, here also communication will drive the need to acquire the new language. The person may find him or herself at a vegetable market wanting to buy apples or at the train station wanting to purchase a ticket. This is a situation of full immersion where every act performed is an occasion to acquire language. There is constant exposure and a constant need for repetition. Like the child, the individual in a foreign land will first go through a period of passive absorption of the language, followed by the ability to understand and communicate in the second language.
By contrast, language learning is what we typically do in schools. We ask students to study and memorize words; we teach them grammar; we apply the grammar by creating or translating sentences. In this setting, motivated students may be able to learn enough vocabulary and grammar to be able to read and translate texts in the second language. However, they will rarely be able to speak the language fluently. Aside from the different methodologies involved in language learning versus language acquisition, there is the problem of language exposure. Even teachers who opt for full immersion and refuse to speak a single word of English in their classes have to face the fact that there aren’t enough hours in a school week for the students to acquire fluency.
Of all the teaching strategies I have come across during my career as a world language teacher, TPRS, or Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling, is the one that stands out for me. It provides an engaging setting that encourages students’ participation; it stimulates students’ interest and keeps them focused; it optimizes the use of class time; its many steps appeal to multiple learning styles. Although I have never personally undergone training for TPRS with the exception of a one-day workshop a few years ago, I have tried to educate myself on this particular strategy and have incorporated parts of it into my classes with good results.
As the name says, TPRS relies on reading and storytelling to deliver and practice a new language. Here is some background:
TPRS was developed by Blaine Ray, a Spanish language teacher, in the late 1980s.
It is a language acquisition strategy based on one basic concept, comprehensible input (CI), and built upon a method called TPR, or Total Physical Response.
The concept of comprehensible input was developed by linguist Stephen Krashen in the 1970s and 1980s. It is the idea that, in order for a student to acquire language, he or she must be able to understand most of the message that is being delivered. If students are unable to at least understand the gist of the message, they will soon become uninterested and unable to retain information, with predictable consequences. On the other hand, if they can follow most of what is being said, they will also be motivated to understand the missing portion of the message. Thus, they will readily acquire new words and language structures in small increments. CI is delivered by putting the message in a context that clarifies its meaning. Simply stated, if I walk into a beginning Mandarin class and say the word píngguǒ (apple), no one will be able to understand me. But if I take an apple with me, show it to the students, and say píngguǒ, chances are I will be understood. Early first language acquisition happens this way. Here is Dr. Krashen explaining and demonstrating comprehensible input.
TPR is a method to deliver CI. It was originally developed by psychology professor Dr. James J. Asher. It basically consists of using gestures and pointing to create a context for the words that are being taught. TPR seeks to reproduce the natural process of language acquisition. Below is a description of class activities using TPR:
Asher (1977) provides an outline of TPR lessons for beginning students. On the first day of class, the teacher motions for four students to come to the front of the class and gestures for two of them to sit on either side of him. He then says stand up, and immediately stands up, gesturing for the students to do the same. A similar procedure is used to teach the commands sit down, walk, stop, turn, and jump. When students appear to have mastered the commands, the teacher sits down and gives commands for the class to act out as a group and then individually. Other commands include touch the chair, walk to the door, and point to the table. The teacher combines these elements in new ways, gradually introducing more vocabulary words, usually three at a time.
Each subsequent lesson begins with a review of previously-learned material. New linguistic elements are then introduced in the form of commands. These include numbers (I will write the number 3 on the board. Maria, write the number 3), body parts (touch your head), shapes (draw a circle), prepositions (walk between Dolores and Jos), adverbs (walk slowly), and adjectives (point to the wet window). New verb tenses are also introduced through commands (Juan, throw your pencil on the floor; Maria, pick up the pencil that Juan threw). Later, the teacher introduces short stories by reading the story twice, calling on students to act the story out while reading it a third time, and then asking comprehension questions about the story.
Speaking is introduced gradually, beginning with questions that require one-word answers (How many eyes do you have?) or short phrases (Where is the book? Answer: Under the chair). Later, students might discuss pictures from magazines in small groups, or perform role plays such as ordering a meal in a restaurant. Asher claims that the introduction of speaking should be delayed for approximately one semester in college classes, or six months to a year in high school classes.
Reading is introduced by giving students lists of the vocabulary words and sentences they have learned. Later, students read copies of the stories the teacher has told in class. Writing activities consist of having students answer questions or write sentences based on previously-learned material. (source: https://hlr.byu.edu/methods/content/total-physical.html)
Building on the concept of comprehensible input and on the basic methodology of total physical response, TPRS has developed some key principles and a step-by-step strategy to facilitate language acquisition. Both are outlined below. Interested readers will find a list of useful resources at the end of this article.
There are three keys to the implementation of TPRS:
- Comprehension: the vocabulary used must be already known by students. Unknown words are given together with their translation. Teachers need to speak slowly so as to give students the time to process what they hear.
- Repetition: language acquisition is an imitative process. Like toddlers learning to speak, students must hear a word multiple times in multiple contexts before they are able to use it. TPRS uses storytelling to deliver and practice new speech. For example, after introducing the first sentence of a story, the teacher uses repetitive questions (called ‘circling’) to induce repetition: (teacher) Class, Mary was a girl. Class, Was Mary a girl? (class) yes, Mary was a girl. (teacher pointing a student) Are you a girl? (student) yes, I am a girl/no I am not a girl. As the story proceeds, the teacher introduces new details and reviews them by asking questions.
- Interest: the story must capture students’ interest as this encourages focus and participation. There are several ways of making a story interesting. For instance, the teacher can introduce surprise details, or ask the students to surprise him/her by introducing surprise details in their answers. The teacher can personalize the story by inserting students’ personal details into it. The teacher can introduce dramatization and dialogue to increase students’ interest and involvement in the story.
TPRS relies on three basic steps:
- Establish meaning. This is the phase when students are introduced to the new words and language structures that will be used during storytelling. The teacher can use gestures, actions, or visuals to facilitate understanding (see TPR class activities above,) but it is always advisable to provide students with a translation in their native language to avoid misunderstanding (for example, between words like hear and listen.) When dealing with abstract words, these are written with their translation on the board. In establishing meaning, repetition is key. Students may have to hear a new word or structure twenty or thirty times before they are able to use it with confidence. The required number of repetitions can be achieved in various ways. One is to use TPR (the teacher gives a command using the structure the students need to learn, for example: “If the new structure is quería bailar ‘wanted to dance,’ the teacher’s narrative might be something like this (in the target language, of course): ‘wanted to dance. [teacher acts out ‘wanted’ with his hands clasped together, followed by ‘dance’; students copy this action] Wanted to dance, [everyone acts out wanted to dance again] Class, wanted to dance [students do the actions again] John wanted to dance [just John does the actions] Sarah wanted to dance [ just Sarah does the action] Everybody, wanted to dance [the whole class does the actions].” (Karen Lichtman, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, p. 12.) The new word or structure can also be combined with others the students are already familiar with in order to create opportunities for new repetitions.
- Ask a story: this is the second phase of the lesson. Once meaning has been established, the teacher and students build a story together. Notice that this phase is called ‘ask a story’ and not ‘tell a story’ because there is no pre-made story. Rather, the whole class participates in its construction by providing answers to questions and adding details. Thus, stories may start from the same statement but will differ from class to class. This process, besides encouraging students’ involvement in the activity, offers the opportunity for numberless repetitions as the teacher asks different questions about the initial statement. TPRS stories have the following characteristics: They involve a problem (e.g. John wanted pistachio ice cream.) They go to multiple locations to solve the problem (e.g. he went to the supermarket, grocery store, ice cream parlor.) They have a final solution (e.g., John eventually found the ice cream he wanted at the ice cream parlor.)
- Reading: in the last phase of TPRS, students are presented with texts containing mostly known vocabulary and cognates. The goal of this step is to help students move from processing aural input to processing written input. The texts selected don’t have to be necessarily connected to the vocabulary and phrases that the class is studying as long as they are comprehensible without the use of a dictionary. Teachers have several options to verify students’ engagement and understanding. They can ask questions about the story, have students retell the story to classmates, draw pictures, rewrite the story, add a different ending, and more.
There are many more aspects of TPRS that are not covered by this brief overview. I suggest, again, that interested readers refer to the list of resources at the end of this article.
A few final remarks
There have been several studies assessing the validity of TPRS as a teaching strategy. Most of them compare it favorably with other methodologies. Many of these studies suggest that TPRS students outperform students taught with other methods in several aspects, including “acquisition of vocabulary and grammar, as well as the development of reading and speaking skills.” (Lichtman, p. 34.) TPRS students also seem to outperform students taught with other methodologies with regard to speed and volume of learning. (see review studies)
Because TPRS seems to be such an effective and engaging methodology, it is interesting to consider its application in the ever-changing landscape of today’s education system.
At the time of this writing, many students in the US are still dealing with school interruptions and occasional distance learning. Although the distance learning model has fortunately not supplanted in-person learning, it seems to be here to stay, as an increasing number of students of all ages elect to follow online courses. The number of homeschooled children is also on the rise. Can TPRS, or at least parts of it, be applied in online classes? How about using TPRS in very small groups or one-on-one classes? How can techniques such as ‘circling’ be adapted to serve the needs of this kind of class? Can parents use TPRS to instruct their children at home?
Regarding the first question, the answer is yes. This video is an example of how TPRS can be used in an online class.
As for the other questions, readers are encouraged to watch my interview with Craig Sheehy from TPRSbooks. Towards the end of the interview, Craig goes over the use of TPRS with small groups (less than three students) and gives some valuable advice.
For the writing of this article, I have relied extensively on Karen Lichtman‘s TPRS module, Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) An Input-Based Approach to Second Language Acquisition, and Blaine Ray’s TPRS workshop handouts and notes.
An extensive list of research on TPRS can be found at https://www.tprsbooks.com/tprs-research/. TPRSbooks.com also has a resource section with a wealth of titles for teaching material and workshops for teachers who want to learn TPRS.
Another website I found very useful is https://comprehensibleclassroom.com/, a blog entirely dedicated to language acquisition and containing a good list of products, services (teachers’ training,) and ‘how to’ for teachers who want to try TPRS on their own.