TPR Storytelling Method

TPR Storytelling is broadly divided into three steps, with each being regarded as essential for a successful program.

Step one: establish meaning
In this step the students are introduced to the new vocabulary phrases for the lesson. Generally only three new phrases are introduced; this is considered the maximum number that can be effectively taught in a lesson. Limiting the phrases like this allows the teacher to focus on them and provide lots of repetitions for the students. This emphasis on thoroughly learning new material is designed to give the students a feeling of confidence.

The three phrases (structures) are written on the blackboard, or another place where the students can easily see them, and are all translated into the students' native language. If students ever forget what a phrase means, they can glance at the board and check the meaning at any time.

The teacher may then teach the new phrases using gestures, in a style modeled after traditional TPR. This gives the students the chance to get used to how the phrases sound before hearing them in context. It is also intended to keep the atmosphere of the class relaxed and conducive to learning.

Then the teacher asks questions about the students using the target phrases. These questions are known as Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). To ensure these questions are comprehensible to the students, the teacher uses a variety of techniques and comprehension checks. Depending on the responses from the students and the atmosphere of the class, these questions might lead into a scene or skit often referred to as extended PQA. The details discovered by the teacher from PQA are often used as the basis for the class story.

The goal of the teacher during step one is to provide as many spoken repetitions of the new structures in context as possible. This lays the foundation for student recognition of the structures during the storytelling time.

Step two: spoken class story
In step two, students hear the three structures many times in the context of a spoken class story. This story is usually short, simple, and interesting, and will contain multiple instances of the target structures used in context. The number of times the structures are heard is further increased by the circling questioning technique. TPRS teachers aim to say each new structure at least 50 times in the course of a story, and it is not unusual to hear those structures 100 times.

The teacher does not so much tell the story as ask the story. The teacher will usually use a skeleton script with very few details, and then flesh the story out using details provided by the students in the target language, making a personalized story for each class. Using the circling technique, teachers can ask for these new details while still keeping the target language completely comprehensible. Advanced TPRS teachers are sometimes able to improvise, creating stories solely based on the students answers to questions about the day's vocabulary structures. The focus is always on the target structures, allowing the details to support those structures.

The actions in the story are acted out by volunteers from the class. The teacher will usually try and select actors who won't be intimidated in order to keep the atmosphere as relaxed and fun as possible. When the teacher makes a statement that advances the story plot, the actors will act out that statement and then wait while the teacher continues with the circling questions. Ideally, the actors will act in a humorous, emotional, or otherwise memorable way. This helps students to make visual and emotional connections to the new language structures they are hearing.

The story will often take place in three distinct locations. The main character in the story may start off in one location with a problem that they need to solve. They may move to a second location, where they try to solve the problem, but fail. Then they may move to a third location where they resolve the problem. This narrative device is used to maximize the repetitions of the target structures, to make the story easy to understand, and to make the target phrases easy to remember.

After the story has finished the teacher may ask the students to retell the story, allowing them to use the structures they just learned. This can be in pairs, in groups, or one student retelling in front of the class.

Step three: reading
Step three is where the students learn to read the language structures that they have heard in steps one and two. There are four basic types of reading activities used in TPRS. The first, and most common, is the class reading, where the students read and discuss a story that uses the same language structures as the story in step two. The next most common activity is free voluntary reading, where students are free to read any book they choose in the language being learned. The other activities are Kindergarten Day, and homework reading. For Kindergarten Day, the teacher brings in a children's picture book, and reads it to the students in class. Homework reading, like the name implies, means assigning specific reading for students to do at home.

Class reading
The class reading is the most common type of reading activity in TPR Storytelling. TPRS teachers will typically include a class reading as part of every TPRS lesson. This reading is based on the story that the students learned in step two - sometimes it can be the same story, and sometimes it uses the same language structures but with different content. The students will have learned the language structures used in the reading very well during parts one and two, so students will often be able to understand most of the story on first view.

The teacher will often begin the class reading by reading aloud the story, or a portion of the story, then having the students translate it into their first language. This translation could be done with individual students, or chorally with the whole class. Translation is the only way to ensure an accurate understanding of the language meaning. It is also a way of establishing the meaning before moving on to circling the material. As the students already know the language structures very well after steps one and two, they can often do this at a natural speed. If necessary, the teacher can help them translate any words they don't know. This process ensures that all of the students understand all of the words in the reading.

Next, the class will discuss the reading in the target language. To help make the discussion 100% comprehensible, the teacher will use the same TPRS techniques as in step two. Also, the teacher may make use of the pop-up grammar technique, where grammar points contained in the reading are explained very briefly - often in 5 seconds or less. A limited number of grammar points are focused on in any particular reading and they are "popped up" often to enhance student retention. The discussion can touch on a wide range of topics related to the reading. Usually the teacher will ask questions about the reading itself, and about the students and their lives. Comparing and contrasting the material in the reading to the PQA and the story gives extra repetitions of the target structures. Discussions of culture and even history are possible, depending on the content of the reading and the level of the students.

Free voluntary reading
Many TPRS teachers include Free voluntary reading (FVR) in their foreign language programmes. The research for FVR is very strong, and has consistently shown that FVR is as good or better than taught language lessons. Free voluntary reading can be done in the classroom or at home, but many teachers prefer to focus on spoken stories in class, as it is hard for students to get listening input outside school. However, TPRS teachers often educate students about FVR in class, introducing books for them to read, and giving advice on good reading practices.

Kindergarten day
Kindergarten Day refers to the practice of the teacher reading a children's picture story book to the students. The name is intended to conjure up the image of being read to as a child, but the activity can be done with any age group. The teacher reads to the students, showing them the pictures, asking them questions, and generally making the outline of the story comprehensible. This is designed to help students develop a tolerance for ambiguity when listening to the target language.

Homework reading
Like the name implies, this is a specific reading that is assigned to all students for homework. The teacher can give a quiz on the reading when the students get back to class. This can be used to prepare students for a class discussion, but it is usually only used with advanced students as at home the students may have no-one to turn to if they get stuck.