TPR Storytelling Techniques

Lots of different teaching techniques are used in TPR Storytelling. They range from the simple, such as speaking slowly or paying close attention to the students' eyes, to the complex, like the circling technique of asking questions. These techniques all have the same basic aim of keeping the class comprehensible, interesting, and as efficient as possible for language acquisition.

"Circling" is the practice of asking a series of simple questions about a statement, all in the target language. It is intended to provide repetition of the target vocabulary in context and enable students to learn the vocabulary, grammar and phonology of their new language in a holistic way. There are four basic types of circling questions: "yes" questions, "no" questions, either/or questions, and "wh" questions such as what, where, when, and how many. There are also more advanced circling techniques which teachers can include optionally, include the "three for one", and false statements. The teacher expects a response from the students after each statement or question, to check whether they have understood. If the teacher says a statement, then the students show that they understand by responding with an expression of interest such as "Oooh!" or "Aaaaah". If the teacher asks a question, then the students answer the question.

The students can answer the questions with just one or two words. The point of asking these questions is not to force the students to speak; rather, the questions are a method of checking comprehension while simultaneously repeating the target vocabulary in context. Therefore students need not worry about speaking in full sentences, and indeed this would detract from the process of concentrating on the input provided by the teacher. By answering using single words or very short phrases the students can keep their attention focused on the words to be learned.

Circling questions are always about content that has already been established. If a question is about something not yet established, then it is not considered a circling question. Consider the example on the right, "Dave wants a Ferrari." The following questions all ask for details not already established in the statement "Dave wants a Ferrari", and so are not examples of circling questions:

    Teacher: Why does Dave want a Ferrari?
    Teacher: How many Ferraris does Dave want?
    Teacher: Where does Dave want to drive his Ferrari?

Staying in bounds
Staying in bounds means only using words that the students understand. Words that are in bounds are:

    Words that all the students have already learned
    Proper nouns that the students know

Any words not in the list above are considered "out-of-bounds". Teachers must be on constant alert to keep their language in bounds. If a teacher does say something out-of-bounds, then the solution is to make it comprehensible by writing it on the board and translating it straight away. If a teacher can stay in bounds all the time, and can speak slowly enough for the students to understand, then their class will be 100% comprehensible. This helps the students become confident in their language abilities and motivates them to succeed.

Even if students know the words that the teacher says, they will not understand if the teacher speaks too quickly. By speaking slowly, teachers give students more time to process the language and therefore they have more chance of understanding. When students first hear vocabulary or grammar, the necessary gap between each word can be as long as two full seconds. As students get used to the language structures, the teacher can slowly increase the speed.

Comprehension checks
The most direct way of finding out if students understand the language is to ask them. In TPR Storytelling, teachers check comprehension early and often. There are a few different ways of doing this:

Time-out sign
    The teacher agrees on a sign for the students to use if they don't understand something. This is intended to save them from being embarrassed about not knowing something they think everybody else understands.
Finger count
    The students hold up their fingers to show how much they understand. Ten fingers means they understood 100%, seven fingers means they understood 70%, five fingers means 50%, etc.
"What does <INSERT WORD HERE> mean?"
    The teacher asks the students what specific words mean. Teachers generally use this after they asked a circling question but didn't get a strong response. This question is usually asked in the students' first language, to ensure understanding.
"What did I just say?"
    The teacher asks the students "What did I just say?" in the students' first language. This way the students can be sure of the full meaning of the sentence or question they just heard. This should not be used as an attempt to catch students out; rather it is just a check to remind students of something they cannot remember at that moment.

Pop-up grammar
"Pop-up grammar" is the practice of making very short grammar explanations about the specific vocabulary students are learning at that moment. This technique is most often used in the class reading of step three, but it can be used at any time. The teacher draws the students attention to a grammatical feature of one of the sentences they have been learning in the story, and explains it in five seconds or less. This brevity is intended to keep focus on the meaning of the language as much as possible.

Personalizing the language class is a key way to make the target language interesting and meaningful for students, and personalization is used extensively in TPR Storytelling. A personalized message is much more likely to be comprehensible and interesting than one that is not personalized. Using this in classes can be as easy as asking students simple questions about their lives in the target language. Other good personalization techniques are the use of celebrities, or of other characters the students know (such as the school principal).

Teach to the eyes
Teaching to the eyes is a way of connecting with students while talking to them in the foreign language. As the name suggests, to do this teachers will look into the eyes of individual students while they teach. Teachers are encouraged to choose one student and talk to them directly. After they have finished talking to that student, they can pick another student in a different part of the room to talk to. Focusing attention on individual students like this helps teachers to assess student comprehension levels, and also keeps the teacher's intonation conversational and interesting. It is also helpful in preventing problems with discipline. Students' eyes will reveal if they understand or if there needs to be more clarification.