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by Erica Fischer on Feb 3, 2012

Increase Acquisition with Storytelling in World Languages

If you missed us on Thursday, we held a very interesting #langchat on how storytelling supports language acquisition in the classroom. We primarily discussed how both TPRS and comprehensible input combine to increase students’ acquisition of the target language.

It was an exciting #langchat, and we want to thank everyone for coming out and contributing! Thanks especially to Kristy Placido (@placido) and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell (@SECottrell) for moderating the chat. Below you’ll find a summary of our discussion, followed by a space to leave comments and continue the chat — please feel free to take advantage, and we hope to hear from you!

TPRS and Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input involves students listening to and reading the target language and teacher to ensure comprehension happens as much as possible. Comprehensible input is key to TPRS, or Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling and sometimes called Total Physical Response Storytelling due to often emphasizing gestures and movement to tell a story and increase retention.

Storytelling and TPRS are effective teaching methods as they rely on repetition and comprehensible input to get students to acquire the language. They’re also engaging. Students love stories, and they tell stories every day — “Did you hear what Jenny said?” or “Did you watch X last night?” (@SECottrell).

Telling a story by itself does not increase acquisition. It is the repetition of connected ideas and the personalization of storytelling that does (@jklopp). The foundation of the methodology is students receiving information that is comprehensible.

How to Use TPRS in the World Language Classroom

It’s easy to believe that TPRS and related methodologies should be the focus of the lesson, but at heart they are simply tools that you should use and take inspiration from. For example, @SECottrell says TPRS revolutionized her classroom several years ago, but she takes elements from traditional TPRS and caters it to her own teaching style by including less translation, faster speech and more patterning.

What is generally important to using TPRS in the classroom?

Personalization of the stories is essential. Relate the plot to the students in some way, or better allow them to do so. Students really enjoy telling and listening to stories about themselves, and it’s a fantastic way to increase participation and acquisition.

Asking questions is another key element of TPRS and is the principal motivator to get your kids speaking. You have to continuously ask questions. Essentially, you’re “asking” a story, asking for input from the students. Asking for their input is also a way to personalize the story and get the students to take ownership. Ideally, you might set up the pattern of the story, but the story itself should not be rehearsed — students must provide the input and direction.


Assessments in TPRS classes shouldn’t differ too much from regular classrooms. @placido and @profeguerita use performance-based assessments and @jklopp checks comprehension for grades. @SECottrell provided links to her level 1 assessments done while she was using TPRS: test and reading test.

Getting Started

Participants brought up the question of how to get started using TPRS, and it’s a good one. Most experienced TPRS teachers recommend finding a workshop in your area to attend. If this isn’t an option, check in your area for comprehensive input or TPRS teachers to see if any would mind if you observe their classes — many would love to help out.

If you’d like further resources, check out the Reading section below.

When Should You Use TPRS?

The short answer is whenever it benefits your topic of choice. Typically, TPRS is used to teach and familiarize students with three phrases in a class. When deciding on the topic for the lesson, try thinking of the concept that you wish to teach and then think of a story or situation that one might use that language in (@maestroallison). Plan the main grammar structures and general focus of the story.

  • Planning is important, but over time you will require it less and less, say participants who have used TPRS in the classroom for several years.
  • Also, plans change. Be prepared for your students to take the story in a direction you weren’t initially expecting, and roll with it. It’s your job to keep bringing the target structures into the story (@jklopp).

Several participants asked about using TPRS in a typical textbook class. This is most definitely possible. As @jklopp says, figure out the main structures of your unit and create a story! It’s important to remember that, at base, TPRS is not a class style; it’s a teaching tool like many others.

@ ProfesoraMedina likes to use TPRS when introducing new vocabulary. She likes the repetition that TPRS provides her students, and uses the circling method, which involves a repetitive way to ask questions around the same sentence or fact. The circling method increases students’ acquisition through repetition.

  • A normal sequence for circling questions might involve asking yes/no questions, then either/or, then open-ended, all about the same material (@profeguerita). For example, Jeffrey went shopping at Walmart — Who went shopping? Where did Jeffrey go shopping? What did he do at Walmart? (@SECottrell)


The suggestions and comments above are essentials to using TPRS and comprehensible input in the classroom, but participants suggested a few tips and tricks that they use to tailor TPRS to their teaching styles.

  • @msfrenchteach lets her students play class instruments while telling stories. It adds dramatic effect to the stories and is fun!
  • For French classes, @msfrenchteach will also teach her students about the African oral traditions and how there is a lot of repetition and music.
  • To encourage students to spontaneously contribute or to respond when asking them questions, provide them with lots of prompts. @tiesamgraf likes to provide or have students provide wordles, collages, word webs or anything else that helps them to develop or continue a thought.
  • To get inspiration for stories that appeal to students, @sonrisadelcampo uses Ben Slavic’s questionnaire. Students give both real and made-up answers, all great material.
  • @IteachHola uses stories with students as the stars plus visuals — students remember the oral and visual input together.
  • @SECottrell recommends keeping the stories short and interspersed with other activities to keep kids interested and actively participating for the duration.
  • @RonieWebster really enjoys using legends in class as a way to combine both language and culture.
  • TPRS often relies on gestures and actions by the teacher to aid in students comprehension, and there’s no reason that the students shouldn’t adopt the same gestures. @msfrenchteach likes teaching students to act while storytelling to get more students engaged and listening.
  • @maestraVB likes to throw in an unusual detail to a story from time to time to surprise students.
  • Earlier we discussed how personalizing the story was essential to getting student ownership. Another tactic, especially for younger learners, is to make the story a little crazy, which really boosts students’ memory of the story. A student visiting Antarctica in search of a blue penguin is more memorable than the teacher going to the grocery store.
  • A couple participants asked what to do if you have trouble finishing a story in one class session. Some participants like to end the story at that; the next day is a new story. Others like to tell the same story over several days. In the latter case, always briefly retell the story up to that point to remind students.
  • Several participants draw the stories that they tell in class to aid student comprehension. Ben Slavic, who was discussed several times, has asked students to draw stories from time to time as well.
  • If you’re struggling with giving students exposure to the 1st person, consider adding dialogues to your stories (@placido).

Problems with TPRS in the World Language Classroom

As many participants shared, discussing TPRS and actually implementing it in the classroom can be two totally different things. A few participants mentioned trying TPRS but find a lack of initial success disheartening. @placido stresses that it takes time, and it gets easier with time — it’s a big learning curve for such a “simple” concept, and it requires a good deal of training and patience to get comfortable.

Some students might roll their eyes, too. @profeguerita has been using TPRS successfully for several years, and she says that the only complaint she has is that it’s sometimes hard to convince students that what you’re doing is actually important.

At higher levels you might experience more resistance than at lower levels. Some participants mentioned using TPRS mostly in the younger classes, but several others still use the techniques in advanced courses — they just tone down the silly subjects.

Further Reading

Participants shared lots of great ideas and activities, but also many fantastic resources for further reading. Check out some of their suggestions here:

Thank You!

As always, a warm thank you to all of our participants who showed up to share their experiences with our topic, as well as those who came to learn from their colleagues. If you’d like to read the full archive, check out our Google Docs tag.

The discussion is never over on #langchat — please feel free to add a comment below about our topic, or tweet the hashtag to get in touch with all your world language colleagues!

See you next Thursday at 8 EST!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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