Teaching Proficiency and Reading Through Storytelling (TPRS)

Historical Background

TPR Storytelling is a method developed in 1990 by Blaine Ray, a Spanish teacher in Bakersfield, California. Ray had experienced success in using Total Physical Response to teach Spanish, but sought ways of helping his students move beyond TPR commands to more narrative and descriptive uses of language. He hit upon the technique of having students use physical actions to respond to stories that he invented based upon their interests (TPRStories.com, n.d.). The method was introduced as TPR Storytelling, with the letters "TPR" originally referring to the use of Total Physical Response; the meaning of the acronym was subsequently changed to signify "Teaching Proficiency and Reading Through Storytelling" to reflect the method's goal of developing oral proficiency and reading skills. Since its inception, TPRS has been widely implemented by foreign language teachers, and a variety of support materials have been published, including volumes of stories and short novels for use in TPRS classrooms.

Theory of Language Learning

TPRS is based on the philosophy that stories provide an efficient tool for language acquisition, enabling students to "fix events of a story in their memories along with words that describe them" (Ray & Seely, 2004, p. 17). These new words and story elements are reinforced by having selected students act them out physically, a procedure that derives from the Total Physical Response (TPR) method of James Asher, who claims that physical actions produce "keen activation of the kinesthetic sensory system or 'muscle learning'" (Asher, 1996, p. 3-17).

TPRS also claims to be founded on the same theoretical principles as the Natural Approach (i.e., Krashen's Monitor Model). Ray and Seely (2004) repeatedly emphasize the similarities between the two approaches, especially in terms of the stress placed on providing comprehensible input. However, unlike the Natural Approach, in which the goal is to make the input comprehensible directly in the target language, TPRS places heavy emphasis on translating to the students' native language. Before beginning each TPRS story, new words are taught by giving their English translation. Later, when students are introduced to the written version of the story, they take turns translating it aloud to English. Ray and Seely affirm that translation is the most efficient way of making the input "100% comprehensible."

Two additional differences between TPRS and the Natural Approach merit attention. The first is that unlike the Natural Approach, which allows for an initial "silent period" until students are ready to begin speaking, students in TPRS classrooms retell stories orally from the outset of instruction. Ray and Seely (2004) assert that this is made possible by teaching vocabulary so thoroughly that students are immediately able to produce it without experiencing anxiety.

Another important difference between TPRS and the Natural Approach lies in their approach to reading, especially at the beginning level. Although both methods advocate the early teaching of reading skills, the methods differ in the types of texts used and how they are used. The Natural Approach does not advocate using texts with pre-selected vocabulary and language structures; rather, it draws on a variety of authentic texts such as advertisements, charts, maps, and stories, with the assumption that students will understand and acquire whatever linguistic elements are comprehensible to them. TPRS readings, on the other hand, consist mainly of specially-prepared stories that incorporate many of the words and structures that students have learned in class. Unlike the Natural Approach, which addresses various reading strategies and purposes including skimming, scanning, intensive and extensive reading, TPRS focuses primarily on intensive reading. If, in the teacher's judgment, some students know less than 90% of the lexical items in a story, the class translates the story aloud.

Classroom Activities

A TPRS lesson begins with the teacher presenting new vocabulary words along with their English translation. Vocabulary learning is personalized by asking questions about the words; for example, the teacher might ask a question of one student, ask the entire class about the first student, and then ask similar questions of other students.

After teaching vocabulary the teacher introduces the story. Student actors are called to the front of the class to act out each event as it occurs. The teacher strives to make the story elements "bizarre, exaggerated and personalized" by exaggerating details such as size, shape, time, quantity, and quality. As each new sentence is introduced, the teacher asks multiple questions in order to provide repeated exposure to the new vocabulary; for example, after introducing the sentence "The boy wants to have a cat," the teacher might ask "Does the boy want to have a cat? Who wants to have a cat? What does the boy want to have? Does the boy or the girl want to have a cat? Does the boy want to have a cat or eat a cat?" (Ray & Seely, 2004, p. 55)." The goal is to achieve 50 to 100 repetitions of each new word. Students are encouraged to react to new twists of the plot by making exclamations in the target language.

Finally, students are given a printed version of the story they have just learned. One student at a time translates the story to English while the others follow along. The teacher discusses the reading by relating the story to students' lives and asking if they have ever been in a similar situation.

The stories utilized in TPRS are of three types or levels. The shortest is the personalized mini-situation, consisting of three or fewer sentences. The second level of story, the mini-story, is built around three to five personalized mini-situations. In turn, two to four mini-stories provide the vocabulary for the main story or chapter story. In this way, vocabulary and language structures are constantly recycled.

Grammar in TPRS is not taught "in any of the traditional ways" (Ray & Seely, 2004, p. 129). Instead, grammar is addressed by providing numerous repetitions of grammatical features in stories, as well as short "pop-up" explanations, which consist of one or two questions about a particular grammatical feature that appears in a story. For example, a Spanish teacher might contrast third person singular and plural verb endings by asking "Class, what does the n in comen do? What does just come mean without the n?" A German teacher might do the same by comparing the t in kommt and the en in kommen, while a French teacher might contrast the e in il aime with the nt in ils aiment (pp. 97-99).

Learning is assessed primarily by giving students vocabulary words in the target language and having them provide the English translation. This procedure is based on the philosophy that "acquisition of target language vocabulary correlates closely with acquisition of the language" (Ray & Seely, p. 110). Vocabulary quizzes are often unannounced, in order to determine whether the material has become part of students' long-term memory, as opposed to merely "get[ting] it into short-term memory by studying just before the test" (p. 110).

Notes on the Video

The lesson in the video features a first-year university French class taught by Jana Brinton, a French teacher at Bingham High School in West Jordan, Utah. The lesson begins by introducing vocabulary words and associated actions, and then contextualizing these words in a simple story. The story is followed by a vocabulary quiz, a group reading of another story using similar vocabulary, and finally, the writing and telling of students' own original stories. Characteristic features of TPRS are the frequent asking of questions to achieve repetition of new words, the exaggeration of details such as numbers, and a brief "pop-up grammar" reference to the concept of verb conjugation. Jana departs from standard TPRS procedure somewhat by introducing vocabulary almost entirely in French without resorting to English translation, which proves highly successful with this group of students.

References and Additional Resources

Blaine Ray TPRS. (n.d.). TPR Storytelling. Retrieved June 2, 2006 from http://www.blaineraytprs.com/explanationpage.htm.

Day, R. (2006). TPRS: What is it and is it for you? The Language Educator, 1(1), 28-30.

Ray, B. (1990). Look, I can talk! Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks. (available in English, Spanish, French, and German)

Ray, B., & Seely, C. (1998). Fluency through TPR Storytelling. Berkeley, CA: Command Performance Language Institute.

TPRStories.com. (n.d.). Teaching Proficiency and Reading Through Storytelling. Retrieved June 2, 2006 from http://www.tprstories.com/what-is-tprs.htm.