Twenty minutes to explain TPRS

Lynne Reddinger Hendrick posted that she has been asked to explain TPRS to all the language teachers in her district and she has twenty minutes to do it. It seems too short to do a demonstration, which is usually the most effective means of presenting TPRS. So I amused myself by imagining how I could explain TPRS without seeming to attack the favorite methods used by the other teachers present.  Here is what I came up with:

Can I explain TPRS in twenty minutes, when I’ve spent the last ten years trying to learn as much as possible about it and still have much to discover?  Probably not. All I can hope to do is to make you want to find out more about it and point you to the internet, the conferences around the world and the workshops that are available to those who set out on what many have called a “life-changing” adventure.

TPRS, or Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling, is about teaching a foreign language by using it in the classroom to communicate with our students. It is a method created by a secondary teacher, Blaine Ray, in an attempt to apply Stephen Krashen’s Comprehensible Input hypothesis to his daily work with students. It has evolved on the internet through the contributions of thousands of teachers who tried it in their classes and shared their experiences. And today it continues to evolve, constantly adapting to new insights, new demands, new technologies and a changing world.

Yet, the three steps that define TPRS are unchanged. Establish meaning. Ask a story. Read. From day one, the teacher’s task is to engage students with compelling, comprehensible input, so that they are listening to the spoken language and understanding what they are hearing.

Since students are always interested in themselves, the input is personalized. We talk to the students about themselves, and about their interests. This often creates a new connectedness between the students and their teacher. Once we have a basic vocabulary of high frequency words, we begin constructing stories with the students. The teacher is the architect but the students furnish the bricks. It becomes their story, their habitation. Then, with the teacher, they read their story and see the words they have been hearing and saying. Stories are as old as mankind; vehicles of meaning that have evolved with the human brain. Students remember their stories, sometimes for years, because they created them and molded them to their own interests, their own very unique world.

TPRS has long accepted the fact that the four skills of language acquisition do not develop at the same time. Like little children acquiring language for the first time, students must first hear great quantities of language before they are able to speak. They must be able to read before we can expect them to write. The TPRS teacher uses the TL 90-95% of the time in class and allows students a “silent period”. They are asked to be attentive, to show comprehension and to signal when they don’t understand so that the teacher can correct the input and make it comprehensible.

During the “silent period” students are not pressured to produce language. We feed them language, letting it sink into their minds, deep into their minds where they unconsciously absorb not only words but structures. Then one day, when they are ready, the language will start “falling out of their mouths”. Every TPRS teacher has seen this, has thrilled to see students speaking with ease, using correct grammatical forms that they have never studied, that they don’t know the names of, but that just “sound right” to them.

Find an experienced teacher who switched methods and ask them what has changed in their classes since they began using TPRS. Chances are they will tell you that they now enjoy their classes as never before, that they feel a connection with students that was not always there, that they can see not just an elite few, but almost all their students progressing as never before, becoming proficient in their ability to use the language, going through open doors to a new culture, to different ways of thinking.

Are you curious? Or do you think that I’m overly enthusiastic? All I can do in twenty minutes is to challenge you to attend a TPRS workshop. There you will become a student of a language you don’t speak, a language that is very different from the ones you know. Perhaps Mandarin, Swedish, Breton or Rumanian. When teachers experience the method as students, many deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions are swept away.  You will want to know more, you will want to know how and why. You will have many, many questions and like me, you will set out on a long, exciting adventure, looking for answers with many other brave souls.

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