Multistory Construction

Carol Gaab explains the relevance of teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling to modern teaching

TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) is an input-based approach to teaching language that focuses on the systematic instruction of vocabulary in a highly comprehensible, personalized and contextualized manner. Its framework and philosophy are based not only on classroom-proven strategies, but more importantly, on research in second language acquisition. The method is based on the following underlying principles: In order for language to be acquired, it must be comprehensible (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). Overt grammar instruction and/or correction has little impact on language growth (Krashen, 1998; Gray, 2000; Truscott, 1996). Reading has a profound positive effect on language development (Krashen, 1998, 2004; Rodrigo, 2009). Context is a powerful tool for enhancing SLA — second language acquisition (Fuller, 2002; Fleishman & Roy, 2005; Krashen 2002). It is much easier and more enjoyable to acquire a language than it is to learn a language (Krashen & Terrell, 1983).

TPRS instruction is laden with dozens of strategies that provide an abundance repetition that is highly engaging and comprehensible, but that is not obviously predictable or repetitious. This allows the teacher to remain in the target language 95-98 percent of the time. The goal is to scaffold language so that it remains completely comprehensible and accessible to students, resulting in successful and relatively rapid acquisition of the language. A constant flow of scaffolded input ensures that students will understand every message and be able to respond successfully, whether it is with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, one word, or an entire phrase or sentence. Input may take the form of graduated questions, circling questions, personalized questions, cooperatively created stories, mini-stories, short stories, fairy tales, sequences, songs, poems, rhymes, chants and a wide variety of readings.

Comprehensible input, in any form, revolves around the core structures of a TPRS lesson. Although most proponents of TPRS tend to base instruction on high-frequency words and phrases, the method is also used to effectively teach content area and culturally-based lessons, which might (also) require instruction of less common, more complex vocabulary. Regardless of educational outcomes (language learning vs. subject area learning), instruction focuses on vocabulary that is most useful for communication and/or for understanding/learning the topic at hand.

While there is a predictable order of the acquisition of specific grammatical structures (statistically speaking), TPRS practitioners use this knowledge as a guide for instruction versus a rule for planning curriculum or the order of instruction. It is understood and accepted that learners will naturally and more easily acquire certain grammatical structures before another, regardless of the amount of and the order of instruction that is given. Therefore, lessons are not generally driven by a grammar syllabus, nor are they grammatically-based. Rather, they are grounded in language structures that will help students learn content and/or communicate accurately and appropriately, considering the age and the level of the learner. At any level, lessons should progress or spiral, as they gradually introduce new vocabulary structures and continuously reinforce recycled (previously learned) vocabulary.

A more holistic approach to language teaching, TPRS lessons are not based on lists of isolated words that are topically or grammatically organized. On the contrary, most TPRS lessons are broken down into learnable ‘chunks’ of language, typically no more than 3 Target Language Structures (TLS) for every 60 to 90 minutes of instruction. A TLS could be any word, phrase or sentence that naturally occurs in written or spoken communication, and its complexity is dependent upon the age and the level of the learner. For example, a beginning kindergarten structure might be ‘Billy runs,’ or ‘the strong man,’ while a beginning high school structure might be ‘the woman ran quickly’ or ‘the strong man wanted to cry.’ Regardless of the level, structures are prioritized according to their frequency of use or their usefulness to the learner and are generally organized in groups of three, according to their relevance to a topic, discussion, story or subject.

Since the method itself is founded on the notion that comprehensible input is a critical component of SLA, the first step of any lesson is to establish meaning of new vocabulary structures. Although most TPRS teachers use mother tongue (L1) translations to establish meaning, using a variety of techniques for establishing meaning is not only more brain-compatible, it is necessary if students are pre-literate, illiterate or visually impaired and if they do not share a common L1, as is the case in the ESL classroom.

Introducing new vocabulary and establishing meaning should include as many of the following strategies as possible:
• Write the structure in the target language (TL).
• In a different color, write the meaning (literal and figurative) of the structure in L1.
• Post an illustration or photo that depicts the meaning of the structure.
• Verbally tell students what the structure means and when appropriate, explain appropriate contexts or settings for use.
• Use props and realia to convey meaning. Use skits and re-enactments to demonstrate meaning.
• Attach a specific gesture (TPR) to make a kinesthetic and a visual connection to the meaning. Use video, technology and anything else that will help students create their own mental image of the meaning of the structure.

Once meaning has been established, context is built into each vocabulary structure. Context is essential for development of word-concept (Vadim-Deglin quoted in Wilkinson, 1993). Unlike other approaches that utilize “contrived arrangement” (Stern,1982) or a “situational context,” TPRS practitioners develop context through various activities/strategies that naturally and enjoyably provide a platform for instruction. During the initial phase of instruction, the most common strategy is Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). PQ’s are level-appropriate questions that are personally relevant to specific learners (or learner groups) and that revolve around the TLS. The teacher uses PQ’s to elicit an engaging conversation that will provide the context and repetition that language learners need as they begin the acquisition process.

An example of a typical PQA session based on the TLS ‘The strong man wanted to cry’ might look something like this: [Show a picture or video of a strong man from the target culture or any well-known strong man.]
T: (Teacher) Is Popeye strong?
C: (Class) Yes.
T: Yes, Popeye is strong. Popeye is a man, right?
C: Yes.
T: So, Popeye is a strong man?
C: Yes.
T: Yes! Popeye is a strong man! Is Olive Oil a strong man?
C: No!
T: No, Olive Oil is NOT a strong man! Olive Oil is a strong WOMAN! What about Bruce Willis? Is he a strong man?
C: Yes.
T: Yes, Bruce Willis is a strong man! Are Bruce Willis and Demi Moore divorced?
C: Yes!
T: WOW! Demi divorced a strong man like Bruce!?
C: [laughter]
T: Did Bruce want to cry when they divorced?
C: Maybe… no… yes… [This will incite a wide range of responses.]
[Pause: Show a 5-10 second video clip of Die Hard or another B.W. movie in which Willis gets punched.]
T: Ooooh… Did Bruce want to cry?
C: Maybe… no… yes… [Again, a wide range of responses will ensue.]

If the class is fully engaged and enjoying the conversation, then the teacher continues by asking additional PQ’s in a manner that will furtively and efficiently provide repetition of the TLS: Do (strong) men cry? Do (strong)women cry? When/why do men cry? When/why do men WANT to cry? When do YOU want to cry? When does (the president, your sister, your dad, your mom, a baby) want to cry? The goal is to keep the conversation so comprehensible, engaging and compelling that the learner is completely distracted from consciously trying to learn or memorize vocabulary. Student answers are confirmed (and sometimes selected), as the teacher uses appropriate voice inflection to conversationally reiterate the answer with a complete-sentence response, which is another discreet way to disguise repetition.
T: Did Bruce want to cry?
C: Maybe… no… yes…
T: Yes, Bruce wanted to cry. [Teacher selects ‘yes’ as accepted answer.]

Woven throughout PQ’s are differentiated questions, which when asked in a specific pattern (yes, either-or, no and interrogative), are referred to as ‘circling’ questions. Circling is a scaffolding technique that involves asking systematic questions that progress from low level to higher level questions. When done artfully and efficiently, a teacher can achieve 20+ camouflaged repetitions of a TLS by circling all parts of the sentence. Using the statement ‘Bruce wanted to cry’ as an example, the circles would look like this:

So, Bruce wanted to cry? — Y
Did Bruce want to cry or did Mary want to cry? — OR
Did Mary want to cry? — N
WHO wanted to cry?

Did Bruce WAIT to cry? — Y
Did Bruce wait to cry or did he want to cry? — OR
Did Bruce wait to cry? — N
WHAT did Bruce do?

Bruce wanted to CRY?! — Y
Did Bruce want to cry or did he want to dance? — OR
Did Bruce want to dance? — N
WHAT did Bruce want (to do)?

When PQA/discussion wanes, the teacher moves on to a new activity that will provide additional compelling, contextualized, comprehensible repetitions of the TLS. As stated earlier, there should be a variety of activities and strategies that are used to provide CI. In a typical TPRS classroom, one such activity is referred to as story-asking. Story-asking, which is step #2 of the method, is an interactive process by which the teacher leads the class through a story creation process by asking countless questions that revolve around the TLS. Unlike traditional storytelling in which students passively listen to the storyteller, story-asking engages students by involving them in the story creation process and giving them a sense of ownership in the story. Asking questions elicits sustained enriching brain activity (Jensen, 2000) and it also allows the teacher to achieve more repetitions than simple storytelling affords. In a nutshell, story-asking provides a natural platform for context and an endless stream of camouflaged repetitions.

Based on our previous language structure “The strong man wanted to cry,” the initial story-asking process might look like this:

There was a strong [what]? (Guide students to the answer you want or accept any answer that you feel is appropriate.) Was there a strong man or a strong elephant? [student response: strong man] Right, there was a strong man. Was he really strong or just a little strong? [really strong] Yes, he was really strong! Was he stronger than an elephant? [yes] He was stronger than an elephant?! WOW! Was he stronger than (a)…? (proper name, cognate, etc.) What was the strong man’s name? [Sparky, Jimbo, Goliath]
The teacher listens and acknowledges students’ suggestions/answers by modeling their one-word answers and utterances in sentence form as naturally and conversationally as possible. What is the strong man’s name [Sparky] Oh, the strong man’s name was Sparky? — Maybe. [Jimbo] The strong man’s name was Jimbo… hhhmmm… it’s possible. [Goliath] You think the strong man’s name was Goliath?

The teacher continues to receive student answers, and once all student contributions have been acknowledged, the ‘correct’ or accepted, answer is selected. The ‘correct’ answer is generally based on the level of student laughter or engagement that is elicited. The teacher persists in getting student input for each detail and event in the story until a coherent sequence of events has unfolded and an abundance of repetition has been provided. As the story develops, student actors bring it to life by acting out the events and details of the story, according student input and teacher directives. The key to the process is to focus on story asking, which results in a higher level of student engagement and facilitates sustained interaction in the target language.

Once the story has been created, the teacher may opt to review the story with the class by using spatial memory skills to recall the events of the story. The teacher visually indicates the specific location where each event occurred and asks students to recall each event/detail, which in turn compels them to also recall the TLS needed to describe each event/detail. Higher order thinking skills are developed as students learn to retell and embellish stories and extend plots beyond where they finish in the class or the text.

The last step is to read a narrative that contains the TLS. The reading may be a concentrated reading specifically based on the curriculum or lesson, a news article, a poem, song lyrics, a fairy tale, story or any other level-appropriate narrative that focuses on the TLS. The purpose is to provide students with more repetition and exposure to the TLS in another context and format. Since written sentence formation is different from typical speech patterns, reading also provides students with additional CI that contains unique phrases and new combinations of the same TLS. It also allows students to visually parse sentences and make meaning of words in isolation, within phrases and embedded in new combinations of words.

Beginning students, who are in the process of learning new vocabulary, are generally led through the reading process, as the teacher reads aloud in the TL and then has students chorally decode the meaning into L1. The idea is not to translate; rather it is to help students link the written word to the spoken work and then link meaning to that word. Decoding the text allows the teacher to evaluate just how well students have internalized the TLS. If students have a great deal of difficulty linking meaning, then more time will be devoted to teaching the TLS until they have been thoroughly acquired. In the case of classes where a common L1 is not shared (as in ESL classes), meaning is connected to words through gestures and actions. This leaves more room for confusion and miscommunication, but short of using a dictionary, it is the best alternative to using the mother tongue to decode text for meaning. As students progress in the language and internalize more vocabulary structures, they are weaned off decoding every single word. Decoding text (via gestures or L1) is generally used in future readings only when students encounter new words whose meaning can not be ascertained from context, visual clues or discussion in the TL.

There are some who argue that L1 should NOT be used to explain the L2’s new word form-to-meaning link. However, studies show that the initial form-to-meaning link consists of the new L2 word form being attached to a representation of the corresponding L1 word that already exists in long-term memory (Hall, 2002). Consequently, an L1 translation is a natural vehicle for achieving this cerebral match (Sousa, 2011). There are some TPRS practitioners who implement reading strategies that require a great deal of decoding into L1, and they are others who do not use L1 in reading at all. Regardless of one’s viewpoint on using L1 to decode for meaning, reading should not be overlooked as a powerful tool for enhancing acquisition, and each teacher should determine what mode of decoding should be implemented in his/her respective classroom.

There is fear associated with TPRS, because the method condones the use of L1 for L2 instruction, and it goes without saying that it sometimes leads to the over-use (and abuse) of L1 in the language classroom. However, many experts agree that L1, if used judiciously by teachers or students makes a positive contribution to the learning process (Carless, 2001; Schweers, 1999; Tang 2002). Unfortunately, there is no definition or exact measure of judicious, and teachers have their own perceptions of how much L1 would be considered appropriate. This leaves many educators with the impression that (all) TPRS teachers use too much L1 and that TPRS as a whole is a translation-based methodology. However, if implemented effectively, there is little use of L1 in the TPRS classroom.

There are several critical success factors that help TPRS teachers to maintain instruction comprehensibly in the TL and to facilitate a language-rich environment that is conducive to developing lasting fluency. These same success factors will help any language teacher, regardless of methodology:
1 Use L1 only as a means to help you stay in the TL or as a tool for assessment. Clearly establishing meaning before you begin instruction will help you stay in L2 once instruction has begun.
2 Go slowly! Beginners need extra time to process and make meaning of new language structures. Speak slowly and clearly.
3 Satisfy literate students’ craving to see written words. Keep the words posted until students have internalized them.
4 Implement wait-time strategies to prevent fast processors from answering questions too quickly and subsequently interrupting the processing/learning of others.
5 Limit the amount of language (vocabulary) you teach at one time.
6 Provide repetition of those TLS. Providing repetition of a managed amount of vocabulary will help to keep input comprehensible.
7 Teach Communicatively. Use gestures, voice inflection, body language, context, pictures, props, re-enactments, and other visual clues to keep things comprehensible in lieu of resorting to use of L1, which should be used as a last resort. Keeping input comprehensible will reduce/eliminate the need for L1.

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A seasoned presenter, Carol Gaab has been presenting TPRS® workshops and in-services for national and international schools and universities since 1996. Carol also presents for the Bureau of Education and Research and is known for presentations that are highly engaging and practical. Carol has 20 years experience teaching second language, including Spanish at all levels and ESL for Major League Baseball clubs such as the Giants, A’s, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Brewers.