Thursday, 14 March 2013

TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling)

 If any practitioners using TPRS read this, I would be grateful for any feedback if I have got anything wrong!

I must confess when I came across this, I first confused it with TPR (Total Physical Response), the second language teaching method promoted by James Asher in the 1970s. Indeed, the confusion is compounded by the fact that both TPRS and TPR both draw their inspiration from "natural" language learning, namely the idea that second language learning works essentially like child language acquisition.

Both methods posit that second language acquisition occurs when the focus is on comprehension and can therefore compared with Stephen Krashen's comprehension hypothesis.

Whereas the stress in TPR is on students carrying out instructions given by the teacher, with the imperative form of the verb plus vocabulary being the key, TPRS depends strongly on presenting vocabulary first and giving students comprehensible input through storytelling. It is an approach popular with many language teachers in the USA.

According to Wikipedia, with the TPRS approach there are three steps:

1.  Establish meaning of phrases, typically no more than three, using the mother tongue where useful and exploiting the learner's knowledge of their own language. Practise the phrases, then ask questions using them (these are known as PQAs - personal questions and answers). These questions may then form the basis of a dialogue or scene, known as extended PQA. the classroom atmosphere should be relaxed and supportive

2.  In step two a story is read to the class incorporating the previously practised language. Wikipedia explains it thus:
"The teacher does not so much tell the story as ask the story. The teacher will usually use a skeleton script with very few details, and then flesh the story out using details provided by the students in the target language, making a personalized story for each class. Using the circling technique, teachers can ask for these new details while still keeping the target language completely comprehensible. Advanced TPRS teachers are able to improvise, creating stories solely based on student answers to questions about the day's vocabulary structures. The focus is always on the target structures, allowing the details to support those structures.

The actions in the story may be acted out by volunteers from the class. The teacher will usually try to select actors who won't be intimidated to keep the atmosphere as relaxed and fun as possible. When the teacher makes a statement that advances the story plot, the actors will act out that statement and then wait while the teacher continues with the circling questions. Ideally, the actors will act in a humorous, emotional, or otherwise memorable way. This helps students to make visual and emotional connections to the new language structures they are hearing."

3.  Reading. This may include reading the story already told, or a similar story incorporating the same target structures.  The teacher may read aloud, or student may read aloud in pairs, or quietly.

A vital part of the whole technique is good questioning, known here as circling. Circling means just using the full range of question types about the same information (yes/no, either/or, question word questions, giving false statements etc). It is also recommended to use cognates and proper nouns to help students understand. Various other assessment for learning techniques are recommended to check that students have understood. these include using time-out signs, students holding up a number of fingers to show how much they understand and checking comprehension by asking in English "what does ... mean?".

Grammar may be referred to briefly, with rapid explanation, but, as with comprehensible input theory, the stress must always be on meaning and comprehension.

So, what we have is a method with the stress on comprehensible input, repeated practice for mastery, little emphasis on grammar, a warm, relaxed atmosphere. Relevant theoretical basis for the approach is the Krashen input hypothesis (now called the comprehension hypothesis) and the "affective filter" hypothesis, proposed by Dulay, Burt and later Krashen. The latter hypothesises that people acquire language more effectively when they are in a relaxed and willing state of mind.

So what are we to make of this?

I like the stress on comprehension and target language and I have no particular issue with using the mother tongue when necessary if it facilitates, ultimately, greater use of the target language. I also like the stress on stories, which children like and which are sadly lacking in many courses. I like the emphasis on skilled questioning, something vital also to the traditional British oral/situational approach. I like the use of AfL techniques, though I am not sure if the Americans refer to them as AfL.

In reality, I would be surprised if the method is used exclusively by teachers, because I would argue that it is dangerous to lay so little stress on grammatical explanation and practice. The comprehension hypothesis is exactly that, a hypothesis, and there is no certainty that a focus on form as well as meaning does not generate acquisition.

The emphasis on reading is fine, as long as their are suitably graded reading resources available. I would also hope that, at the dialogue/sketch stage, that good use is made of information gap activities, as these are surely one of the best things to emerge from the communicative movement.

So to me it looks like a useful weapon in the language teachers' armoury, but not something to be taken as a panacea.


  1. I'm so glad that I wasn't the only one to think that TPR and TPRS were the same thing at first. I did an in-depth project on TPR as part of my teacher training, and when I first started to come across resources labeled as "TPRS" I just assumed that the "s" at the end stood for "system" or some such thing, and was mystified by what I saw as a lack of "physicality" in these resources!

    Great topic, Steve!

    Mme Aiello @ Teaching FSL

  2. As an American, I don't know what AFL stands for. I googled it and got the Australian Football League. ?? Blaine Ray, who invented TPRS, was doing TPR when he started adding stories as a means of going beyond imperative forms. So his method was known at first as TPR Stories. Teachers trying out his technique began communicating on the moretprs Yahoo group forum and from their in the field experience and exchanges the method evolved considerably. By 2006 many felt that TPR Stories was no longer an adequate description, so the name was registered as TPRS - Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. Today many teachers prefer the term "Comprehensible Input" since they are not always doing stories in their classes, but they are always furnishing their students with CI. As for your question about a lack of focus on form, Krashen cites studies which show that students who learn through CI do at least as well, if not better than students who focus on form.

  3. Thank you for leaving a comment and for the added information. I know Stephen Krashen cites a lot of studies, but I always feel that studies in this field lack rigour and very few are longitudinal or controlled. I try to remain open-minded.

    By the way, AFL is "assessment for learning", sometimes known as formative assessment. It has been a fashionable area of interest for some time in the UK and is most associated with the work of Dylan Wiliam.