Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling – Engaging EFL/ESL

What is your biggest hope for your students at school?

Most educators would say they want their students to “achieve high academic goals” and “be engaged in learning.” If you are anything like me, then building engaging lessons for your students is a priority. Academic achievement isn’t an afterthought, but a direct result of engaged learning. If you have ever taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL), then you know that engagement is especially important for learning. Learning foreign languages is stressful, so engagement is the key to avoiding students tuning out their learning.

I began teaching over a decade ago at a prominent English language school in Taipei, Taiwan. I overcompensated for my lack of teaching experience by being the fun teacher. This involved mainly learning through games. My go-to classroom materials were the sticky ball, a flyswatter, stuffed dice, cards, crosswords, word searches, a “star” leader board, etc.

Over time, I realized engaged learning is more than just fun and games, and so my teaching strategies matured. A friend and mentor of mine introduced me to Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). TPRS made learning more engaging for my students. Classes were more active and comprehensible. My student’s language acquisition and classroom behavior also improved after I started teaching with TPRS. Most importantly, TPRS has made me confident that every class will be an engaging learning experience for my students, and thus I enjoy teaching much more.

I have worked in multiple cities across Asia and North America, and found that TPRS is not well known or practiced in EFL/ESL teaching circles. This is surprising to me because it is such a fun, engaging, and effective teaching method. In some schools, TPRS has improved enrollment in post-secondary foreign language studies programs by 400%. My colleague and I even had our current school’s EFL department adopt TPRS as our key form of instruction. In this article, I will briefly introduce TPRS in hopes to inspire more EFL/ESL educators to adopt it as their teaching practice.

What is TPRS?

TPRS is an effective method for teaching proficiency and fluency in foreign languages. Its goal is to immerse students into a foreign language so the language is subconsciously and effortlessly acquired as opposed to consciously learned.  This is done by teachers making class content comprehensible and meaningful to the students through story asking and a lot of reading. Conversely, the Skill-Building Hypothesis of language learning involves memorizing grammar rules, which is slow and restrictive to the thinking process.

TPRS children's drawing
With TPRS students design personalized stories every 1-2 weeks.

TPRS is an evidenced-based teaching practice grounded in research. The main research supporting this practice is Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition and its five main hypotheses. A discussion of the research into TPRS is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find more information about it here.

TPRS started as Total Physical Response (TPR), which involved students simultaneously listening to and performing commands from instructors. TPRS was then developed by Blaine Ray in the 1980s so teachers could expand teaching imperative language with the TPR method to the narrative and descriptive modes of speech. This is done by having students read stories and design their own stories with target language.

How does TPRS create an engaged learning experience for EFL/ESL students?

  •  TPRS is personalized.

Students buy in to learning when it is about them, but teachers struggle to personalize lesson plans to all the unique personalities in their class. Personalization is a key to TPRS lesson plans. In TPRS, the focus is on the students rather than the content being taught. This is achieved during Personalized Question-Answer (PQA) time. During PQA time, teachers personalize lessons by asking students about topics relevant to their lives.

With TPRS students design personalized stories every 1-2 weeks. These stories are for the students, by the students. When students take the lead in story creation, they often use names, places and issues meaningful to them. After, students dramatize their stories for a public audience, which solidifies their ownership and engagement in learning. Finally, students publish their books using media design programs, and then place the books in a classroom DIY library where they can curl up in a bean bag chair to read and laugh a with classmates.

TPRS book page about owls
Students publish their books using media design programs.
  • TPRS facilitates active thinking/learning.

Active learning is the essence of engagement. Students that are participating in class are engaged, and are thus actively learning.

One example is TPR. TPR is still used in the TPRS classroom as a vocabulary introduction technique.  In TPR, the teacher repeats commands in varying sequences while the students execute those commands. The students are actively thinking about what the teacher is saying by doing the actions proposed to them.

For example, in a TPR classroom the teacher may say the command “stand” as she and the student perform the standing action together. Then, the teacher will say “stand” again, but delay her action to allow the student to respond independently. After, the teacher may say “stand” and “walk,” or other verbs, to chain commands together. Finally, the teacher would include descriptors such as “slowly and quickly” to the commands as the student follows them.

The repetitive nature of the TPRS classroom requires teachers to constantly ask students questions. The TPRS teacher navigates from class-directed to individual-directed questions throughout the class, which keeps students attentive. Also, the questions being asked are at a level where all students have the confidence to respond, so student participation is always high.

  • TPRS makes content comprehensible for EFL students.

In the TPRS classroom, the teacher conveys language audibly and in print to the students using a technique known as circling. In circling, the teacher scaffolds content down into simple and repetitive questions and/or statements, and incrementally has students build more details about the story by asking increasingly complex questions. Questions go from dichotomous (yes/no, either/or) to open-ended (who, what, where) as the students’ comprehension increases.

Krashen’s Affective Filter hypothesis states that motivation, self-confidence and anxiety have a major effect on learning languages, so foreign language learning environments must remain motivating, positive, and confidence building. Therefore, in the TPRS classroom, teachers respect the native language barriers to learning by slowing the pace of their class and doing native language comprehension checks. Texts are also presented bilingually so children can quickly confirm their assumptions of language meaning. This goes against most immersion class rules of “no native language in the classroom,” but it is a very effective method for increasing engagement and respecting culture in the foreign language classroom.

  • TPRS is fun for you and your students!

A typical TPRS class involves storytelling, story writing, reading, video viewing, media design, drama, and art!

  • TPRS makes you a better educator.

TPRS will make you a better communicator because you will learn to ask students more questions at levels they understand. I have often heard teachers say that more questions equates to more thinking in the classroom. I would adjust that to say “more quality questions equates to more thinking in the classroom.” The circling technique has done wonders for the quality of communication I have with my students. I am able to pace my thinking better, and ask questions they comprehend while simultaneously building up their thinking to a higher level.

*****

Implementing TPRS into your classroom is one definite way to make your teaching more engaging and effective. TPRS has brought my students deep and rich learning experiences over the years. It creates a fun and interactive classroom where students are fully engaged in their learning. It teaches students in a meaningful and non-stressful way because the input is comprehensible to them.

There are many ways to practice TPRS in the classroom. Here are some great TPRS sites that provide some insight into TPRS teaching practices:

Ben Slavic – A Happier Way to Teach Languages

Susan Gross TPRStorytelling


Brad Walsh
I am ETU School’s Vice Principal in charge of Project Based Learning Curriculum Development and English Teaching. Throughout my teaching career, I have been specializing in developing positive psychology in children through STEAM-based (Science, Engineering, Art, Technology and Mathematics) activities, and have even written and published textbooks with my team in these subject areas.

Email: brad@etuschool.org
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Photos: Brad Walsh, All Rights Reserved

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