The Three Steps of TPRS

As time goes by, I have greater and greater respect for the inherent grace and power of the Three Steps of TPRS as they have emerged after fifteen or so years of use. I include one interpretation of them here to offer to any teacher needing to grasp something solid in their continuing efforts to learn the method. If I were allowed only a few pages to attempt to describe TPRS to someone, this is what I would write:

The Three Steps of TPRS

Step One

A. Find three phrases. Two will do just fine. Teach them. I do not spend a lot of time attempting to “integrate” certain words into some kind of pre-arranged list of vocabulary from week to week, but you can if you want. I find that doing so stilts the quality of the stories. It puts the focus of class on words, and not on the kids and the free flow of language, where it should be.

Moreover, by the end of the year, students taught in this random way have far from “random” vocabularies. The end-of-year vocabularies of TPRS kids are always much bigger than others, because they have spent over 90% of their time during the course of the year listening to the target language.  There is no getting around the fact that traditional teaching produces far less language gains than TPRS because so much of traditional class time is spent in English.

Teaching the three phrases involves signing and gesturing them. We do this by making sound and visual associations, putting the phrases in the deeper mind and in the body. Such acquisition at a deeper than a mere cognitive level makes the phrase much more quickly identifiable during the class discussion that follows. Find out more about this in TPRS in a Year! in the discussion of Skill One on page 12.

Here are three phrases we can use as we try to learn the essence of the three steps of TPRS:

wanted to buy
needed advice

The first can be signed by rubbing the hands together, then pointing over the shoulder to indicate that it is in the past tense, and adding in the action of pulling a wallet out of one’s back pocket to express “to buy”, etc.  This is a good time to listen to what the kids come up with as signs – they are telling you what works for them. Listening to kids in a TPRS class is a very good behavior to model from the very beginning of the period. Once the phrases are signed, proceed to:

B. PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers which may or may not lead to a story). From the phrases presented above, one would ask the students, in the present tense because PQA is done in the present, all sorts of questions – any that you can think of – using the words in the three phrases. I like to always remember in doing PQA two other key points:

1. that I can talk about myself, and not just the students, as a way of sparking conversation. When I do this, I always make it clear that the kids’ talents, compared to my own, are superior in whatever activity is being discussed. Example:

Class, Sarah reads!
Class, I also read, but Sarah reads faster and understands everything. When I read, I don’t read as fast as Sarah, and I don’t understand everything.

2. that I can make things more interesting by always comparing the talents and activities of one students to those of another, but in this case without saying one is superior to another. Example:

Class, Sarah reads!
Class, Donovan plays hockey!
Class, does Sarah play hockey?
No, class, Sarah doesn’t play hockey, she reads!
Class, does Donovan read?
No, class, Donovan doesn’t read, he plays hockey?
Donovan, do you read?
Yes, you do read?
Class, Donovan reads and plays hockey!
Sarah, do you play hockey?

It is easy to see why some of the best TPRS teachers just prefer doing PQA the entire class period, just talking to the kids instead of doing stories. PQA, done properly, is an endless enjoyable conversation with the kids.

Just remember to go slowly enough, and always write down any new words, pointing and pausing.

Here is another example of how to do PQA, with the phrases just gestured at the beginning of the class indicated with italics:

I want to buy a butterfly, class!

Butterfly is a new word, so I write butterfly down and give the English. This sentence may lead to a discussion lasting one minute or the entire class period.

To recapitulate, I taught the three phrases and now I just look at the first structure and started talking about the first thing that comes into my mind relative to the first one – a butterfly. When I made that first statement about wanting to buy a butterfly, I began PQA. 

The first sentence of PQA related to me. But, since teens are largely only interested in themselves, as soon as I can, I lead the discussion into my students’ interests. I can ask them about things in the real world or about imagined things. Personally, I find that the kids are more comfortable with imagined things. I pick out a kid:

Derek (kid in class), do you want to buy a butterfly?

I don’t really care what Derek says. He can say oui or non. If he says oui, it is interesting to the class, because Derek plays football. If he says non, it is also interesting, because the discussion is about a kid in the class. I have an entire roomful of options, all interesting, for my next question. I act disappointed that Derek doesn’t want a butterfly. I just follow the line of discussion:

Well, class, I want to buy a pink butterfly!

If it is clear that they understand, I make them let me know that they understand by saying ohh! chorally. I remember to insist on a reaction to everything that I say, since everything I say is totally fascinating. If some of students don’t understand, I don’t go forward, I go back and restate everything. I constantly monitor the kids – if they get it, I go on, if they don’t, I go back.

Derek seemed set on his position, so I left him alone.

Andi, do you want to buy a butterfly?

Andi says yes. I ask what color. She says blue. I go further with that:

Where do you want to buy a blue butterfly, Andi?

Notice that I try to keep the PQA hooked to the original phrases, but that is certainly not at all necessary in PQA. If the discussion strays from the structures, it doesn’t matter. You are interacting with the kids in the target language, which is the entire point. Andi tells me that she wants to buy a blue butterfly in Australia. Resisting the urge to turn that into a story, I just keep up with the PQA, asking questions and establishing largely imagined facts via circling:

Susan doesn’t want to buy a butterfly.
Susan wants to buy a cat.
Susan needs (second phrase) a pencil.
Susan needs a yellow pencil.
Susan doesn’t eat pencils.
Does Susan eat beans?
Who eats green beans?
Who doesn’t want to buy a butterfly?
Does Derek want to buy a butterfly or does Derek want to play football?
Derek, do you want to play basketball? (etc.)
Do you want to buy a butterfly or play football?
What color is a football?

If you properly understand circling (see Skill 6 in TPRS in a Year!), you know that the above facts were probably the result of at least four times as many questions than the end facts listed above. You ask questions, the kids answer, and you establish facts – this is PQA.

I continue talking to the kids about things they have or want to buy, pausing and pointing to new words as we go along, showing great interest in the proceedings.

Talking to the kids in such general terms has little structure or direction. This is not comfortable for all teachers. In that case, they might just want to do very little PQA, or skip it entirely, and start a story with the structures. But an advantage of doing PQA is that, when you have some information, you can relate that information to a pre-planned story script, and create a more interesting class by blending the PQA facts you learned with the pre-planned story script,  You use the information from PQA to personalize the story. It makes the story more interesting to the kids.

At any point in the class period or not at all, you can relate the facts you learned in PQA to a story, one that you have sketched out before the class which contains your original three phrases.

Step Two

You are finished with Step One when you have taught a few terms (signing and gesturing) and then talked to the kids (PQA). If you still have time in class and if you wish, you can try to mold what you have learned so far in the class into a story. Keep in mind that there is no perfect way to personalize (P) a story, and that as long as comprehensible input (CI) is occurring, you are doing your job, which is to put the kids into a situation where they hear and understand the language.

Here is a sample story, aligned with the three original phrases.  You can write these yourself, or you can use published materials by Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Amy Catania, Michael Miller (in German), etc.

  • John didn’t have a car. He wanted to buy a car. He needed advice about what kind of car to buy. He asked Jeffrey for advice. He went with Jeffrey to a car lot.
  • In the car lot, there were trucks and buses, but no cars. John wanted to buy a car. He was not happy. He went to another car lot.
  • In the next car lot, John saw a car he wanted to buy. He asked Jeffrey for advice. Jeffrey said to buy the green one. John bought the green one. He was happy. John and Jeffrey went to a restaurant in John’s new green car.

Via circling, SLOW, pausing and pointing, you end up through the alchemy of TPRS with:

  • Derek didn’t have a butterfly. Derek wanted to buy a butterfly. Derek needed advice about the kind of butterfly he wanted. He asked Andi to help him. They went to Butterfly’s ‘R Us.
  • At Butterfly’s ‘R Us, there was a butterfly but it was an angry butterfly and they didn’t want it. Andi advised Derek to buy a blue butterfly. So they went to another butterfly store.
  • In the new store, there was a new pink butterfly with a happy face that Derek liked. Derek bought the new pink butterfly.  Derek was happy.  Derek went to a restaurant with Andi and his new pink butterfly.

In this story we stayed close to Blaine’s idea of wanting something, not getting it in location two and getting it in location three. It really is a good plan, a very solid one, and there is no reason to stray too far from it. The above story pales in comparison to the classes in which the teacher really integrates the cute suggestions of the students into the story, which alone drives stories forward with energy and vitality. It is good if the instructor always keep in mind these words from Blaine:

I believe that people who are the most effective at TPRS don’t tell stories. They ask questions, pause, and listen for cute answers from the students. The magic is in the interaction between the student and teacher. TPRS is searching for something interesting to talk about. That is done by questioning. Interesting comprehensible input is the goal of every class. If we are there to tell a story, we will probably not make the class interesting. We will be so focused on getting the story out that we won’t let the input from the kids happen.

When you have finished with Step One and Step Two, usually in one class period, you go to step Three the next day:

Step 3

Reading: One option is that the kids read the story you had pre-written using the three original phrases – the one about John wanting to buy a car above. This reading in no way will contain the details that have emerged during the asking of the story in each separate class. It was written before the stories occurred, to be used as a template for the spoken story to follow, and now can be used as a kind of general reading template for all of your classes after the story.

Another option, one that I prefer, is to give a dictée (see the Q and A section of TPRS in a Year! – page 134) on the same story created the day earlier in each class. This reconstruction of the story done by the students who created it keeps the level of personalization higher. Advantages to using dictée thus include:

  1. higher interest because of a more personalized text,
  2. the kids get practice in both writing and reading,
  3. you save planning time in writing personalized stories since you are doing it in class the next day after the stories.

The premise with reading is that once the kids have heard it, it is so much easier for them to read in the target language., and nothing motivates like success. Teachers who try to teach reading without an auditory base make it so much harder on themselves and the kids.

As you read, you can talk to the kids about all sorts of things or not. You can spin a new story out of the reading or not. You can give more dictations.  You can work on accent and oral reading of the text with the kids. You can do all sorts of things. 

There is something a bit boring about trying to resurrect a story that didn’t get finished in one class period, so, if a story doesn’t get finished by the end of a class period, I let it go. I go right to the dictée. A good weekly plan, then, would be:

Monday – three phrases, PQA, story
Tuesday – dictée/reading based on previous day’s story
Wednesday – three phrases, PQA, story
Thursday – dictée/reading based on previous day’s story
Friday – ten minute free writes – I like to read them to the class – or read/discuss/spin on Blaine’s novels, dictée, songs, quizzes/tests to fill the gradebook, etc.


7 Responses to “The Three Steps of TPRS”

  1. Mark Says:

    Hi, I taught English in Guatemala using TPRS a few years ago, and am reconnecting with this as I help my wife become a Spanish teacher (and contemplate doing the same). It’s interesting to see how the method had grown and developed and I appreciate this summary of the steps.

    One question I have. Do you suggest nesting mini-situations inside mini-stories inside a larger “main story” as Blaine’s earlier materials recommend? Or do you recommend allowing the recycling of vocab and structures to be more free?


  2. Ben Slavic Says:


    Mini-situations and mini-stories, if I understand your use of those terms, used to be called passive pms’s and pms’s, which then became part of a larger chapter story.

    The large chapter story, in my view, is long gone as part of TPRS. As far as passive pms and pms, Susan Gross, my teacher, agreed with me about a year ago that those terms are inelegant and confusing. Accordingly, i have chosen, with Susie’s blessing, to describe the process of creating both mini-situations and mini-stories from PQA as merely “extending PQA”.

    Extending PQA, in my view, is best done in a free way, and whatever direction the discussion goes is fine with me. Whether the original three structures show up in the class doesn’t matter to me. I am trying to deliver comprehensible language. If my students and I stay in PQA the whole period, fine. If we move right into a little scene, or a bunch of them, fine. If we go from the structures directly into a story, skipping all PQA, that is fine.

    Therefore, free discussion, which I define as following the pathway that the discussion naturally follows, is wonderful. Trying to stay too close to the story can and does remove the instructor from the awesome cute answers that the kids are always trying to get into the discussion. When we listen to their cute answers, as Blaine says and as I quoted in the post you are asking about, a natural flow occurs, comprehensible input is occurring, and all is well. When we don’t listen to their cute answers, staying too close to the original story script, the discussion becomes dry.

    HOWEVER, I find that staying close to a story script AND listening to their cute answers is best. There is a pull and a push – an encouragement of freedom and a need to be disciplined enough to not leave the original story completely. We try to recreate the story line with new information but keep it parallel to the original script. This is an art form.

    Although TPRS may look complex, it is not. The novice TPRS teacher need only learn how to circle, pause and point, go slowly, and focus on CI and personalization to the exclusion of everything else. As long as one is doing CI and personalization in some form, the requirements for doing TPRS are met.

    Nothing could be more important to the novice teacher than a feeling of being on safe ground at the beginning of a storytelling class. Nothing could be more satisfying to the novice teacher than the knowledge that the story is going to develop naturally with little fuss, that it won’t have to be forced, that they can pull a story with only CI + P, and that there will be little worry involved in preparing for a TPRS class. These things will happen if you know that:

    1. you are safe because you know that you don’t have to do all the skills, but only those that appeal to and work for you.
    2. you are safe because you know that in signing/gesturing, PQA, and extended PQA you have very powerful tools that will effectively establish meaning, not to mention a sense of fun in the room from the very beginning of class.
    3. you are safe because you know that you can spend as much or as little time as you wish doing PQA and/or extending it. You feel confident knowing that you can move away from them into a story at any time.
    4. you are safe because you have a scripted story completely written out in front of you. All you have to do is replace the information provided in the scripted story with your own and let the story build, sentence by sentence. The first sentence in the scripted story becomes the first sentence in your story, with personalized variations. The scripted story sits in front of you like a good friend, waiting in the wings with the next scripted sentence for your story as soon as you are ready for it.
    5. you are safe because you have nothing to focus on except personalizing each new sentence from the story script in front of you. In one story a single word – “smiles” – was repeated for 45 minutes amidst frequent laughter. Then, when it felt right all I had to do was start the story, letting facts emerge as natural extensions from the scripted story, and so a strange looking dog looked at Elizabeth and smiled, Simon threw a chicken at the dog, etc., and everything evolved sentence by sentence. I did not think of these things before the class. They just emerged as I tried to personalize each new sentence from the scripted story. Thus, because our discussion was not pre-fabricated, it was alive.
    6. you are safe because you know that you don’t have to get anywhere during class. You don’t have to stay in or leave PQA/extended PQA at any certain time. You don’t have to do anything but speak in the target language while keeping the focus on your students. At its base, teaching a language is a very simple thing that unfortunately has been made complicated, but now is becoming simple again.

    Here is a visual metaphor that helps me feel safe. At the start of a class I sometimes think of a little TPRS “room” in my mind. The floor is tiled. Each tile, in order starting in the upper left hand corner of my field of vision, has one of the sentences from the story I will be using in my scripted story. The story is metaphorically the floor, the foundation, for the work I am trying to do. I go from tile to tile, from sentence to sentence in creating the new story.

    Then I look to the wall to my left. It has a bunch of picture frames on it, each with an imagined photo of each of my students in that class. This reminds me to personalize the sentence I am on. Thus, if the story script says, “A boy wants to buy his mother a gift,” it becomes through personalization, “Alex (from French class) wants to buy his dog a car.”

    Then I look to the wall to across from me. It has a bunch of circles on it. I start circling the new personalized sentences. I remember to point and pause when I circle. The original story script begins now to take on a life of its own, reflecting the people in the room.

    Next, I become aware of the wall to my right. On it is one of those “Slow – Children Playing” signs. It reminds me to circle the personalized sentences slowly. Whenever I finish the process with one tile I go to the next one. The story unfolds in a stable way, thanks to my visual metaphor. Of course, the ceiling is made up of CI, which keeps the lid on the class, so to speak.

    Here is a detailed example of how these steps can be applied to the following scripted story:

    There is a short monkey. He’s in Denver. His name is Bucky because of his teeth. Bucky feels like traveling to Paris.

    Begin by circling the first sentence until it changes into something personalized, then take the second sentence, and so on:

    Class, what is there? (suggestions are dog, cat, hippo, clown)

    You choose the suggested response “clown” simply because it strikes you as the right one, the one that potentially can generate the most humor and interest.

    Class, that’s right! There is a clown!

    Heap the praise on the student who came up with that suggestion, then circle the sentence:

    Class, is there a monkey or a clown? (clown)
    That’s right, class, there is a clown! (ohh!)
    Class, is there a monkey? (no)
    Correct, class, there is not a monkey. There is a clown! (ohh!)
    Class, is there a dog?

    Remember that if this is a class that is just beginning its study, and they haven’t yet seen the word “dog”, the teacher must go to the board, write the word down in the target language and in English, pause and point to the new word for five seconds while the new word is absorbed, and only then return to the circling:

    That’s right, class, there is not a dog. There is a clown. (ohh!)

    Finish up the circling with:

    Class, what is there? (a clown)

    Then, to finish the sentence, since the scripted story was “There is a short monkey” and you are just circling in a parallel fashion from what is offered in the scripted story, you circle the adjective:

    Class, is the clown short?

    “Yes” and “no” are offered. You choose “no”.

    Class, the clown is not short! (ohh!)

    If a student insists that the clown is short, tell them clearly with a grin on your face that this is your story.

    Class, the clown is not short. He is tall! (ohh!)
    Class, is the clown short or tall? (tall)
    Correct, class, he is tall. (ohh!)
    Class, is the clown of medium height? (no)
    That’s right, the clown is not of medium height, he is tall. (ohh!)

    Notice that you are using vocabulary that has been drilled over the course of the previous five steps so that there is no difficulty in comprehension, thus propelling the story forward with ease.

    Notice also that the circling need not be in some sort of perfect order, in fact it should not be. It should be fluid, not mechanical, responding to the communicative needs of the students. As long as it is comprehensible, all of this input can be circled in any fashion.

    Once you feel comfortable that you have created something new but still parallel to the original story script first sentence, you go on to the next sentence, creating the story. Remember to have the original story script in front of you so that when you end a sentence you have the model right there to begin building the next new sentence.

    Eventually, the story morphs into something like:

    There is a tall clown. He’s in Oz. His name is Face because of his big face. Face feels like traveling to Kansas.

    Believe it or not, the above four sentences could require up to one hour of circling to establish. As each sentence, one by one, reflects more and more the personalities of the students who suggest the cute answers, the students’ interest is heightened, and so it is an hour well spent.

    Of course, it is possible to create a new story of four sentences in just a few minutes. But why hurry? TPRS is about slow repetitive comprehensible input, and as long as that is occurring, CI is being done and the kids are acquiring the language.

    In this example it was not necessary to introduce an actor, because everything developed in a clear fashion, but to ask a student to pretend he was the clown was certainly possible.

    This room metaphor may not appeal to all readers, but it has proven very effective for many teachers just beginning TPRS. It works to remember the idea of going sentence by sentence while personalizing and circling slowly.

    Some teachers may wish to construct a visual metaphor in their own minds that is unique to them. Such images can function as stabilizing devices that keep the teacher from going too wide or out of bounds during a story’s creation.

    Knowing that your scripted or “guide” story will see you through, you focus on CI and personalization, using circling and SLOW, with no desire to force the story to go anywhere in particular. Use as few or as many skills you are comfortable using, and just have fun with the kids.

    Blaine once expressed this idea in this way:

    When we teach kids, we glorify their responses. We are so interested in them. We laugh at the cute things they say. We enjoy their humor and have fun with them.

    Finally, avoid prescribed ideas, lists of questions, and rules about TPRS. There are no rules! Whether a story gets acted out or not doesn’t matter. Whether the structures for the day are signed or not at the beginning of the class really doesn’t matter. Whether there are three locations doesn’t matter. What matters is:

    1. that at some point meaning of structures is established, by whatever means the instructor prefers.
    2. that the structures of the day be repeated over and over and over in personalized form.
    3. that there be a lot of reading in the target language.

    The form that the above takes is completely up to the instructor. As long as there are lots of repetitions, CI, and personalization, with large amounts of SLOW thrown in for garnish, TPRS is being done, and your students will show excellent gains.

  3. Mark Says:


    Thanks for that very clear excellent explanation. I’m really very impressed at how you pioneers of this method have continued to develop it and improve it. I can’t imagine that there are very many subject teaching methodologies that are being as actively refined developed as this is.
    I’m looking forward to your book on TPRS in the Realm. Do have a link to any sample pages. The last I tried the link on your website it didn’t work.


  4. Ben Slavic Says:

    Mark –

    I am just a wannabe pioneer lucky to have been a student of a true pioneer, Susan Gross. For my part, the method is more like a Thing that has a life of its own, morphing every day in my classroom, and i am this kind of pawn, trying to follow where it is going next. When such a thing as that happens in one’s teaching, it certainly describes real, not false, paradigm activity in education. Certainly I am personally in awe of this Thing. I can’t stop thinking about it, it seems, ever.

    The Realm has forced me lately into a kind of abeyance, a kind of “Hey, Ben, go learn how to do regular stories better before you get into the Realm.” If TPRS is a Thing then the Realm is a Big Thing. Blaine told me it is not something he would do. Many have said that. But then there are serious road warriors like Regina Oliver in Tuscon – she has an entire castle set up in her classroom, and a bunch of Realm characters ready to roll every day. So TPRS in the Realm! is, hélas, right now a mere jumble of ideas, and i need to have some quiet time with it, and let it grow, and I should take it off my site as “soon available”. I guess the most honest thing to say here is that I am just beginning to see that the original form of TPRS that Blaine has given us is crystal pure stuff, and the real work lies in diving deeper into how we work with a story, going deeper into the art of it if we feel we have learned the nuts and bolts. The way Blaine designed it, there is no end to the learning that we can experience with it, if we are willing to dive deep, and not just stand on the shore talking about it. Thanks, Mark, for your ideas here. Please stay in touch as the Thing morphs forward each day, in each of our classrooms….

  5. Mark Says:

    One thing I noticed watching the 2005 NTPRS Conference videos that I just bought; the innovators in this are all middle school and high school teachers. I know TPRS is being used in college and adult classrooms, (I have used it there myself) but it’s striking that the place where new methodologies are supposed to developed, academia, had little to do with this (aside from Krashen’s insights of course).

    My wife, a native Spanish speaker, also pointed out that none of the innovators appear to be native speakers of the languages they teach. That might simply be a reflection of the large percentage of language teachers who are not themselves native speakers but it certainly belies the notion that being a native speakers confers some special advantage for the teacher.

  6. Ben Slavic Says:

    I so much agree with you here, Mark. I would love to know the “why” of it all, especially your point about academia. Now there is a “sujet de thèse”!

    I have been around TPRS long enough now to find myself often wondering why many of those pure academics at the college level can’t make the jump into this heart-based method. The best answer may be somewhere in the question!

    But, luckily – and Susan Gross has drilled this point home with me over and over – I don’t think about stuff I can’t change, and I don’t seek others’ approval. I just enjoy the method and the kids!

    Susie is so right. Thanks to her, I was able to break an addiction to seeking approval via national language contest results, and another addiction to wanting to criticize those who don’t do TPRS.

    Ultimately, whoever came up with this stuff (if it wasn’t Blaine it would have been someone else), the world is a better place for it. There are a heck of a lot more happy language students who stick with their studies over years, with engaged hearts driving their engaged minds. What else counts but that? Thanks for that neat insight!


  7. Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) « The minute details… Says:

    […] Ben Slavic offers a basic introduction to TPRS on his blog – see The Three Steps of TPRS. […]

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