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The Three Steps of TPRS

January 9, 2008

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.