TPRS + Emoji = 😀

I had fun playing this online game the other day. The game illustrates the plot of a few popular movies using only emoji, and you have to guess what the movie is. I thought of TPRS right away because we often use clipart and cartoons to guide the process.

Unfortunately, the golden era of free clipart is coming to an end. I regularly lament the death of clipart integration in Office programs, and I’m sure that wading through watermarked “free” images for hours every day has been a major contributor toward my high blood pressure. But times are changing. We don’t need Office clipart of the same chair in three different cool 90’s colors. We can even skip over all the grumpy kittens, hewn pixel by pixel in Paint by a host of angsty teenagers, in Google Images. The 21st century has a new  visual savior: emoji. And there’s a lot of them now. Birds, lizards, spaghetti, trees, rain, poop — smiling poop at that! The game that I mentioned above shows just how much emoji have evolved in the last few years.

On to the point, do emoji have a place in TPRS? I think so. I dabbled with the idea for several years, using emoji to represent emotional reactions like “wow!” and “too bad”. But until I played that online game, I hadn’t thought of using them for the storyboard itself.

One caveat before we move on: don’t use emoji for an initial, unfamiliar story. If you played that online game and got all of the answers right, then kudos to you. I didn’t. Emoji can be vague. That makes them fun to play around with, but not when new learning is at stake. We’re going to save the emoji for steps when students have already finished the initial story.

Let’s say we have a TPRS story about a girl who drives to the next town over, meets a guy, invites him out to dinner but then skips out on the check. There’s a lot of room for adding bizarre, exaggerated and personalized details in that storyline, and I can also do variations on that basic storyline to recycle old material. Here are two examples represented by emoji. How would you interpret them?

TPRS Emoji 1In the next example, I’ve added a few words to aid retell. This might be helpful scaffolding for situations where there are major differences in syntax between L1 and L2. You could even scaffold issues with morphology by tacking morphemes onto the symbols, for instance adding -ed to a walking emoji for “walked” in English, or -um to remind students that an accusative form is required in Latin.

TPRS Emoji 2

There are plenty of other ways you can use emoji with TPRS depending on how much students enjoy it and what kinds of technological resources are available. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Match emoji to target language sentences on a worksheet
  • Write your own version of a story in the target language and illustrate it with emoji
  • Rearrange digital or printed emoji flashcards to put a story in sequence
  • As a listening test, choose the sequence of emoji that matches what you hear

You can also take advantage of the variety and ambiguity in the symbols to spice up group work:

  • Have students get in groups to create an emoji version of the story. Afterwards, as a class, discuss the variation between groups’ work in the target language.
  • Play digital Pictionary using emoji. The time it takes to find a symbol gives the rest of the group a little thinking time for recalling language.
  • Have students work as design groups to create the next new set of emoji, which conveniently relates to target L2 words and phrases. After all, somebody spent a lot of time getting the smile on that poop.

One of the best things about emoji is that even if you can’t figure out how to make your own materials with them, your students probably can. I’ve come up with a lot of fun classroom activities just by watching students play with their phones. And when it comes to emoji, most new tech products have made it pretty easy to access our favorite little pictograms. On my Windows tablet, I can type emoji into Word or PowerPoint from the onscreen keyboard, and it can even be faster than hunting down clear visuals in Google Images. You can also copy and paste emoji from websites or recruit a few of your enthusiastic tweeters to do the work for you!

Edit: My good friend Brian Roberts at CALA pointed out that this activity lacks something that high-quality images, clipart and cartoons can’t provide: finer details. As TPRS instructors, we need to constantly encourage students to use all their broad range of vocabulary, and putting emoji at the forefront of an activity can work against that goal. Keep that in mind if you choose to incorporate this strategy into your storytelling process. Save emoji for when students have begun to understand that more really is more when it comes to language proficiency. Don’t let your students skimp on detailed descriptions and complex sentences with conjunctions just because you’ve given them a tiny outline.

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