TPRS and the Textbook

One of the biggest challenges in teaching through TPR and TPRS is finding harmony between an existing curriculum and TPRS methodology. The few textbook sets that come with TPRS materials will bombard you with low-quality TPRS experiences, so you’re often left to do the work on your own. There’s a process to the madness, though, and once you get the hang of it, you can transform nearly any textbook unit or chapter into a series of TPR and TPRS lessons.

The first step is to keep in mind all the phases of a TPRS sequence. I often type or draw out charts so I can sort textbook material into appropriate categories:

  1. TPR/CI. These are words that are concrete or easy to find images of. They’re useful words that can be put into tangible TPR or CI experiences.
  2. PQ. We can use small bursts of personal questions to introduce less-tangible items and idiomatic expressions. I like to have a PQ moment during each lesson. Sometimes it’s a matter of introducing a new expression or idiom (e.g. “How old are you?”). Other times, it’s a matter of incorporating old or new vocabulary into a current theme.
  3. TPRS. Each TPRS story should contain no more than three key words or phrases. In other words, this is where you’ll put the non-concrete words that are of very high use.
  4. Extended Reading. You can begin introducing extra low-frequency vocabulary in the extended reading. There’s a rule, though. Students should be able to understand at least 90% of the vocabulary in the extended reading. In other words, if your extended reading is 100 words long, you can only include 10 new words. In lower levels, I often gloss these words (unless they’re a very direct cognate or loanword like un hamburger).
  5. Processing. Throughout the process of your TPR lessons, you should be processing old vocabulary in the form of games. You can sneak occasional new words into these activities, but be smart about it. Student should feel confident during processing, so don’t add more than students will have time to take in. You can even invent new processing games for this purpose.
  6. Grammar. You’ll need to spread out grammar. You can heighten students’ awareness of grammar through pop-up grammar questions, and you can also introduce little bits here and there. I like to keep things to one simple rule, perhaps with two possible forms. For example, I’m not going to introduce le, la, l’ and les all at once. Today, it’s just le or la. Tomorrow, it’s l’ or le/la. The next day, it’s les or the others. Put a mini grammar lesson on the board for students to look at and practice while you get class started. Be purposeful in designing stories and other activities so that grammar points stand out.
  7. Songs and tricks. Students will remember these far better than charts and explanations. I once found a YouTube video that uses all the present forms of aller in the chorus. It’s a two-minute video that I’ll play each day of class over the course of a several days. It just sticks.
  8. Staying in bounds. In TPRS, staying in bounds means keeping the language totally comprehensible. Language that isn’t understood goes into a holding cell. You can teach a lot of language with visuals and gestures. Some items, however, are simply too abstract. If students hear a word over and over during the hour and have no idea what it means, the hour was wasted. You’re just punching a brick wall. Do everything you can to get all the target vocabulary into immersive experiences, but don’t waste time when you’ve reached the boundary. Write up the English and then practice the word for an hour. Now you’re making use of your time.

Lastly, above all, remember that you have some control over the timeframe of mastery. Some skills simply take time to master. You may not learn to ride a bike in a day, but once you can ride a bike, you can ride it anywhere. Set your students up for small, continuous successes rather than huge failures. Non-concrete words take time. Grammar rules that don’t impact meaning take time. Spread out items like these so they become an integral part of each step in your curriculum. Keep a list of things that your students should know but keep forgetting, and recycle those items at every opportunity.

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