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TPRS® 101, Step Five: Strategize

October 8, 2015

This is the fifth post in the series "TPRS® 101: Teaching Proficiency is Really Simple".


Now that you have added to your basic understanding of TPRS® and its goals by observing a lesson and debriefing, you are almost ready to try it out for yourself. Well, who knows--maybe you are ready because you're just that kind of a person, but most of us need a little more scaffolding before we are ready to take the plunge ;-)

To prepare yourself for your first TPRS® story, it's a good idea to practice the Sacred Seven Skills without the pressure of targeting multiple structures and moving a story plot forward that comes along with full-on storyasking. How? Look at your lesson plan for tomorrow. (You might have to finish writing it first!) Look at the list of vocabulary terms and/or grammatical constructions that you are planning to work with. Choose a verb and tense from the list on which you would like to practice your skills. For example, if one of the required textbook structures for the current unit is "pensar + en" (to think about), then you could choose to work on "piensa en" (s/he thinks about). If you are planning to work with food vocabulary, you could use "quiere comer" (wants to eat), even though it might not appear on your list specifically. While you can target any structure with a TPRS® lesson, I recommend choosing a verb or verb phrase for your first attempts because they are easiest to circle. It's much harder to get 70+ repetitions of the word "soup" in an engaging, comprehensible way than it is to get repetitions of "wants to eat". (Of course, you could make the structure "wants to eat soup", but that is getting a little long for a newbie!)

Once you have a structure, plan PERSONALIZATION. Think of 1-3 personalized or customized questions that contain the structure that you just chose. Personalized questions are open-ended questions that are meant to learn about your students and create discussion. Customized questions are open-ended questions that are meant to learn about your students' ideas, although they do not ask for personal information. Regardless of the nomenclature, your objective is to write questions that will spark a class discussion. In addition to including the target structure in the question itself, it is important that the other words that you use in the question are comprehensible to students: students must be able to understand the question with the support of a translation of the new target structure. Here are some examples:

  • WANTS TO EAT: What do you want to eat? With whom do you want to eat? Do you want to eat [crickets, turtles, cows...] and WHY?
  • THINKS ABOUT: Who do you think about? What do you think about [in math class, in church, when you use the bathroom...]?
  • WENTWhere did you go [last weekend, last summer, last year]? What is the best place that you've ever gone? *notice: the question does not contain "went", but the answer can include it by saying "I went to _____", so it's okay that the target structure is missing from the question!
  • HAS: What do you have that you don't want? What do you not have that you want? What do you have in your [pockets, purse, backpack, locker]?

I would also recommend writing a question for which students could illustrate their response. Having students illustrate their answer to a question is helpful because it gives you something concrete to talk about, and it adds another dimension to students' interest: they are trying to interpret each other's pictures. So as you are walking around the room holding Bobby's paper, on which he drew Taylor Swift, you can ask, "¿En quién piensa Bobby? ¿Ésta es Beyoncé? ¿Bobby piensa en Beyoncé mucho? es Beyoncé. Bobby no piensa en Beyoncé mucho. ¿Quién es?". (Who does Bobby think about? Is this Beyoncé? Does Bobby think about Beyoncé a lot? No...this isn't Beyoncé. Bobby doesn't think about Beyoncé a lot. Who is this?") Students will have something to look at so that their entire attention is not dependent on how interesting YOU are, which is a good thing while you are developing the skill of circling. So it's certainly not necessary to choose a personalized or customized question that makes for easy illustrated responses, but I think it's helpful when you are getting started.

Once you've strategized the personalization of the structure, you can strategize CIRCLING. To do this, you are now going to write a sample answer in the third person form for each of the 1-3 personalized or customized questions that you wrote. For the example "thinks about", your sample answer might be "Bobby thinks about Taylor Swift a lot." Just imagine that you had asked the question, "Who do you think about a lot?", and your student named Bobby had responded, "Taylor Swift". (If he were a fast processor, he might have said "I think about Taylor Swift a lot".) So the statement that you are writing at this point--your sample answer--is a report of Bobby's answer. He said, "I think about Taylor Swift a lot", so your sample answer is "Bobby thinks about Taylor Swift a lot". This is the statement that you will use to plan how you will circle any answer that a student gives you.

Next, fill out a circling form for the sample answer statement (the form is in this document). Write your sample answer, "Bobby thinks about Taylor Swift a lot", in the top row of the circling chart. Then, fill out all remaining rows with variables that are (1) comprehensible and (2) interesting, if possible. Use cognates and proper nouns to "stay in-bounds" (ensure that your students understand everything that you are saying), and you can use words that you know with certainty that your students have already acquired.

Now, it is very possible that that exact statement might never come up in class--you might not have a student named Bobby, and no one might be thinking about Taylor Swift. But you can still use the same variables that you planned out on your circling form, regardless of what the actual statement is that you are circling.

To ensure that you STAY IN-BOUNDS while you are circling the structure and  continuing the class discussion, it is helpful to write a list of all (or at least many) in-bounds vocabulary words for that class. In-bounds structures are any structures that are comprehensible to your students: they include proper nouns, cognates, and previously acquired structures. If your lesson is for upper-level students, you will have many options to choose from, but this step is still helpful so that you can focus on the actual skill of circling when you are in class tomorrow. If the personalized question that you wrote will involve places as an answer, write down any and all vocabulary terms for places that your students absolutely, securely know (have acquired). Don't just write down "biblioteca" (library) because it was on a vocab list in the last chapter and most students did well on the quiz; think critically about the evidence of acquisition that students have provided in formative assessments in class. Again, proper nouns and cognates are your friends. Write down any in-bounds verbs that could be substituted for the main verb in the question so that you have options for circling (even beyond what you wrote in your circling chart). Write down adjectives, adverbs...anything! In particular, try to come up with "fun" or otherwise novel options. Cognates like "zombi", "románticamente", and "atlético" in Spanish will do much to maintain engagement when thrown into the class discussion.

The last skill for which you can plan strategically is CHECKING FOR COMPREHENSION. Checking for comprehension is critical to the success of your lesson, because you must know that students understand what you are saying. Within moments of comprehension breakdown, you will irreversibly lose students' attention and interest. Their affective filters will rise up, and language acquisition will evade them. Checking for comprehension will occur naturally in the circling process: as you are asking all of those questions in the target language, you will be able to hear when students respond securely (confidently) and when students' responses are insecure. You will also, obviously, be able to hear when their responses are incorrect. In addition to the natural checking for comprehension that occurs during circling, it is helpful to write out some specific questions that you can ask to individual students. Some examples are in the chart in this post. The questions don't have to be anything fancy ("What did I just say?" "What does [target verb] mean in English?"), but the mere act of writing them down will help them to come more quickly to mind as you teach the lesson tomorrow.

The three remaining skills of the Sacred Seven (GOING SLOW, TEACHING TO THE EYES, and POINTING AND PAUSING) can't be planned and strategized: they are skills that must be practiced in the moment. You can post reminders around the room to help remind and discipline yourself, but you'll just have to wait for Step Six to try them out!

Now that you have a plan, go get some rest...tomorrow is a big day!

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