TPRS Guidelines

Dear friends and colleagues of moretprs,

Now and then a contributor to this list will “wonder out loud” or hint that there may exist a core of essentials that are considered within the TPRS rubric. This may come about when, say, a newcomer asks about the efficacy of certain work sheets. Here’s crazy example that just popped into my brain: Does a worksheet on which students write correct verb forms to agree with the subjects of sentences fall within the TPRS rubric? It is our intention and hope to publish this document once every month so that newcomers have a rubric field against which to compare and select their classroom activities.

What follows is my attempt to formulate a list of essentials of TPRS as practiced by the superstars, stars, and all of us who know how valuable and effective this methodology is. The introduction was written by Pat Barrett, with whom I worked out the list of essentials.

Please note that various links will be supplied in the next week or two. Many of you may want to offer links to clarify or expand on an essential Please be free to do so. Many of you may want to amend or reword certain essentials. Please be free to do so.

Note that embedded reading and movie talk are not in the list of essentials, while many of the essentials are employed in their execution. Embedded reading and movie talk links will be provided as they are received.


Brian Barabé, Chandler, Arizona

INTRODUCTION by Pat Barrett, Chandler, Arizona

In the early phase—the first year or two in normal school situations—everything is input for the student provided by the teacher. There is a good deal of repetition by the teacher of structures whose meaning is clear.

All L2 possessed/owned/controlled by the student is called “acquired”. If the student has to think about the structure (the “monitor”), the structure has not been acquired. NONE OF THIS ACQUISITION IS A PRODUCT OF CONSCIOUS COGNITION.

Acquired , in the early phase, does not equate to “available for output.” Any output must come without being asked for and certainly not demanded of the student. (Exception: free writes.)

No activity should involve judgment / grading / correcting so as to maintain a linguistically free and open atmosphere where only already acquired language is part of the student’s ability in L2, i.e. the student will not hear “you should know that”, “don’t you remember?” “we had that last week”, etc.

Testing is simply a dip-stick check of what the student does automatically, i.e. testing does not involve effort of recall, memory, ratiocination, or other thought processes/cognitive struggle or any such forced activity. Forced language is not acquired language.
The only review would be more repetition of prior acquired material. From this it is deducible that the learner cannot “miss” an item on a test. If tests in the legacy tradition are required, they should consist of students answering either in 1-2 words or in a check-off regimen demonstrating comprehension.

The two-pronged method of stories and personal exchanges between the teacher and students will build up a shared classroom bank of familiar references, inside jokes, and characterizations of figures in students’ lives that fertilizes a rich bed in which language grows, free of unnatural constraints.

Structures are acquired only when their meaning is entirely clear to the student, no matter how many repetitions it takes. We all acquire at different rates and we all acquire different things, although focusing on specific structures will reduce the heterogeneity. Language acquisition is not a matter of mental effort or cognitive application: If it doesn’t happen effortlessly, it’s not acquisition.


1. ESTABLISHING MEANING The teacher presents the structures, usually three, for a story and says and/or writes the translation in the students’ native language. The students’ understanding of the structures is often furthered with PQA, personalized questions and answers. Using the structures already on the board, translated and explained, ask questions of the class based on those structures. In this way you are using comprehensible input and personalizing the structures to the students, e.g. “eat in the cafeteria” yields “Who eats in the cafeteria?” “Who likes to eat in the cafeteria?” “Do I eat in the cafeteria?” etc.

2. TELLING/ASKING A STORY The teacher tells the story sentence by sentence, following each sentence with questions in the mode called CIRCLING. In addition to questions about the content of the sentences, the teacher may ask students for suggestions. E.g., “Where does she go” may be a prompt to suggest “to the store,” “to Wal-Mart,” “to Bill Gates’ office.”

3. PERSONALIZED MINI-STORIES are used to familiarize the class with the structures needed for a longer story. They are an important element in scaffolding for comprehension. They also keep students engaged and strengthen the teacher’s relationship with the students.

4. QUESTION WORDS ON POSTERS are in large letters, visible from any desk or seat in the room. The question words are in the target and native language.

5. CIRCLING is accomplished by asking many questions about one sentence at a time in the story. Question-word questions and questions that don’t contain question words are asked.

Example: The girl ate a ham sandwich. Questions: Who ate a ham sandwich? Did a girl or a monster eat a ham sandwich? What did the girl eat? Did the girl eat pizza or a ham sandwich? Was it a ham sandwich or a cheese sandwich?

Questions are asked in order to provide many more repetitions of the structures introduced before the story. Note that a question is asked: Who ate the ham sandwich? Preferably a short answer rather than a full sentence is given: “The girl.” “That’s right, class, the girl ate the ham sandwich.” “Did a boy eat the ham sandwich?” “No.” “That’s right, class. A boy didn’t eat the ham sandwich. The girl ate the ham sandwich.”

6. THREE STRUCTURES, and not more, are usually considered the best number for students to have successful comprehension during A new story. A structure may be a phrase or a single word. Had to eat, wanted, and ate might be the structures for a mini-story.

7.. STAYING “IN BOUNDS” refers to using only vocabulary students already know.

8. USING ACTORS Frequently, students are asked to act the roles of characters in the story. If there is dialogue, the teacher tells the actors what to say. If the dialogue is very difficult for the actors, the teacher can stand behind actors and say their lines for them while the actors move their mouth and gesture. Students are reminded and prompted to synchronize their actions with the narration. The fact that students act out the narration synchronically demonstrates their comprehension.

9. PQA, Personal Questions and Answers, (Neither Pat nor I know how this is carried out. We hope to get suggestions, instructions, to link from Ben Slavic, Terry Waltz, Laurie Clarcq, Chris Stolz, and others on how one does PQA.

10. COMPREHENSION CHECKS are stopping to ask the class or an individual, “What did I say? What did that mean?” The purpose is to insure that there is 100% comprehension. Students answer in the native language, i.e., L1.

12. READING Following the telling of a story, the teacher gives the students copies of the story or projects the story in order to read it. Sometimes a different story, with known vocabulary and the same three structures as the told story, is the reading.

13. READING OF APPROPRIATE LEVEL NOVELS There are many short novels, written by TPRS teachers, that serve to give students more exposure to and repetition of structures introduced in stories.

14. FREE VOLUNTARY READING OR FVR Periodically (daily, weekly, every other day, etc.) the teacher has students select something they want to read, from a class library of appropriate level books, and students read silently for 5 to 20 minutes. The teacher models by reading silently in the target language.

15. TEACHING TO THE EYES means that the teacher looks students in the eyes, often for the length of a sentence or question. This has two purposes—to gauge for comprehension by watching for doubt or understanding and to aid in classroom management.

16. BAROMETER STUDENTS are the students who seem to need the most time to absorb and process an utterance and perhaps more repetitions than other members of the class. The teacher monitors them to gauge and adjust the pace. The barometer student is thus helper in gauging whether less transparent students are understanding 100%. If HE got it, they all got it.

17. FREE WRITES are low-pressure, low-stakes opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have acquired. A prompt is given: tell a story about X; retell the story of Y; tell me what you think about Z. Did you ever ABC? Tell me about it. Studentss are given a relatively short time to do the free write; this is intended to ensure that they do not have much time to engage in grammatical focus.

18. REVIEW AND TESTING See Pat’s introduction.
Pat cautions us that testing should not be used as a “gotcha” device; it is simply the teacher’s attempt to see if students are acquiring the language.


The following is a list of links for particular essentials. Huge thanks and a shout out to Terry Waltz, Judy Dubois, and Mike Peto for their contributions here. Also thanks ahead of time to all who may contribute, as I intend to keep adding the contributions.

THREE STRUCTURES What are the structures we should start with?
1) Terry Waltz’s Super Seven

2) Mike Peto’s Sweet Sixteen (Mike credits Terry with the basic idea.)
No hay ningún gato – Panqueques

More from Mike on recycling the above:
The Advantages of Posting High Frequency Verbs

FREE WRITES Judy Dubois uses the term “fluency writing”

Fluency Writing

1) Mike Peto:

2) Mike Peto on building a library for heritage speakers AND non-heritage
Building a class library for heritage speakers of Spanish

Orca Soundings: A great series for reluctant readers

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