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TPRS – how to develop fluency in EFL students by storytelling

Children at the World Storytelling Day Event
Image by Pratham Books via Flickr

My college EFL students were not improving in either confidence or fluency.  Worse, some who’d been paying attention were tuning out, and the ones that had tuned out already were not tuning back in. It was time for a change. But to what?

Listening to  AJ’s materials, I’d started thinking about how important it was to me that my students develop fluency. Had I given up on that? From hints dropped by AJ, I found out about TPRS, and ordered Blaine Ray‘s Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. I decided to give it a whirl.

I went with a “picture story”, 6 frames illustrating a simple story, with no dialogue or verbal cues or input. I gave them the pictures. I started asking questions. After ringing the changes and asking about a zillion questions, I started feeling drained: it had been a long time since I had done this kind of direct teaching – just me and their faces. It must be about the end of the class by now, eh? 90 minutes nearly up? Let’s look at my watch. 15 minutes?!?!?!

Students were looking surreptitiously at their watches, getting restless. I abandoned my story and returned, gratefully, to the textbook, “Right, page 37…..”

The next class went slightly better. This time, I lasted 30 minutes. Ok, 20.  Man! This is hard work!

That was last week. I tried the technique again in every “Oral English” class I have. It remained hard work, and I needed a backup for when I ran dry.

Two things kept me going: 1) some flashes of humour –  peals of laughter, and 2) because I’d decided that fluency was important for me and for my students.

The weekend.  I discovered Ben Slavic’s website, and downloaded everything I could find, including the free samples from his two books, TPRS in a year! and PQA in a Wink! Both books were not only full of practical ideas and very helpful to a beginner like me, but they were both very encouraging and laced with an infectious humour. I’ll just pick out two quotes that stood our for me. They’re not representative, and they won’t give you an idea of what TPRS is. For that, you’ll have to do your own homework.

“It’s not that I didn’t understand TPRS….

I just didn’t understand personalization!”

– Jennifer Wilczewski

It is true that educators should feel free to choose what methods they want for their students, but not at the expense of the students.

To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:  “If you want someone to build a boat, don’t tell them to gather wood, and assign them other tasks and work. Instead, teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.”

Armed with some knowledge and confidence, I tried TPRS again this week:

  • Week 1: max. time 20 minutes.
  • Week 2: max. time, 1 hour 15 minutes. I barely paused, never felt I’d run out of ideas, used humour and personalized the material easily because I understood that THAT was what was important, not “getting through the story”, and when I felt a lull, or a momentary slackness in the sails, so to speak, I only had to glance at my picture story to pick up the thread.  I had a blast, and I think the students did, too.

One boy in particular stood out: he’s a talker, but not the best English-speaker in the group by any means. He just likes talking to people. He blurts things out (quite uncommon in Japan where everyone is trained to wait their turn or wait until they are called on by the instructor). He hates writing and usually chats with his neighbours, flirts with the ladies, jokes, excuses himself to the bathroom, etc, when things get too boring for him. Using TPRS, he became the star. He was the first to grasp that I welcomed outrageous answers. His answer to my question, “How do you come to school?” was “Air Force One“. This became a running joke in the class. We learned the word “battery” and he had a big paper bag on his desk. I asked him what was inside; the battery for his Air Force One, maybe? “No! It’s my gasoline!” (The picture story was about a car that runs out of gas.)

Not all the students are responding when I ask questions, and I cannot tell when that is because they do not understand, and when that is their cultural training kicking in. And one girl resolutely refused to participate except when I addressed question directly at her. I still cannot tell if she thinks this is just beneath her, or if she lacks confidence and often does not understand but does not like to admit it.

I identified some “barometer” students, and that was very helpful. Looking at their faces helped me to gauge the speed of my talking. I was surprised to discover that I often speak too quickly. When I slowed down (and I was never talking at natural speed), comprehension often jumped to 100%.

Last week, I was reading everything I could about how to adapt a textbook to TPRS and being discouraged to read that basically, I shouldn’t. Now, I feel I will simply jettison the textbook for 2/3 of class time. I want to focus on helping students develop fluency, and through that, confidence. But above all, I want to bring play back into my teaching. This week,  I got a taste of how much fun, and how easy, that can be.

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