Bryce Wants Ideas

Bryce want our advice:
Estimados colegas,
I am slated to present TPRS methods to two regional university Methods of Teaching Foreign Language classes in the next couple of months.  It has to be good because the national FL teacher of the year is presenting a week before me on both occasions (Yikes!!!).  I have only one hour (!)  I am having trouble paring it down.
What do our budding FL teachers need to hear about TPRS?
Here is my outline so far:
Almost every TPRS® story is a mini three act play.  To create a basic story you need a CHARACTER, a SOMETHING (can be tangible or intangible), and three LOCATIONS (can return to the original location).  Here is the basic story outline:
There is a CHARACTER at LOCATION #1.  But there is a problem because CHARACTER wants a SOMETHING and does not have it.
CHARACTER goes to LOCATION #2.  The SOMETHING is not there.  CHARACTER is sad (disappointed/angry/upset/confused).
CHARACTER goes to LOCATION #3.  The SOMETHING is there.  CHARACTER has the OBJECT.  CHARACTER is happy!
TPRS® is a contextualized, verb-driven methodology (versus the conjugation and noun-driven found in 90% of foreign language classrooms).  Notice how the most common verbs drive the action:  is, has, wants, and goes.  We keep using the most common verbs to get the students fluent in all their forms.
The 100 most common Spanish words make up 50% of all speech.
The 1000 most common Spanish words make up 80% of all speech.
The 2000 most common Spanish words account for approximately 95% of all speech.
Here are the 13 most high frequency verbs in Spanish:
1.     ser             to be
2.    haber        to have (helping verb)
3.    estar         to be
4.    tener        to have
5.    hacer        to do, make
6.    poder         to be able to, can
7.    decir         to say, to tell
8.    ir               to go
9.    ver            to see
10.  dar            to give
11.  saber        to know (a fact)
12.  querer      to want
13.  llegar        to arrive
14.  pasar        to pass, spend (time)
15.  deber        should, ought to, to owe
We add interest and make the story unique to the class by adding details.  We add details by asking questions.
How big is the SOMETHING?
What color is it?
Why does CHARACTER want it?
We keep asking questions and getting more details.  We train the students to compete to give good ideas.  As we continue to ask questions the high frequency verbs start showing up.
Here are some examples of questions (high frequency verbs highlighted):
Why does the character want the something?
Does she want it or does she have to have it?
Should she want SOMETHING?
Should she have SOMETHING?
Does she know where LOCATION #2 is?
What does new character #1 say to her?
Can she go to LOCATION #2 right away?
How does she go to LOCATION #2?
When she arrives at LOCATION #2, is someone there?
Who does she see?
What does she do?
What does new character #2 say to her?
Does she know where LOCATION #3 is?
Does she know how to go to LOCATION #3?
What does she do?
When she arrives at LOCATION #3, is there another character?
Who gives her the OBJECT?
What we are striving for is interesting comprehensible input.  We are using all of these verbs in context, pre-conjugated and ready-to-wear in a format that is compelling to students.  They want to pay attention because it is engaging content.  They keep paying attention because they can understand it.
You can start with the same story and end up with a very different end product each time because the students are directing the content.  But each time the students will be hearing and acquiring the basic verbs.
We milk the story for as many details as we can.  This can be done even with beginning level I students.  To facilitate interest and understanding we use names, products, celebrities and stores that the students know and easily recognize.  In some languages we can use cognates.
• Comprehensible Input.
We teach the language.  We do not teach ABOUT the language.
If it is not in the target language it is worthless.
If it is in Spanish that they do not understand it is worthless.
• Interesting to Students Trumps Teacher Brilliancy.
What we do must engage the students.
If we love it and they don’t it is worthless.
We are aiming at “Compelling Input”—content in the TL that cannot be ignored because it is so damn interesting.
• No Forced Speech beyond the Level of Acquisition.
No listen and repeat.
No dialogues.
Students speak when they are ready to speak.
• Shelter Vocabulary, not Grammar.
No grammar is off limits if it helps to move along the story.
If the grammar makes sense, use it.
• Repeat Many Times in Varied Forms.
Superstars can get a word after hearing it only 10-20 times.
Most students need to hear it in interesting, contextualized speech at least 100 times.
Slow processors may need to hear it 200+ times to get it.
“Ser means ‘to be’.  Got it?  OK, good, let’s move on.”  That does not work.
• Grammar on an As-Needed Basis
Grammar is used to support comprehension.
Grammar is used to make the sentence we are using right now clear.
5-second grammar lessons for the class.
10-20 second grammar lessons for the superstars–the rest “take a break”.
Extended explanations outside of class for the superstars and budding grammarians.
I would appreciate your comments and advice.



18 thoughts on “Bryce Wants Ideas”

  1. Bryce,
    This is a great summary of the method and very insightful about how it’s a verb-driven methodology. But to make your presentation more engaging,
    why not do a demo? I know you only have an hour and though your outline is great, it really doesn’t communicate the power of the method if the audience has never experienced TPRS . Even a ten-minute demo of circling or part of a story and personalization with a grammar pop-up for someone who has never experienced it will be far more effective than the explanation first, in my opinion. Rather than focus on all of TPRS, for the demo you could do a narrower focus on an example of comprehensible input so that they could feel the effect in a language they don’t understand (like with Linda Li at NTPRS). It is demos that communicate the power of the method quickly. Or you could use a video clip of Linda Li or someone else teaching on the first day (to show how we can jump right in with the comprehensible input) You can then direct them to read the details on their own. You may have already thought of this, but I want to encourage you to put a demo or experiential example in the presentation.

  2. Bryce, I think your outline looks good. Just a couple of suggestions – if they fit into your time and flow:
    1. Storytelling is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – form of communicating things that are important to the individual, culture and human race. We remember stories when we don’t remember lists.
    –a. I can remember stories (and therefore the underlying principle) from sermons when I haven’t the foggiest idea what the sermon as a whole was about.
    –b. If time allows, give the group a list of unrelated words to memorize. At the start of the workshop, give half of the group a piece of paper with the words listed on them; give the other half of the group the same words embedded in a story (with the key words underlined). Allow a short amount of time for them to memorize the words. About half way through the presentation, ask them to tell you what the words are. If research and my personal experience are any indication, those who got the story will remember the words far better than those who got the list.
    2. For some reason the human brain organizes around sets of three. This is a key element in fairy tales, for example: three wishes, three sons, three tests, etc. (I don’t know if Blaine was aware of this when he developed the three locations, but it fits the storytelling framework.)
    3. Give participants an example of the importance of details. Compare:
    –a. “There was a very big man with a beard on a big motorcycle.”
    –b. “If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, p. 8; description of Hagrid)
    4. Bring up your concept of Automaticity as part of why repetitions are so important and “initial mastery” isn’t enough. BTW, it occurs to me that this is key to why grammar-driven instruction will never lead to fluency; it’s all about rules, so learners are always thinking about how to say something rather than what they want to say. No matter how many times your review and repeat the rule, you aren’t getting in the “overtraining” on the language. Automaticity doesn’t have a chance. (It’s sort of like the basketball coach verbally and visually reviewing the mechanics of shooting baskets vs. Larry Bird spending hours after official practice had ended practicing from all parts of the court.)
    5. I think this sentence is important, not only with grammar but also vocabulary: Grammar is used to make the sentence we are using right now clear. There is a temptation, at least for me, to be more like a dictionary than a gloss, i.e. give more than the information needed for understanding at the moment. For example, the word “nach” means both “after” (temporal) and “to” (spatial). Rather than telling students both meanings, just give the one that fits the context. When they put it together and ask, “Didn’t you say that ‘nach’ means after? Now you say it means ‘to'”, just say, “It means both.”
    6. Are you speaking only to Spanish teachers? If not, it would be good to have some statistics for other languages as well. In the work that I do with COACH we are careful not to let teachers of the “less commonly taught” languages feel like second-class citizens. It’s easy to illustrate everything with reference to Spanish, especially if you are a Spanish teacher, because it is so dominant in US schools, but you risk having other teachers sigh, “Oh great, here we go again with Spanish.”
    7. The wants SOMETHING could be wants to GET RID OF SOMETHING. That is also a problem.

  3. So far, you’ve left out PQA , brief retells of some sort or other, and tight integration of abundant discussion-accompanied reading into one’s curriculum.
    “Shelter vocabulary” is catchy, but not easily comprehensible for outsiders because it is insider shorthand for “Shelter from vocabulary, but not from grammar.” Make sure they clearly understand what we really mean. We want to protect not vocabulary froma nything, but students from an unmanageable plethora of vocabulary.

  4. Wow. Thanks for the suggestions. Right now I am thinking of adding a bit to the handout as per Robert and Frank’s suggestions, but I will spend much of the time doing a demo, like Sally suggested, with occasional self-interruptions to highlight what I am doing.
    The professor has told me that the class is 40% Spanish, 40% French, 10% German and 10% other languages. I could do a demo in Spanish, but I may be able to pull off a demo in Chinese for a half hour or so–I watched Linda 8 times as I presented with her at NTPRS and I am studying Chinese on my own. I may be kidding myself, but I think I could do part of her story. I will practice it first. A video of Linda would be better. Does anybody have one that they could send to me?

    1. I think you should do a live demo. As awesome as Linda is, it just isn’t the same as having a live person! Language is alive and pulsing and we need to feel it coursing back and forth and around with live people! Part of our work is to remind people about this, eh? I bet you could do a Chinese demo by keeping it short and SLOW, which after all is the art, right? 🙂
      I think you could essentially use the same format that you and Linda used at NTPRS, with the demo and then breaks to debrief. I found it extremely effective, and my brain definitely needed a break from the intensity of the Mandarin lesson 🙂 BTW…I am a first-timer, fyi, so may be fairly representative of some of your audience. Just sayin’.
      Thank you for the terrific outline. I’m sure you will rock the house!

  5. Nice outline Bryce. I agree with Sally, a demo will steal hearts. Do you think you picked up enough of the Chinese that Linda was teaching, to do a demo in Chinese? Wo yao cafe. Wo kan cafe. That might be a stretch huh.
    Either way, whatever you end up doing, I know it will be great because I’ve seen you present at least 4 times and each has been a stellar learning experience for me.

  6. Frank,
    You are right about the missing PQA piece. that is most of what I actually do when I teach and I left it out!
    I will add to the “Shelter vocabulary” bit. after all, it has to be comprehensible to university students too.
    Mil gracias

  7. Robert,
    Your focus and clarity amaze me. Excellent job at cutting to the heart of the matter. Your comments are helping me to reflect on my own teaching and understanding of my CI-based teaching.
    I am going to add some of your ideas to the presentation–but If I added ALL of them, plus explanations it would have to be at least an all day workshop.
    Maybe we should present together sometime?
    Mil gracias

  8. Also, speaking personally, the 3 locations don’t seem integral anymore. I know that when I was learning the method, they were integral because that’s what I was told, but I’m not so sure they served me or my students well. It caused the foreseeable redundancy that none of us want our students to experience. I suppose that could have also partly come from trying to do too many stories each week (2/week).

  9. Bryce,
    Alike was videotaping the workshops at NTPRS. Maybe she can get you some Linda Li footage… email me at and I can give you her email address if you don’t have it. Also, Karen Rowan videotaped the Fluency Fast mandarin class last year prior to IFLT. I don’t think it’s available yet, but maybe if you email her asking about it, it will motivate her to get in online. I bet after watching Linda so much you can pull off the mandarin demo! So what if you don’t have the tones down– its just an example of learning another language even if it is Bryce-ese… 🙂

  10. Bryce, I think you could do those things. . . OR you could seat the Spanish teachers in the back and do a demo with one of your jokes, teaching to all the non-Spanish folks. The Spanish teachers will see how quickly they “get it,” and the rest of them will be blown away that they get a joke in another language. I understood your jokes perfectly at NTPRS. That’s how I’m going to do all my beginner adult classes this year: jokes, followed by songs.
    Don’t have a moment of worry about following up the teacher of the year. You ARE the teacher of the year. You are awesome. They won’t know what’s hit them.
    (And I wish I’d written to all of you…I presented this week to our local methods class, and basically I told them the three steps a la Susie, the order of circling from Ben’s book, the 3-month expiration date on grammar (Susie again), and then I asked a story with just one bit of PQA. They still liked it, so it wasn’t a total flop, but I sure could have used this advice!)

  11. Hi Bryce,
    I really liked your insight about TPRS being verb based. It made a lot of sense. The joke idea sounds like a winner, because it gives them a taste really fast… you might consider telling them about some of the story based music out there (like sr. wooly and todd hawkins in Spanish and ??? in other languages.) Some of these songs have nice story-base that is a simple place to start for toe-dippers. They can gesture, listen, read, pqa and maybe even parallel story the song. they can pick any part of that process that they’re comfortable with to experiment with and do as much as they have time for and then move on without having to worry about following the whole thing through at the start. Juggling all the important pieces at once and being compelling is a lot to ask of a beginner. Story based songs might also be good material for practicing on their fellow preservice teachers.
    The questions you gave for developing the 3-location story were really helpful. It can be a real challenge to move from the bare structure to a compelling and personalized story. seeing what you did in your book with LICT vocabulary was a lesson in language flexibility. The characters in the stories morphed from animals to teenagers. It helped me to see that there’s rooom for every kind of person to teach with this method to reach out to every kind of kid.

  12. Bryce the verb based thing is the real deal. Teachers who eschew
    comprehensible input instruction in favor of verb conjugation, who don’t do auditory circling of verbs in TPR or PQA before stories happen fail to get the verbs to “stick”. When they don’t stick, the kids can’t write. They don’t have the necessary sound base. They can’t create a sentence. They can’t pass the standard. Having the sound of the word in their minds from hundreds of repetitions of the verbs in class
    allows them to not just understand the language, it also allows them to be able to write. That is why so many AP students who have merely memorized forms of verbs can’t pass the AP exam. Only the four percenters can do so, and that is a pretty piss poor percentage.

  13. Hi Bryce –
    Time for me to stop lurking and post. The first thing I thought while I was reading your post was, this is a wonderful summary, but he really needs to do a demo — so I completely agree with Sally and everyone else who has spoken up. My experience was just like Ray’s; I went to Blaine’s workshop not even knowing what TPRS was, and the demo just blew me away. If I could write two paragraphs in German after two short lessons, then this thing really works.
    Speaking as someone who has taught in the university world for over twenty years, I can tell you that they’ll have lots of questions and wonders and doubts, but you’ll be able to dispel a ton of those with one good demo.
    Yesterday was Grandparents’ Day at the small K-12 Christian school where I have the joy of TPRSing to my heart’s content. The schedule was goofy, half day of school and more grandparents than kids, but the sixth grade class has had so much fun doing stories with me this fall that the teacher gave me my entire 30 minutes. It was incredible. I included the gp’s as part of the class, and they were even participating. I lost count of how many stopped me in the halls later to say how much they enjoyed it, how if their high school teachers had taught that way maybe they would still know some Spanish now, etc., etc. Two of them even cornered my boss to tell him how wonderful I am.
    So do a demo, Bryce. Let them see how well this works, and how good you are at it. You’ll make a huge impression on them.

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