Reading Trumps Stories

I feel that stories require so much work and so many of us have invested so much energy in learning how to do them, but, while teaching a reading class today (just a random text that had a picture with it) it occurred to me how very easy the class was to teach. All I had to do was have them read chorally with me, then, after every paragraph, we discussed it in French and then I did some pop-up grammer and then we went to the next paragraph. I could feel the power of it, and yet it was so simple! Now, in that last sentence could be the cure for what ails people who are tar baby-ing it out with stories. Maybe we are putting too much energy into the three steps and all of that when we can get plenty of CI from just reading with our kids in a laid back way. The one major drawback, of course, is the lack of personalization and local fun that we can get going in stories, but note most importantly that we can personalize readings like that and use them as springboards for stories. For example (this really happened in class today):
I was circling the sentence “The daughter is standing on the porch” and one of the questions was “Is Ronald McDonald or the daughter standing on the porch?” and a superstar sitting right next to me looked at me with a straight face and said, “Ronald McDonald was standing on the porch with the daughter”. That was a signal to fly into a story. I almost went, but I held back to stay with the reading. The point here is that it is easy to spin all sorts of bizarre CI out of a reading. We don’t need a story to set up a reading to be able to do that.
This idea is not new, by the way, it is called creating a parallel story. Teachers who use the ultra boring Pobre Ana mini-novel routinely create a parallel text to that book when teaching it just to keep their class form putting dents in their desks with their foreheads and it works. This idea of basing everything on reading is my contribution for today to what Jennifer is experiencing right now, and we want updates on that, Jennifer, you can’t fade out on us back into the book. Right? Can you feel the truth of, whether we are struggling with stories due to our own lack of experience or confidence with the method, or if it is due to a group of ratty ass tenagers who can’t be bothered to engage with us because they have never been taught anything but how to memorize stuff and take notes and tests, reading is a viable option to stories. Just to repeat what I said earlier:
1. get something to read up on the screen.
2. translate it with the class chorally after they spend five minutes or so trying to read it themselves (or in pairs if your kids have enough discipline to work effectively together for five minutes (this is rare).
3. ask questions in L2 about the text, pointing out grammar.
4. Take a deep breath and say to yourself, “This CI stuff is easy if I work from a reading first. I can learn about personalization on a deeper level next summer, or never.”
Skip Crosby sent me this a few weeks ago and it got lost in the queue but here it is. It also relates to the power that reading can bring to kids. At one point the kids were on a roll and Skip almost interrupted but checked himself, and that was a moment of great growth as a teacher. Thanks for this Skip and sorry about the delay on getting it to the others:
Hey Ben,
For sometime since I first heard about having students translate the reading aloud chorally after I read the sentence in Spanish, I have really never gotten it to work.   Yesterday something very strange happened with my Sp 1 babies who have NEVER had any language before.
I would read a line and ask for a volunteer to translate.  Someone volunteered.  Soon however, more than one person would translate along with the volunteer.   I was going to “correct them” but a voice told me to let it go. Before I knew it the whole class was responding and translating in unison.  It was SO cool!.  They got louder and louder and more and more confident.  I wonder why that happened? I also wonder why I haven’t been able to get classes to do that when trying to “orchestrate” it?
Anyway, it gave me another reason to tell them how special they are and how they just did something naturally and on their own that I have been trying to get other classes to do for some time….
Just wanted to share and I am very hesitant to share on the stuffy more site.  Do you think that list is judgemental?
(just between you and me of course:)
Oh, and How are YOU?
(My response: Skip, I just never learned anything from the list after about 2004. I wanted to learn, but all I read on there was a kind of babble. I think the list got too big, and expressed too many opinions from different people with different ideas of what TPRS/CI means. That is a formula for failure. It is one reason I wanted to have a small private group of commandos who all pretty much agree on what they want, and I don’t care how weird the (rather goofy) term Inner Circle is – I think of it in terms of chivalry and that kind of table with no king, just us knights (Harrell) and knightesses. I think we have that group here now as long as I can continue to keep us small and trusting. So far it’s working! Also, Skip, very minor point, but I don’t read each sentence in L2 out loud before they translate. I think that their minds are locked onto the translation process so that they don’t really hear me if I read each sentence out loud before we all translate together. Hope that makes sense.)



27 thoughts on “Reading Trumps Stories”

  1. Oh thank you thank you thank you. I am obviously channeling all my questions…reading! We started a “Susie style plow-through” today. Mainly because the books arrived! But I had actually planned to start this next week. Part of me thinks I should wait and iron out some of the rough stuff with the PQA, etc, but (duh) I can also do this in the PQA as we read.
    I am glad you clarified the point about the teacher reading aloud. I usually do that, but it seems cumbersome for the “plow through.” My big challenge I can already tell, is that I will need to hold myself back from too much PQA in order to finish the book and not have it drag on endlessly.
    But yes, totally ditto what you said about reading being much easier to get “buy in” from the kids. This is how I began to use TPRS/CI “full time” last spring. I totally chickened out on the stories but instead we read a lot and PQA’d the reading. I am still very new at this but reading feels safer somehow, and it is a bonus (or maybe the whole point) that so much research reveals that reading is better than anything else we do!

  2. …my big challenge I can already tell, is that I will need to hold myself back from too much PQA in order to finish the book and not have it drag on endlessly….
    jen that is a fine point. It’s right on the line. If we don’t do the PQA we get drowned in snow from the plow, but if we don’t plow hard we never finish the novel. That is a style thing – we will all do it differently.

  3. This post may be what saves me. Thank you, Ben.
    “This CI stuff is easy if I work from a reading first. I can learn about personalization on a deeper level next summer, or never.”
    /\ /\ /\
    Thank you Ben!
    Personalizing and doing PQA is like pulling teeth for me, the kids just aren’t engaged. I’ve noticed that I do better with readings, now I’m going to take advantage of that!
    By the way……what does “tar baby” mean? I’ve seen that term pop up quite a few times on here.

    1. It’s from the Brer Rabbit folk tales so deeply embedded in the South. Brer Rabbit is going down the road and goes up to a Tar Baby (a baby made from tar to keep birds away from fields like a scarecrow, I think) and says a cheerful “Hello!” and is of course met with silence and after a number of attempts to be friendly he hauls off and hits him for his lack of civility, ending up, after a few punches, hopelessly enmeshed with the tar baby. This can happen with our attempts at stories, no matter how many years we have been doing them. That is why I say we do videos, in fact. Honestly, I was four years into it before I “got” the idea, and another three before I could even do a story. So if you are new to this you have to freakin’ give yourself a break!

  4. Correcet me if I’m mistaken, but I recall you, Ben, sometime ago saying that if a class is very difficult, one way to shut them down without truly shutting them down is to focus more on reading than stories. I am glad you restated this in this particular context. I have first-year students who love doing stories and bring lots of energy to the process; but my second year classes, because I taught more traditionally last year, and because they are lacking in energy, really prefer to be grounded in something tangible, like a text. I could fight them all year on this (which is MY struggle and transition more than it is theirs), or make CI a lot more palatable to them by emphasizing reading, and make my life a lot easier in the process. With this class, I have also found that PQA arises naturally out of the discussion of a text, whereas they tend to be much more resistant to the explicit “we’re going to have a fun conversation now” approach.
    When students are in their 2nd or 3rd year of traditional language study, pulling the rug out from under them (even for the best of reasons and with the best of intentions) may not always be the best idea, and may harm our ability to do TPRS in the future by angering parents and administrators. A compromise might be to go full throttle with 1st year students, but adopt a transitional approach for the older ones, or just ride it out with them adding CI here and there.
    For teachers new to TPRS (myself included), presenting a reading-heavy first and second year transition phase might be just the thing to ensure that more than 10% of teachers who try TPRS-CI will adopt it long-term. We talk a lot about getting through to students by starting from where they are, their priorities, interests, etc. But the same can be said about helping teachers make this difficult transition. We have to support and honor our colleagues who are even contemplating such a shift. Start with the comfort zone, namely a text, and go from there, baby steps.

    1. This thread also resonates with what Dr. Krashen told me and Bob Patrick in an email when we were asking his advice about TPRS Latin. He said that CI is CI, whether it is read or heard. The whole spoken Latin thing was very perplexing to him, and he thought that it was perfectly reasonable to help Latin students achieve acquisition through the reading of comprehensible and interesting texts (too bad they don’t exist!).

      1. Dear John,
        If you are interested in trying Embedded Readings, let me know. I’m working with Pat Barrett in Arizona with ER in Latin and the more the merrier I think that Embedded Reading and Latin are a great match!!
        with love,

        1. Hi Laurie,
          Funny you should mention embedded readings. I have been researching your work since Diane Grieman told me about it last month at a TPRS workshop at her house. I’d love to see what you and Pat are doing with regard to Latin. I’ll contact Pat through the Latin Best Practices list.

    2. Thank you John! I’m noticing the exact same dynamics. I talk a lot about “meeting the kids where they are,” but am I really doing that by hitting them over the head or as you say “pulling the rug out” by insisting that we do PQA and attempts at stories all the time? This is a great reminder for me to step off the soapbox and hang out with the kids and a good book and let the PQA emerge organically!

    3. Good point John, they can be very resistant after an easy year with a book and worksheets, especially those who love being in their left-brains, quietly putting puzzle pieces together, which are the ones who usually have a strong voice because they succeed in their classes. I have experienced this, and I am glad you and Ben have brought this up.

    4. …a compromise might be to go full throttle with 1st year students, but adopt a transitional approach for the older ones, or just ride it out with them adding CI here and there….
      John right on. Of course, I learned the hard way, trying to get a bunch of fozzilized fourth year students to play the game. They couldn’t and I got dents in my head from trying. The way you say to ccompromise with kids who only know the old way is the way to do it, I am certain.

  5. What do you mean with embedded reading?
    I am thinking it means one of two things, but I could be wrong: the structures are embedded in the reading, but there are more details
    I read on moretprs, where there were layers and layers of the same story, the skeleton and then more and more details.
    Are either of those what you are talking about?
    I tried to search the blog, but didn’t find a description of embedded readings.

    1. I would say that your second assumption is more right, but the first one could be interpreted as correct too.
      With my embedded story scripts, I do an original version with 3-4 new structures, a basic Matava-style script. Then, for the extended (better called embedded though) version I add 2-3 new structures on top of that. Those are simply “embedded” into the original script. Search “Nice to Meet You” and you’ll find an example that Ben posted a few weeks ago.
      Typically, I do the original version as an oral story, then I use the embedded version as the reading, so that they are introduced to a couple new things during that following class.

      1. Melanie all I do is add more words to the reading that the script writer hands to me (in English) at the end of class. I type up the story – it only takes a few minutes because I have the script right there from class – but instead of writing it as it happened in class, I add in new words as the occur to me. It is a fun and creative thing because I can really personalize the reading when adding this new stuff, which comprises about 30% of the reading.
        Jim embeds new structures in a new and unique way in his scripts book called Tripp’s Scripts, but basic embedding of reading is no more complicated than as I describe above.
        Laurie Clarcq is the expert on this. You may want to check her site:
        There is also a chnce that if you search “embedded” in the search bar here you may find something. I know that there are many posts on embedded reasding on this site if they can be found.

      2. I think I get it, thanks. I used the idea from that nice to meet you this week.
        I had a student play basketball so well that it made Brad Pitt so nervous that he coughed and sneezed, Angelina sang and danced and Betty White hissed.

  6. I must admit that today with my fourth graders (who are in their first year of French), I put PQA on the shelf and opted for Kindergarten Day and FVR. I worked my tail off yesterday to organize my library. I must admit that it’s a decent size; donations from the past 50 years since the birth of the program have given the collection diversity and depth. So I read my students “Goodnight Moon.” I then gave them the “tour” of the library. The only rules for the day were that their book had to be in French (I do have some English history, geography and cooking books) and that it had to be silent. I had a student reading a dictionary. And at the end of 3 minutes (which I will admit is short, but these guys are new and younger), when the timer went off, there was an audible “awwww” from several students. I had one girl, a girl who often seems to be in la-la land, ask if they were allowed to “check out” books today and I had to respond with, “Not today. I don’t have the check-out system up and running yet. But next week, for sure.” I now know how I am going to start every Wednesday with these guys (I see them 3 times a week for 30 minutes). Twice a week for 5 minutes with 5th and 6th graders will start next week, after state testing. I even had a chance to look at a “Français dans le monde” that I have had for months and haven’t touched! What a great day!!

  7. Remember the old days when there was a pocket in the back of a library book and the librarian had an ink pad and a date stamp thingy and she stamped a due date on the card and in the back of the book? I just got a gift from our librarian at school. She was getting ready to toss the cards and their jackets. Long story short, my freshmen are organizing all of my books with a checkout system!! I think you can still buy these cards.

  8. In the same vein with writing: Michele Whaley blogged about writing corrections the other day using dictation and PQAing and circling the dictee to get them to focus on their errors. She blogged about it the other day on her WordPress site

  9. Thank you for this post! I decided at the beginning of last week that I was going to stop fumbling around with storytelling and instead focus on reading first because I felt that it was a more manageable approach. But now that we’ve been reading for a week, I can sense the kids are starting to get bored.
    I’m wondering what are the reading strategies that everyone uses in their classrooms? I know I need support in this area.

    1. There are a lot of different reading strategies. I’ve got a bunch of them under “reading” on my site (, but I’ll tell you what the strategies are that I’ve been using the last two days.
      In my level one class, we have been getting ready to read Poor Anna. The first chapter is full of information, but I have always found it very boring, partly because I’ve tried to do the parallel story thing as we read. So now I’m following Carol Gaab’s suggestions of pre-reading and pre-telling the whole thing. We have been comparing Anna to Rachel so far, with a blond boy playing the part of Anna (can’t explain that one). We’re doing little readings that I write as we go. I basically want them to understand everything on the first couple of pages, and already know it before I read it to them and before they then read it themselves. Carol Gaab suggested at our recent conference that we pre-discuss every single issue that we can think of that might come up in advance, so that the kids are anxious to read the real story by the time they’re ready.
      In my intermediate class (1-2-3-4, mostly 2’s and 3’s), we are supposed to read a fairly complex story shortly, so I backward-planned and PQA’d and ended up in a story with the main structures. We’ve been reading that class story on the projector. They’ve told it, they’ve acted it, they’ve translated it, and they’ve fast-written it, and today we added one last phrase that I’d forgotten, and re-told it in past tense (while looking at it in present tense). I firmly believe that if I spend the time typing it, I want to milk it for everything it’s worth.
      Then after that, I passed out the first version of the story that’s in their books (I typed it, taking out everything but the crucial elements, so that I can be sure that every single kid has a handle on every single bit of the most important information. That’s the first level of an embedded reading). We had an advanced group reading it on their own and a less advanced group (plus the wiggly ones) reading with me. They all read it beautifully, and now I’m thinking of ways to make them re-read it. If all goes well, I’ll have the advanced class draw it out tomorrow and leave space for captions so that they have to figure out the best labels from the story for the pictures.
      Then, if I think we can go directly to the story, we will do so.

  10. Ben, so affirming to read. I’ve been doing this sort of thing with my Latin students for several years now, and I quite frankly, began doing it out of exhaustion over telling so many stories! I would add one thing to your list of how to do it. Before the items you list, I do a very brief pre-reading intro. I write on the board, in Latin, the title of the story, and the words who, where, what happens, what is the problem? I then tell them very quickly, those things, in Latin. Then, we read. After we finish the story, sometimes we do a 5 minute write of the story, and I urge them to use the questions: who, where, what happens, what is the problem? And, it so does work!

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