Monday, March 26, 2012

SCOLT2012: The Art of Asking a Story Demystified

Friday I gave a presentation at the Southern Conference of Language Teachers titled "Fabulas Mirabiles Rogare: The Art of Asking a Story Demystified".  I promised attendees that I would do a write-up of my presentation's topic.

My Introduction to TPRS

Before I first started teaching, but after I knew for certain that I would be a teacher, specifically a Latin teacher, I attended a class over language pedagogy.

I already knew that I didn't plan to teach Latin the way I was taught.  Charts and graphs are great for learners like me--I also can learn math from a textbook and love logic and grammar and rules.  I was, however, under no illusion that other students liked learning and applying rules like I do.  So I was looking at modern languages for inspiration, something that could help me take my own Latin knowledge (which was decidedly based in charts and puzzle-like analysis) to a place that included speaking, listening, and producing Latin.

Enter Jason Fritz and TPRS.  One day, in my pedagogy class, Jason was invited to take over the class and teach our entire 3 hour session to let us experience "Teaching Proficiency with Reading and Storytelling" (TPRS).  My previous language experience had included three semesters of college Spanish, but I couldn't even really respond intelligently to "Como estas?" (I still got A's--because of grammar!).  After Jason's lesson that night, I went home and spoke to my husband--who can understand some limited Spanish--for around 20 minutes purely in Spanish, repeating a story that we told together in the class.  I was sold, hooked, convinced, whatever word you'd like to apply there, I was it.  And I started working on ways to bring the method into Latin and into my future classroom.

I won't go step-by-step through my whole journey in the method.  There are still too few Latin teachers using communicative approaches, and at the time (nine years ago--a surprisingly long time in terms of Latin pedagogy) there were not many people around to help me figure things out.

Asking a Story--What and Why?

The aspect of TPRS that was most difficult for me to master--or to even wrap my head around--was the concept of "Asking a Story". How can I give students control over what we talk about and still make sure we cover the curriculum?  How can I, who had never been taught and only barely encouraged to speak in Latin, tell stories to my students that have not been planned out ahead of time?  And why should I try, when my pre-written stories seemed to make my students happy?

There are several really great reasons to ask stories instead of telling them.  The number one argument I'd make for asking stories is that they become compelling input--practice in the language that is so interesting that students, even reluctant students, forget that they're learning.  I had a lot of students laughing and enjoying my stories when I wrote them myself.  When I finally took the plunge and began to ask stories, the interest level and student involvement amplified hugely.  Students told each other about the stories they helped tell in my class and different classes began to compare stories and compete to tell the most creative and interesting stories.  And this is why the practice is compelling.  It's their story.  It gives them ownership.  Students choose characters, describe characters, choose actions, and ultimately create a story--in the target language--that is their own.

It's also personal.  The story is not only composed of information that the students provide, but often they put themselves into the story as well.  And, well, it's human to want to talk about yourself.  Even as adults, we generally like to talk about ourselves--how our day went, what happened at work, what we're interested in, what's our favorite food, author, vacation spot.  Students are generally in a very self-absorbed time of life: the time when they are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do.  So it makes sense that a personalized approach would be much more compelling and absorbing for them.


One of the most important aspects of TPRS and asking stories is to master the skill of "Circling"--the TPRS term for asking different questions repeatedly over one part of a sentence to cause meaningful repetition.

For example, if the image below were my focus for the class:

I do draw most of my own images I use in class; that said, don't be afraid to use images you find on
the internet; having a visual can really help learners focus their attention while you question them.
Then I might start the class by circling the images before we do anything else.  For example:

(While pointing to the image of the frog) Est rana.  Estne rana?  Ita vero, est rana.  Estne rana an elephantus? Ita vero, non est elephantus.  Est rana!  Estne elephans?  Minime, non est elephans, est rana!  Estne rana?  Ita vero, est rana!  Quid est?  Est rana!  Estne rana magna an parva?  (assume they choose parva) Parva?  Ita vero, rana est parva.  Estne rana parva?  Ita vero, rana est parva!  Estne rana magna an parva?  Ita vero.  Rana non est magna, rana est parva!  Estne rana magna?  Minime!  Rana non est magna, rana est parva!  Estne rana parva?  Ita vero, rana est parva!  Qualis est rana?  Ita vero, rana est parva!

The point of asking all of these questions is the great amount of repetition and reinforcement they provide.  After a conversation (during which, generally, my students are under very little pressure--they just have to answer "yes" or "no" or either/or questions most of the time) students have heard the focus word or grammar structure many, many times (23 times in the example above), have spoken it themselves a few times, and have had all of this happen with context and meaning.  They will, forever, know that "rana" means "frog" (as will all of my session attendees).

The basic approach to circling is to follow this pattern for all information you would like repeated:

  • Make a statement
  • Ask a question with the answer "yes"
  • Ask an either/or question
  • Ask a question with the answer "no"
  • Ask a question with the answer "yes"
  • Ask an open question (who, which, why, where, etc.)

Circling is, in my opinion, the first and most important art of TPRS.  Once you can circle without thinking about it, you have the ability to make anything comprehensible to your students, because you can, by changing the pattern of your questions and choosing probing questions when needed, keep them on their toes and force them to pay attention.  By repeating the concept in a way that sometimes, to you, will feel, well, repetitive, you offer students a safe entry into the concepts you need them to learn.

Scripted Stories

For a beginner, who is unsure about his or her ability in the language (like I was in Latin) or just not sure about asking stories in general, the best starting point is probably to script your stories.

When I started using TPRS in my class, my stories were extremely scripted.  I wrote the story, line by line, with circling questions included.  My students didn't mind that I would hold a piece of paper in front of me and read off it while we engaged in a story together.  I gave them just enough control that they got to name the characters and no more.  The rest of the story was mine.  It was still fun, and still much more engaging than reading out of a textbook (my stories tend to include death and destruction--I'm a Latin teacher), so they were willing to allow me mistakes while I worked on my language skills and on using a technique I had experienced once in the Spanish language.

That said, now that I have much more experience, I can offer suggestions to help you script a story that still leaves itself open to being "asked":

Give students choices by asking "either ___ or ___".  When you give students choices over any part of the story, they begin to own it, and limiting the choices lets you make sure that they fall within your curriculum and the needs of your story.  For example, if I need to make sure we practice Latin words for size (parva is "small" and magna is "large"), I can choose an object in the story and ask students "Is the frog large or small?"  I have then made sure we will be practicing at least one of those words, and more likely, both of those words in the story I've written.

Ask for details, not main story features.  Often, details add spice to the story, but they don't change the overall plot.  One of the easiest things to let go of in terms of control is location.  Where are these events taking place?  Only rarely does that part really matter, so let the students figure that part out.  I've had many, many stories occur in Antartica.  Other details, such as descriptions of characters, character names, adverbs, modes of transportation, etc., are easy to allow students to choose while still maintaining control over the story.

Ask questions that feature the grammar focus.  If your questioning is over the grammar focus, then students will really pay attention to that grammar, in context, without any explicit instruction to do so.  And, if you can get comfortable doing this, if you ask questions that allow students to substitute one correct grammatical word for the other, students get a chance to practice using that new grammar feature.  For example, if I want to feature the accusative case (the direct object in Latin has a special form), I can ask a question like, "Who punched Justin Bieber?  Oh, that's right, Billy punched Justin Bieber.  Whom else did Billy punch?"  which lets students create their own line of assaults on Billy's behalf that will lead to many, many accusatives.  They might not use the accusative right when they suggest the word, but when I repeat it in context, I will use the correct form, and they'll get used to it.

Unscripted Stories

The step from scripted to unscripted stories can feel really huge.  It feels like you're giving up all control, and I'll admit that I can be a bit of a control freak, especially in a classroom, because it's mine, my class, my lesson, my precious.

But all the control is not lost--it's just refocused and much more subtle.  Students feel like they're directing the story--it's theirs--but really, once you get good at asking stories, you are the director.  They do get to make many decisions, but think of it as more of an ad-lib exercise: you give them a setting and a challenge, and they work within those confines to make the story amazing.

Some steps to help you ask stories in your own classroom:

Keep vocabulary and grammar focuses visible.  This is something I brought into my classes mostly because I myself am a visual learner and if I can't see something, I can't remember it as easily.  I like to draw, so I draw most of my own visuals (it feels more personal both to myself and to my students), but if you don't, or you're afraid your stick figures end up looking more like trees or ocean views, you can find representative art on the internet pretty easily.  Even just a list of words and meanings can help--the goal here is that you have something to use as a quick reference when you are trying to remember what you should be incorporating into the story next.  Students often automatically use the list as well, and, since they are quick to pick up on the game, incorporate the words and phrases you need them to use themselves.

Stay in the moment.  There are two points here.  One is that you need to stay consistent--if you have already established as a class that the frog is small, you can't let another student change the frog and make it big.  If you allow students to change the story once things have been established, it becomes very confusing for your students.  Don't forget, they are all doing this in a language that they don't yet know, and changing the story around just means that they have heard two different and conflicting sentences--and that they don't know which one to agree with.  The second point is that staying in the moment allows some amazing storytelling to happen in your class.  If your class has a concept going and they're excited about it, try to keep that concept going as long as you can.  I once had a class that really loved to feature one student in particular in its stories.  This student appeared in almost every story, and eventually the class strung all the stories together into one semester-long epic story.  We then illustrated it as a class, and I made a copy of our novella for every student.  This sort of thing really sticks with students--only a couple of months ago, one of my students from that class (five years ago) told me that he had found it again.  He kept it for the same reason I've kept it--the story itself is fun, but the memory of making the story is even better.

Ask leading questions.  This is much like asking either/or questions to control the story.  If you aren't sure you like the way the story is going, or you need to make sure you include a certain word and the students just aren't gravitating toward it, this is a good way to get things rolling in the right direction.  For example, if we've been talking about a frog for a long time in a story, but I really need to use the word ox as well, I could do something like, "Yes, the frog is in the kitchen.  Is the ox also in the kitchen?"  Usually, students will say yes.  If not, then simply follow with, "Oh, he's not in the kitchen.  Where is the ox?"  Then the ox is part of the story, and students will work to connect him to the previous portion of the story that centered on the frog.

Wait for "cute" answers.  This is advice I got from Ben Slavic's book TPRS in a Year.  It's great advice.  No matter how hilarious you think you are, your students can make better stories than you can.  They are creative and there are usually around 30 of them in my classroom, so that's definitely a greater resource than just one person's ideas.  And, of course, then they have created the story, and it gives them ownership over it.  The kids who get to contribute ideas get to feel clever and special, and I try to make sure everyone gets to contribute ideas once in a while, though I can't claim perfection in that area.

The three basic storylines.  There are three storylines that I have used to help me visualize where to go with my stories when I get stuck.

  1. The Wild Goose Chase: The storyline suggested by Blaine Ray at his workshops, this storyline simply moves the story between locations.  There is a problem (someone wants something, someone needs something, something happens), and the solution is somewhere else.  So the story moves there, but it turns out the solution isn't there either!  So the story moves to a third place, and, euge!, the solution is there.  Or isn't, when I'm feeling mean.
  2. The Love Triangle: It's not just good for soap operas.  This was the first type of story I ever wrote for TPRS because it's just fun to use love to create miserable characters.  It can be useful as a motivator to have characters take different actions.
  3. Whodunit: Set this up with a murder, robbery, death, or something exciting, then let students decide what the back story is.
That's great, but how do I actually do this?

In my session, I had attendees circulate between sentences I had posted on the wall and practice both circling information on them and using the sentences as jumping off points to ask stories in small groups.

Since I can't do that here, I have the following suggestions:
  1. Look at a story or a sentence that you will need to use in your class.  Practice asking questions about the sentence using the circling pattern above.  Practice using different parts of the sentence: the subject, the verb, the direct object, a prepositional phrase.
  2. Meet with other teachers in your area who are interested in TPRS or asking stories.  It doesn't matter if you teach the same languages--practice on each other!  Find a starting point and practice teaching each other using this method.  You could gain an additional language while you're at it!
  3. Write out a story that could be used to introduce new vocabulary or grammar.  Choose areas that could use details and insert questions so you know to ask them when you get to that point of the story.  Choose a couple of either/or options to offer students as well.
  4. Just be honest with your students--if they know what you're doing and why, they are usually really willing to be guinea pigs, and supportive of your mistakes as well as your successes.  They will also give great feedback that you can use to help you improve.
Advice From Teachers

I asked my friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ what advice they would offer other teachers who are beginning to use TPRS.  Several answered, and I thought I'd post their suggestions here:

"When beginning to ask stories, always give a choice.  Does John sing or chant?  When the students realize that it is a 'game' to respond to the questions, then you can just ask the question, What does John do?  And they will 'get' it.  But remember that you always have 'control' of the story." Jody Klopp

"It is okay for the stories to be completely and utterly absurd, or even to make very little sense as a cohesive whole.  In fact, the absurdity is part of the fun." Irena Greenman

"I think the set-up is what makes the difference between success and failure.  Making sure they know that just because you don't accept an answer, doesn't mean you don't like them.  Conversely, you need to be super conscious not to play favorites and choose certain students' answer too often.  Also, don't go more than 4 responses without choosing one.  Otherwise it becomes all about the details, and the kids make it into a competition.  For beginners, I would severely limit the 'blanks' in the story, so it's more like a mad-lib.  Then gradually, as everyone becomes more comfortable with the process, open it up a bit more.  At root, it really depends on the personality of the class, how much freedom and power they can handle.  You have to know your students.  I would also say to a beginner that they should not feel they have to ask a story until they have spent a LOT of time doing PQA and circling.  Some teachers don't start asking a story until November." John Piazza

Final thoughts

This is by no means an all-inclusive guide to using TPRS or even asking stories in your classroom.  But I hope that it's given a more friendly perspective to those of you who are very interested, but afraid to take the first step.  Trying is enough.  Asking a few questions in a class period is enough.  TPRS is not exclusive--you are allowed to only use it for a part of your class period.  Using the method at all will have rewards that you will be able to see within a very short period of time, and that you will continue to see over many years.  It's worth the fear you might feel when you start speaking, or the discomfort when you stumble over a word you weren't prepared for.  It's worth admitting to your students that you don't know every word in the Latin dictionary.  When I posted my session topic online, Alyssa, an ex-student whom I taught for three years (five years ago), responded, "I loved TPRS!  As a student it was one of my favorite and most helpful teaching techniques!" 

It's worth it.


  1. This sounds really good. Are there "classes" in TPRS? I would be afraid to try to speak, as I've been teaching the grammar method for 12 years. I know the French teacher at my school has used this before. Where can I go to see a demonstration? Is there something on YouTube? ~ Cheryl

    1. There are TPRS workshops:

      That said, what helped me the most was experiencing the style as I learned a new language. I highly recommend attending a Fluency Fast class ( changed the way I thought about teaching. And it was cheap--around $150. Generally you can get one in your area if you can get enough participants (Karen Rowan told me at the Spanish FF Class that around 40 would be enough).

      Also, if you e-mail me personally ( I'll send you a video of the method in Latin.

  2. You're making me wish I could have an every day class.

    1. From what I see you do great things already with what time you do have :)