TPRS (Total Physical Response Storytelling) is a natural approach developed by Blaine Ray. The method relies primarily on the theories of Stephen Krashen. In particular, Comprehensible Input (CI).
The idea is that if a student hears the target language and the language is made comprehensible, that student will acquire the language much the way he acquired his native language as a baby. A baby doesn't do exercises from a textbook, doesn't "repeat after me", doesn't drill verbs. And yet he ends up with a firm ability to communicate in that native language. Eventually the baby grows up and the language becomes more refined.
There is a place for textbook exercises and explanation of sentence structure, but it isn't at the beginning stages. The beginning stages are for listening (input) and later for speaking and communicating. Reading and writing come afterwards. All of this takes time, but the progress is noticeable.
Some foreign language teaching methods rely on language learning rather than language acquisition. Acquisition is subconscious. The student doesn't know he is acquiring the language. He is simply paying attention to CI. Acquisition requires no work. It happens naturally. Acquisition sinks into long-term memory. A student who is learning a foreign language is working consciously at it. He is trying to memorize vocabulary and structural rules. While this student may appear more "academic", he is studying for the short term and often forgets a lot of the material a few months down the road.
A good test for teachers is to give a vocabulary or grammar test from 6 months prior. Give the test unannounced. If students are still able to score 80% on an old test, they have acquired the language. If not, perhaps they are only learning the language for the short term. Certainly we want to have the language sink in for a long time.
So how does a teacher provide comprehensible input? James Asher offered a remarkable way to accomplish this. Total Physical Response (TPR).
Essentially the teacher speaks to the students with command forms. Steht auf! Dreht euch um! Setzt euch auf den Fußboden! Klatscht! The teacher says the command and models it. No translation is needed. Within a short amount of time students are able to perform the commands without the teacher modeling. Students do not translate nor repeat in the target language. To make the lesson interesting, the teacher may vary the commands or create new and perhaps bizarre commands such as Legt euch auf den Tisch und schwimmt! Schlagt die Wand mit dem Bauch! TPR is a powerful method to get across a lot of vocabulary in a short time. Acquisition rates are very high with TPR.
However, there are major limitations. TPR doesn't bring the students effectively to the point of language production, speaking and writing. TPR is also limited to concrete actions and objects. It is nearly impossible to teach more abstract words such as Wahrheit, schon or mindestens with TPR.
That's where TPRS comes in. Blaine Ray took the command forms of TPR, changed them into 3rd person indicative (an easy switch for most German verbs) and strung the individual sentences together into stories.
So instead of saying "Steht auf! Setzt euch. Schaut den Tisch an! Fasst den Stuhl an!" the teacher makes a story such as: Sabine setzt sich auf den Stuhl. Michael schaut Sabine an. Michael setzt sich auf Sabine! Sabine sagt: "Michael! Steh auf! Setzt dich auf den Stuhl!" Michael steht auf und schaut den Tisch an. Michael setzt sich auf den Tisch. Michael ist dumm. The students act out the story and then retell the story in the target language.
Eventually the students see how the story is written and they write out the story. From that point the teacher can create another version of the story with minor changes or the students themselves can create stories.
The TPRS classroom may appear to be nothing more than fun and games. The teacher is speaking most of the time in the target language and the students do little production. However, the students are acquiring great amounts of the target language during this time.
The main goal of a TPRS teacher is to provide interesting, varied, comprehensible input to students. Student production in the way of speaking and writing are valuable for assessment, but the bulk of the class time is spent on input activities rather than output activities.
There is much more listening than speaking. There is much more reading than writing. Grammar does have a place in a TPRS curriculum. There is some translation of vocabulary words and stories, but it is only for purposes of assessment.
Most of the grammar is taught through horizontal conjugating (or retelling from perspective). To use the previous story, I could tell my students that I am Michael and I am talking to Sabine. That same story would look like this: Du setzt dich auf den Stuhl. Ich schaue dich an. Ich setze mich auf dich! Du sagst: "Michael! Steh auf! Setzt dich auf den Stuhl!" Ich stehe auf und schaue den Tisch an. Ich setze mich auf den Tisch. Ich bin dumm. Notice all of the grammar that changes. Not only the verb forms but also the reflexive pronouns, the personal pronouns, the accusative pronouns, etc. The same story could be changed to other perspectives such as "wir" or "sie". It could be retold in the future tense or the past tense. It could be retold with different objects such as das Sofa and die Kiste to note the gender changes of articles.
The possibilities are limitless. This is good, solid grammar and yet it is kept in context and is meaningful. TPRS teachers often let grammar mistakes slide when students are responding casually to stories. This is done to allow students to communicate freely without worrying about rules. As long as the student communicates the message, the teacher will go on with the conversation. If the mistakes impede communication, then the teacher has to stop and correct the mistakes. If students are corrected on every last sentence they utter, they will put up an affective filter, which switches language acquisition to language learning. Not only that, but students tend to get frustrated when over-corrected.
A casual observer of a TPRS classroom may notice students "getting away" with lots of mistakes. This may lead to the conclusion that there are more mistakes and incorrect sentences in a TPRS classroom. However, it may be that the observer is hearing the same percentage of mistakes in as in a traditional classroom, but since the TPRS classroom has more communication, there will be more mistakes.
A TPRS teacher often corrects students by affirmative modeling. For example, if a student says, "Ich hat ein Katze" the teacher may respond, "Du hast eine Katze? Wunderbar! Ich habe auch eine Katze. Meine Katze heißt Tigger. Wie heißt deine Katze?"
TPRS is a wonderful method. It is not the only method to accomplish language acquisition. It may not be the best method for every teacher. But TPRS does work. My own students have increased tremendously in fluency and have maintained reasonable percentiles on standardized tests such as the AATG National German Exam. My enrollment has tripled. I am a full time German teacher in a Jr.High (grades 7-8) with a total school enrollment of 650. I have 3 classes of 7th grade German and 2 classes of 8th grade German.
I recommend to anyone who is interested in TPRS to get the book "Fluency through TPR Storytelling" by Blaine Ray and Contee Seely. I also highly recommend attending a good workshop. I am happy to answer any questions you have and can tell you about qualified workshops in your area.
Feel free to contact me at