Up the odds of student engagement with TPRS

Thanks to Kelly Ferguson for allowing me to publish her writing on my blog.  This was originally a post on the MoreTPRS listserv on June 15, 2012.  If you’d like to become part of the MoreTPRS community, please visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/moretprs/.


When I was in high school, my algebra class every day we went in, went
through the homework, the teacher drew on the overhead the new stuff, we
did examples, got the homework, and went on our way.  I was not
“entertained” by that teacher.  It was just the way that algebra class was.
In English class, we would read our lit out loud, the teacher would talk
about symbols, themes, and iambic pentameter.  Then we would get homework,
which usually meant writing.  Some of the books I liked.  Some I didn’t
find even remotely engaging.  That was just what we did in English class.

TPRS needs to be just the way Spanish (or French, or Russian, or whatever)
class is.  My Spanish 1 kids do not have any trouble with this format.  My
level 3 classes take a while to adjust, since they have often never had
TPRS before. We are probably the only department that puts such pressure on
ourselves to have kids LIKE our class.  And that isn’t bad, but the truth
is that you can’t always make everyone happy.  Even kids who like your
class will have days that they don’t enjoy in your room.  There are some
things that we can do that up the odds of student engagement and enjoyment.
As with everything in life, your mileage may vary, and these are not
ranked in order.

1. Make it personal to the class.  I have purchased materials from Blaine
and Michael Miller.  And I use some of each.  After 12-13 years of getting
into this method, I have discovered which ones work well with kids
typically,and which don’t.  But in general what I have found tends to work
more consistently is when I take the structures from the book and build a
story with my class, then use the pre-written one as the reading afterward.
Sometimes I write my own reading, sometime I tell the story in the book.

2. The story isn’t actually the point. It is a prop we use to give us a
reason and structure for. “repetitive comprehensible input”.  Blaine has
said he spent four months in a class on background knowledge of the
character and never even started the actual story.  That can be the danger
of using a story that was written beforehand.  We get into the story and we
want to finish it and make that plot fun for the kids.  We tend to think
all the repetition gets repetitive.  I know myself I start out the story
really well, then get this nagging feeling that I ned to get the plot
moving. RESIST THIS. Just keep doing it slowly and if you finish the story,
great.  (Sometimes my kids are upset the bell rang and we didn’t finish the
story and the next day they want to know how it ends, but because I am
SOOOO old I need to review the story to where we left off, thus giving even
MORE repetitions!)

3.  They are way more interesting to themselves than anything you can come
up with.  Find out who they like.  A story about how dreamy Ben Affleck or
Paul Newman is and how you drool over them doesn’t hold any interest to
them.  But talking about Savannah who wants a date with Trey Songz or
Steven who loves the Black Veil Brides is fascinating.  I think that one of
the absolute best things in the recent incarnation of the method is the
emphasis on making everything personalized.  I am pretty sure the biology
teacher thinks Steven is just plain weird, with his skinny pants, long

Can you engage this kid?

hair, and black eyeliner.  Where else can a goofy kid like him be honored
in the class with his interests totally the center of the moment?  He still
comes to my room to show me his dance video on line or his new skateboard
stuff.  And I don’t even have to fake interest. I really get to bond with
and love my kids, and I really do know all about them!

4. Observe other TPRS teachers.  The first few workshops I went to were put
on by Blaine, with demos by Blaine.  I hesitated to get involved and take
the plunge because that is a tough act to follow.  And that was the only
style I ever saw.  But as I went to more workshops and conferences (there
was nobody local I knew of to observe) I saw Carmen, Joe, Susan, Linda,
Bryce, Ben, Carol, Scott, Katya, Donna, and others.  And I started to
realize that there are as many ways to do TPRS as there are teachers.  I
just need to find the Kelly way of doing it.  Keep going to workshops.
Even experienced teachers get a lot out of beginning workshops.  The thing
is, you are not ever bad enough to break TPRS. (“TPRS done poorly is still
pretty good”). But you will never be perfect at it.  The method is always
evolving, and we can never stop refining our skills.  NBA players still
practice free throws.

5.  Do other things.  If you start feeling stagnant, that will show, and
the kids will almost never be more excited than you are.  Sing songs, do
TPR, show comprehensible videos, do culture projects, try some
content-based instruction via TPRS, read books as a class or in an SSR
format, play games, learn a dance, do yoga, or whatever for a change of
pace.  I do this a lot, because I have a 90-minute block period to fill up,
and kids need to move or take a brain break.  But use these as a break,
don’t “do other things” for six weeks.



  1. This was great to read. Very inspiring to me. Also, this is a reminder that my Spanish 2 kids that I am having a hard time with (because they have never had to learn a language through paying attention, doing their 50% and not doing senseless conjugations and endless worksheets) need me to talk about them more. I feel so slogged down with having to teach the vocab that I forget that they need me to be more interested in them. Thank you so much for posting this.

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