“What’s in the box?”: The simplicity of storyasking

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I was painting with my 3yo this morning, and he asked, “Mom, what are you painting?”

IMG_0971“A box”

“What’s in the box?”

“What do you think is in the box?”

“A toy”

“What kind of a toy?”

“A toy MONSTER!”

“A toy monster! That sounds scary!”

“No, it’s not scary. It’s nice.”

This short exchange reminded me why I so love storyasking, or, in other words, collective imagining. Whether I’m working from a script or allowing students’ imaginations to take us in any direction they conceive, it is just fun to see what they come up with. My sons can spend hours living out an adventure in an imaginary world. Neither the ability nor the desire to “play pretend” vanish with puberty, although practice is sometimes required to dust them off. School is hard–LIFE is hard–for many of our students, and giving them the gift of play for 45 minutes a day is one of the greatest things that we can do for them! Imagining doesn’t mean that the stories that students create have to be silly or even unrealistic: it means that the stories have to be theirs. There is nothing quite so satisfying as that magical metacognitive moment when students realize that the story they are creating is being narrated–and they are understanding it–in the target language! Our goal as TPRS®/CI teachers is to provide comprehensible input that is so compelling that students forget that they are learning a language. It’s easy to lose sight of that with the politics of education and all of the requirements that are placed on us and imposed upon our curriculum. So why not return to your first love this week with a simple question just to see where it will take you:

“What’s in the box?” 

Sound Effects AUDITION for Read-Alouds

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Katie Sevilla just sent me an email describing an awesome twist that she made to the Sound Effects Read-Aloud activity that I described in this post. Before beginning Chapter 1 of Esperanza, she had her students audition to be the student that provided each of the sound effects during the reading! I love this idea so much! She used three sound effects: “la bebé llora”, “el teléfono suena” and “la persona misteriosa respira / respiración”.

By running the auditions in the target language, you will get loads of repetitions of the target structures even before reading the first word on the page, and your students will be rolling on the floor laughing (well, as long as you have a few dramatic kiddos among the bunch!). Thanks for sharing, Katie!

Thief! A game to practice physical descriptions and direct object pronouns

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I shared this game on my blog many years ago, and I’m posting it an updated version today since it is so buried in the archives.

“Thief” is a game that I first learned about from Michele Whaley, who read about it in a post by Jeremy Jordan on the MoreTPRS listserv. I have historically used it as a P.A.T. game and when targeting physical descriptions and direct object pronouns.

Click here to download print-ready instructions for this game.


  1. One student (“The Victim”) leaves the classroom and goes into the hall.
  2. Another student (“The Thief”) steals something that belongs to The Victim and holds onto it. The Thief can sit on it, put it in his/her binder, etc.
  3. The Victim returns to the classroom and determines what was stolen. To do this, The Victim can use one of several questions or statements, based on the language structures that the teacher wants to practice, such as “I don’t have…”, “Where is my…?”, “Someone stole my….!”, or “My …. is missing!” The teacher should use the same language structure to coach the student by asking questions to The Victim and narrating the findings to the class. For example, “Do you have your pencil?” “Class, [Victim] has his/her … pencil!” “You have your pencil, but do you have your flute?”. In this way, the teacher provides necessary vocabulary to the student that s/he might not already know, and the teacher provides the class with many repetitions of the target structure with Comprehensible Input.
  4. Once The Victim has determined what was stolen, s/he must identify The Thief. The Victim does this by asking yes/no physical description questions, like “Is it a boy or girl?” “Is s/he tall?” “Is s/he wearing a blue shirt?” You may choose to give a ‘cheat sheet’ (example included) to The Victim to help him or her come up with questions.  As always, circle and personalize the questions, and check for comprehension throughout the activity. If you are unfamiliar with the circling or personalization strategy, please visit this link.
  5. Someone in the class should tally the number of yes/no questions that it takes The Victim to identify The Thief. If you play several rounds, the winner is The Victim that identifies The Thief with the fewest yes/no questions.


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Valentine’s Day

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Hopefully this post reaches you in time to be of some use! I am visiting family in NY, and so I don’t have time to put together a new Valentine’s Day activity for y’all to use. Instead, I’m compiling a list of CI-friendly Valentine’s Day activities from around the web! I have an old story that I might finish formatting to post before the end of the week… but don’t hold your breath. These activities are pretty Spanish-heavy, but you should be able to adapt at least a few of them if you teach a language other than Spanish.

  1. Hearts from Cynthia Hitz: Students practice the subjunctive by writing notes to their ‘love’ telling them what they want them to do. She used them to make a bulletin board, which is an often-overlooked form of program advocacy through the simple visual reminder that language classes are available and appear to be fun.
  2. Valentine’s Day Pinterest Board: Follow this board to find all kinds of V-Day ideas (some that I love, and some that I don’t… but at least they’re there for you to decide for yourselves!), and stay updated with new ones that I find around the web.
  3. Bryce Hedstrom’s ‘Occupy Valentine’s Day’ activity: for all of the students that DON’T have a special someone in their lives on this day
  4. MovieTalk and activities for El Soltero from Elizabeth Dentlinger
  5. Poem activity: Find a love poem (or anti-love poem) in your target language and use the activity that Michele Whaley describes at the beginning of this post
  6. My ‘Carlos el cleptómano’ unit: Uses the target structures to talk about dating customs in Spanish-speaking countries. Get just the script in Spanish and English here.
  7. Short film unit for “Love Recipe”: a husband and wife prepare for a big date (4 day unit)
  8. A MovieTalk video shared by Michele
  9. Resources from Sharon Birch: There are a LOT.

Elementary adaptations: Crafts!

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Laura Masci, who teaches Spanish at the elementary level, emailed me to share a few of the ways that she has adapted the ‘Dice’ unit, and specifically the teaching of the song “Los pollitos dicen” for her young students. Laura just began her TCI journey, and she wrote, “These elementary students are more engaged in the last two weeks than in the whole earlier part of the year”. This is the same thing that I experienced when I made the switch to TPRS®/CI! For the first time, all of my students were engaged and building fluency–not just the upper echelon of “studious” students!

The “Dice” unit is the first one that I teach with my Spanish 1 students, and I love the additions that she has made while using it at the elementary level. The first one is by turning my “Campanadas” into Comprehension pages that the students can complete. The second is adding a craft for the song “Los pollitos dicen”, because let’s face it–an elementary school unit is not an elementary school unit without a craft! The dozens of boxes in my parents’ crawlspace will bear witness to this fact. I love how she wrote out the instructions in a PPT with pictures to support the students’ understanding of the instructions. As always, circle, personalize, and check for comprehension while giving the instructions, just as you would during story asking.

Click on the image to download everything that Laura created:

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Fast Finisher Resources

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It’s a new semester for many of y’all, and if you used Fast Finisher activities in the fall, you probably have a few students that are chomping at the bit, ready for more. Martina to the rescue! I finished up a new pack of 15 Fast Finisher worksheets (purchase it here), and even better I have started a Pinboard onto which I will be pinning ready-to-go, printable worksheets that I find online and think would work well for this purpose. (The purpose of Fast Finisher activities is for students that finish their work quickly to be able to grab something to do and complete it without needing help from the teacher–read more about how I used them in my class here.)

Logic Puzzles make great Fast Finisher activities!

Logic Puzzles make great Fast Finisher activities!

Click here to check out the Fast Finisher Pinboard! You’ll find a huge range of activities (especially as I continue to pin to this board–there’s not much there yet), so you’ll need to think about what kind of activities you want your students to work on and then sort through the ones that I pin. I prefer to use activities that give students comprehensible input, but I definitely include some straight-up vocabulary activities and even a few grammar and culture activities just for variety. Keep in mind that the kids that will be completing these activities have already finished what was expected of them in class, so the Fast Finisher activities should not be a burden. They should be activities that the students enjoy doing, FIRST, and if they provide high-quality input, even better. As you build your library of Fast Finisher activities, you’ll be able to weed out more and more of the not-so-beneficial activities as you substitute better ones in. The activities that are most beneficial to students’ language acquisition are reading-based (even if they are puzzles) and match or slightly exceed the proficiency level of the students that will be using them.

What procedures have you set up in your classes for ‘Fast Finisher’ students? Other than the folders, FVR is always a great option–and Mike Peto and Crystal Barragán are two of my fave bloggers to learn about that! Check out TPRS Publishing’s FVR Pinboard to see many of their ideas and those of others! 

TPRS®/CI as Explicit Instruction

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Michele Whaley, a Russian teacher at West High School in Anchorage, invited me to her classroom in 2009 to observe a TPRS® lesson. I went in expecting to see a glorified version of Simon Says. What I saw bemused me, and it drove me to park myself in front of my TV for the next three days with training DVDs playing and a pencil and notebook in hand. I have spent the last six years seeking out further training in TPRS® (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and other Comprehensible Input (CI) strategies, and I have discovered that when used correctly they are not only incredibly fun and engaging, but effective and explicit as well.

TPRS®/CI teachers are often criticized for sacrificing quality for quantity: critics claim that while their students may be able to understand and produce large amounts of language, the language is full of errors because of a lack of explicit grammar instruction and/or error correction. In a world of “How well you teach = How well they learn”, the assumption is that TPRS®/CI teachers just aren’t teaching that well.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 8.59.07 PMHowever, in Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching, Anita Archer and Charles Hughes have compiled the works of at least nine educational researchers and created a list of sixteen instructional behaviors that are characteristic of an explicit approach to teaching: an approach that is purported to promote achievement for all students because of its directness and scaffolding. Interestingly enough, all sixteen elements that Archer and Hughes list are used by trained TPRS®/CI teachers. According to Archer and Hughes, Explicit Instruction is systematic, direct, engaging, and success oriented. In other words, students must be presented content in a step-by-step, logical order along with clear goals and explanations at each point along the way. The content must be presented in an interesting manner and with adequate supports so that all students achieve the goals with which they are presented. Trained TPRS®/CI teachers provide their students with explicit, highly engaging grammar and vocabulary instruction through the use of several key features and strategies, all of which can be used to enhance any curriculum.

Comprehensible Input According to Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis, Comprehensible Input is the most important factor in language acquisition. The input hypothesis claims that we acquire language when we comprehend input (textual or auditory) that is one step above our current level of linguistic competency: in a nutshell; language can only be acquired when it is understood. TPRS®/CI teachers believe that everything that our students receive (hear or read) in class be comprehensible to them. In any subject area, teachers must use clear and concise language (Element 8) Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 9.24.37 PMin order for their students to learn. It makes sense that this would be doubly true when language is both the means and the end of instruction, as is the case in language classrooms in which a minimum of 90 percent instructional time is spent in the target language. Cynthia Hitz, a long-time Spanish teacher from Pennsylvania, relates it to first language acquisition: “When we talk to a young child, we don’t have the option to switch to another language. We simply adjust our language to speak to the child in a manner that he understands. We naturally limit the vocabulary. The same applies to students learning their second language. I limit the vocabulary, which allows me to stay in the TL and to keep it comprehensible”. Mike Peto, in “My generation of Polyglots” blogged about the importance of focusing instruction on input instead of output: “You DO get out what you put in… you get OUTput if you put in comprehensible INput. What comes out (the writing) is profoundly shaped by what went in beforehand (all of the reading and listening that was comprehensible and interesting enough to grab the attention of the student)”. TPRS®/CI teachers include writing and speaking activities in their plans, but they are not the center of instruction: those skills will come as a natural overflow of the comprehensible language with which we flood them.

High Frequency Structures While TPRS®/CI strategies can be used to present any curriculum, many CI teachers strive to use curricula that are based on the systematic presentation of high frequency structures as opposed to the thematic units that are often found in traditional language textbooks. High frequency structures, which can be single words or phrases, are the terms that are most often used in a language. For example, structures like “has a problem”, “needs food”, and “wants something” are universal high frequency structures. Carol Gaab, President of TPRS Publishing, Inc., explains the importance of building curricula around high frequency structures: “[The] real benefit of teaching high-frequency words first is that we (teachers) are equipping students with the most essential and useful words for communication. There are certain words that are used every day, words that are crucial to one’s ability to communicate with a native speaker. Teaching these essential, non-negotiable parts of speech first has a direct positive impact on students’ listening/reading comprehension and subsequently on their ability to respond (produce) in the Target Language”. By teaching the most frequently occurring words in a language first, there is a logical sequence to the content (Elements 1 and 2) and a natural provision for distributed and cumulative practice (Element 16) of previous material. The teacher will continue to use these terms throughout the year, and students’ understanding of their meaning and usage is strengthened–not forgotten–as time passes.

Circling Circling is the most basic strategy in a TPRS®/CI teacher’s repertoire. Circling allows a teacher to provide a high number of repetitions of the target structure in a systematic, engaging manner. To circle, a teacher begins by making a statement; for example, “Bob wants a puppy.” The teacher then asks questions about the statement by substituting variables for each component of the original statement (subject, verb, object). By asking different questions (yes/no, either/or, open-ended) and selecting variables that create funny or otherwise interesting statements, the teacher is constantly aware of his or her students’ understanding of the material, and the students remain engaged. Here is an example of a teacher script for circling: (The teacher pauses after each question and waits for the student(s) to respond before affirming the correct statement)

“Does Bob want a puppy?” “Yes, Bob wants a puppy!”

“Does Bob want a cat?” “No, Bob hates cats! They’re terrible! Bob wants a puppy!”

“Does Bob want a puppy or does Bob eat a puppy?” “Bob doesn’t eat a puppy! He’s not a monster! Bob wants a puppy”

“What does Bob want?” “Bob wants a puppy” “A cute little puppy!”

“Why does Bob want a puppy?” “Bob wants a puppy because girls like puppies and Bob wants a girlfriend!”

The constant stream of Q&A provides an adequate range of examples and non-examples, demands frequent responses from students, facilitates close monitoring of student performance, and naturally provides immediate and affirmative corrective feedback (Elements 9, 11-13). And, while it certainly keeps the lesson moving at a brisk pace (Element 14), teachers must be careful to not set a pace that is too brisk that students become lost in the flurry of questions.

The three stages of Explicit Instruction

The three stages of Explicit Instruction

Three Steps to TPRS® Many teachers find TPRS®, a specific strategy for delivering Comprehensible Input, appealing because there are just three steps to remember: Establish Meaning, Story, Literacy. There are innumerable permutations of each step, but the steps remain the same. By following these three steps, teachers easily design organized and focused lessons (Element 4). To establish meaning, teachers present the new structures to their students in the target language and give the meaning in English. Often, this is done by saying the word and translation and writing them on the board in two colors (for example, black for the target language and blue for English). By following this step, the teacher naturally begins lessons with a clear statement of the lesson’s goals (Element 5). Instruction then continues with the class created, teacher-directed story that includes the target structures. The process is complete after students have read a text that also includes the target structures; sometimes, it is a version of the class story, but other times it is unrelated.

Embedded Reading Developed by Laurie Clarcq and Michele Whaley, Embedded Reading is one possibility for the “Literacy” step of TPRS®. It is three or more readings in which each subsequent reading is an expanded version of the one that precedes it. Embedded Reading takes a text and breaks it down into smaller, more easily mastered pieces (Element 3). Clarcq explains how these readings meet the needs of all students in a class: “The base reading is at the reading level of the lowest-achieving reader in the group. Each succeeding version contains the base reading and is designed to raise the skill level and the interest of the readers, without leaving any students behind. The activities designed to accompany the readings help to build these skills and challenge more advanced readers”. In this way, all students are both successful and appropriately challenged with each level of the reading.

Comprehension Checks Comprehension Checks are targeted questions that allow the teacher to know whether or not students understand what they are being taught. Additionally, they allow students to affirm or correct understanding, make connections with previous concepts, and develop new knowledge. A trained TPRS®/CI teacher uses comprehension checks constantly to assess language acquisition and to provide differentiated, guided, and supported practice (Element 10). For example, a teacher could make the statement “Maria es una muchacha” (Maria is a girl). To one student, the teacher could ask “¿Quién es una muchacha?” (“Who is a girl?”). To another, “What does the word “muchacha” mean in English?” To yet another, the teacher could ask “How would you say “María is not a girl” or “María was a girl?”, thereby requiring the student to use a concept that was previously taught. The teacher matches the difficulty of the question to the ability of the student so that the student is challenged at his/her own level yet always able to be successful.

Pop-Up Grammar Trained TPRS®/CI teachers provide explicit grammar instruction through “Pop-up grammar” lessons: extremely short, contextualized explanations of grammatical concepts. In the experience of  Terry Waltz, Ph.D., who provides specialized training in and for Mandarin Chinese, “Pop-up grammar works [because] it is very, very highly contextualized. Putting things in context is important, [and] pop-up grammar easily wheels the grammar mini-lesson to where the context already exists.” For example, after reading the sentence “Yo puedo bailar” (I can dance), a teacher might say “We have already seen the word ‘puede’ (‘s/he/it can’). This word is just a little different. The ‘-o’ on the end of “puedo” means that “I” is the subject, so this word means “I can”. Instead of teaching big grammar concepts like verb conjugation and agreement of gender and number with long notes and in grammatical terms, teachers present the concepts to their students by explicitly ‘noticing’ one small chunk at a time (Element 7). Then, they use circling, contrastive grammar, and comprehension checks to reinforce the concept. Waltz continues, “…Pop-ups happen frequently. They take full advantage of the rich comprehensible input TPRS® provides, with many examples of different structures. Acquisition of words happens by matching language to meaning over and over; acquisition of patterns (grammar) happens by generalizing thousands of matches of language to meaning even when the word-level meaning is different”. The frequency of pop-up grammar lessons ensure the distributed and cumulative practice of grammar concepts, just as the focus on high frequency structures does for vocabulary.

Contrastive Grammar Contrastive grammar is a strategy that TPRS®/CI teachers use to present grammatical concepts in context by comparing a new concept to one that students have already mastered. To begin instruction, the teacher reviews prior knowledge (Element 6) by writing the old term (a verb in the present tense, for example) on the board in two colors. Then, he or she establishes meaning for the new term (ex: the past tense of a verb) and adds it to the board. From there, the teacher uses circling and comprehension checks to compare and contrast the two terms so that students acquire the correct meaning and usage of the two terms. This strategy organizes students’ knowledge (Element 15) of the language without requiring the use of lengthy grammar notes.

Personalized Questions and Answers The “heart” of TPRS® is the teacher-student relationship. We strive to build this by making the students the center of instruction–both content and delivery. Personalized Question and Answer (PQA) sessions happen in almost every TPRS®/CI classroom, every day. It is a time when the teacher asks questions that include the target structures to the students about their lives. For example, questions for the target structure “went” might be “Who went somewhere interesting last summer?” Then, their answers are discussed and expanded (and “embellished”, quite often) using techniques like circling, comprehension checks, and contrastive grammar. Kristy Placido, who teaches Spanish in Michigan, states that “PQA allows learners to experience language structures in a different, more personal context. [It] allows modeling of first and second person language”. She continues by saying that PQA makes a lesson compelling because people’ favorite topic of discussion is themselves!

By presenting students with compelling, highly useful content while meeting all elements of Explicit Instruction, it is easy to see why teachers across the globe are adding TPRS® and other Comprehensible Input strategies into their instructional rotations. If you’d like to see any of these strategies in action, please send out a query on the MoreTPRS listserv to find a trained TPRS®/CI teacher in your area that you can observe. Just beware–you might find yourself the subject of the daily PQA!


I wrote and submitted the above post for publication (unsuccessfully) to The Language Educator in 2013. It is an expanded version of something that I originally wrote to provide to my administrator as justification for using TPRS®/CI in my Spanish courses. As a Title I School on a Level 5 plan for improvement, all teachers were trained in Explicit Instruction and required to use instructional strategies characterized by its 16 elements. If you find yourself in a similar position, please email me directly at MartinaEBex at gmail dot com to request written permission to use this post as justification for TPRS®/CI.

All content © 2011-2014 The Comprehensible Classroom. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written consent from Martina Bex is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Martina Bex at The Comprehensible Classroom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.