1. Pre-teach the new words with a TPRS story…

But what IS a TPRS story, anyway?

Before reading a novel, we want the students to know the language in the novel. Heck, before reading much of anything, we want the students to know the language in the reading. And in TPRS, the way we get the language into the students is (usually called) a story. (In reality, it could be a conversation, personalized questions, etc. But it’s oral input, that’s the point.)

TPRS always goes 99% in the same direction. The process is: get told it (establishing meaning), hear it (comprehending), read it (also comprehending).

But a teacher recently posted asking for help teaching a novel because it seemed strange to have to take as long to teach a story for the new words as for reading the novel itself. I scrolled down the post and found a story, all right — a really big one. What surprised me was the targets that were mentioned. There were only three single words.

So, what went wrong? What was the teachers’ guide writer probably imagining that didn’t happen?


1. Stories have to be asked, not told.

The story posted was complete. Long. No blanks. Not a skeleton to allow for student input; just a narrative. It was also based on a familiar storyline, in part. There was a very different ending, but it was the teacher’s ending, not the students’ ending.

If we are going to teach new words through a story, we do it through an oral story, one that is asked in partnership with the students. So what the teacher would want would be a story skeleton — a plan that would allow for her to definitely get to the three target words) but leave the decisions about details and the end or solution to the students.


2. TPRS glues words together into “items” instead of teaching them individually

In the case this teacher mentions, the three words could easily and obviously be put together into one phrase. It’s as though one had to teach the words “small”, “is” and “car” — you wouldn’t do them separately, you would probably (if you were in this situation, trying to get them understood for the purpose of reading a novel) teach “car is small” and then let the students customize it by deciding whose car, what the car is like, if it’s small compared to all cars or only small compared to Stuart Little’s car, or whatever. And does it have a tiny rollover bar? 😉


3. TPRS doesn’t teach that which doesn’t need to be taught

While one of the words the teacher believed were still unknown to that class was a conjugated verb form (and something that would probably appropriately be TPRS’d in a story), the other two were pretty concrete things. Things like colors, body parts and so on  can have meaning established very easily just by pointing, and that may well be enough if that isn’t what’s important to the class at that moment. As long as it’s made comprehensible, it’s okay (but don’t expect mastery of it soon, and don’t test it).


4. Not all words are created equal

A particular word may possibly NOT need to be pre-taught if it is just mentioned in passing in the novel. If the novel is “The Deadly Eye of Jennifer’s Uncle”, but it never mentions his eye again after the title, then just tell them what “eye” means and get on with things. In other cases, I suppose having  the word “eye” could seem pretty important — but then again, “eye” might recur so darn many times in that book (when someone is so misguided as to write it) that you could simply establish meaning and then let repetition IN THE NOVEL do its work. (I’m thinking of a novel written in a nice, transparent script so that kids are looking at sounds, instead of looking at Chinese characters and having no memory of that word they only heard once before, of course.)

So, picking things to pre-teach or not to pre-teach is a teacher judgement issue. The teacher has to read the whole novel first. He has to read it with his novice hat on. What will a novice see when reading this text? What unknowns are “bad” and would trip them up, and which ones are things that can be gently and quickly facilitated by the teacher, since they are not really important in the scheme of things?

Essentially, this problem is an understanding-TPRS-overall issue. Just knowing that TPRS “tells stories” isn’t the whole, well, story. If you go into a classroom and try to tell a story, it might be a hit — but more likely it won’t. Because the students have no ownership of it. And, like it or not, we teachers are No Longer Cool.

This is a good example where TPRS seems easy, but a little training goes a long ways to clarifying some of the strange expressions we use to talk about what we do. So, what “teach the unknown words using a TPRS story” really means is: “use the unknown words orally with students after establishing their meaning. Use them enough that you figure they are pretty solid, so they’ll understand the word when they meet it in the novel.”

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