Bob buys a green car.
Does Bob buy a green car? (Yes). Yes, Bob buys a green car. Does Bob buy a horse? (No) That’s right, Bob doesn’t buy a horse. He buys a green car. Does Bob buy or rent a green car? (Buys) Yes, he buys a green car. He doesn’t rent a green car, he buys one. Does George buy a green car? No, he doesn’t. George doesn’t buy a green car. Bob buys a green car.

That’s circling, right?

Nope.

That is someone who doesn’t understand the function of circling questions (a question type, not a discrete activity) going through the asking of these questions as a discrete activity. A little chunk of let’s-stop-everything-and-repeat-this-stuff. Which can be fine, assuming the teacher is fluent and smooth in questioning, and there’s no awkward thinking-what-to-ask-next and so on.

But no matter how smooth the teacher is in doing this, it’s still a lump of language. And TPRS is not about lumps. A lump in the gravy distracts from the taste of the turkey, and lumps of language distract from the flow of the communication, whether it’s asking personalized questions, talking about a picture or video clip, or asking a story.

So what is special about the circling question type?

The special quality of these questions lies in the fact that they do not move the story forward. They do not require the addition of more information to be answered. Because of that, they are somewhat indicative of comprehension (which should still be checked through spot translations). But their true function is to provide repetition of the language being focused upon, while reducing the burden of thinking of more “stuff” for the story. They are (content-wise) “easy” questions, though they may not be easy in terms of understanding or using the language. Actually, they should definitely not be easy in terms of using the language, because language that has already been acquired shouldn’t be circled.

So really, circling questions simply stand in contrast to open-ended questions, the kind that elicit details or story actions or new information from the students. They should be thought of as a question type, not a “now let’s do this” activity.

Because we want to provide many “easy” (content-wise) questions for that crucial repetition of the unacquired language, and we want to do it in a way that cannot be anticipated, we need many different circling questions, not just the two or three that a teacher would likely ask over and over without having any training in how to form circling questions. That’s why teachers are trained separately on circling: it’s not instinctual to find so many possible questions in a single statement.

But circling is just a question type. It doesn’t include the many things that need to happen in a successful TPRS classroom, such as doing comprehension checks, moving the communication forward by adding new information through non-circling (open) questions, repeating the long form of the students’ short answers, and so on. So in the new teacher’s mind, those things are outside of circling, because they’ve been trained to circle as a “thing”. This is precisely backwards; circling-type questions must be dispersed, not happen as a “time-out”. They cannot be a lump, but rather must be dispersed, non-intrusive questions that provide subtle repetition of the new language while everything else continues to go forward.

TPRS has matured and expanded since its beginnings. Comprehended input is being provided in many forms other than simply asking (another positive move forward from the former “telling”) stories. These less rigid and much more varied forms of input require subtler repetition than simply standing and practicing language by taking to an individual student. And this new level of demand placed on circling means that circling cannot and must not be seen or practiced as a separate “thing”. It cannot stand on its own. It must be completely and fully integrated into the communicative flow, so that the input provided is comprehended, personalized and repetitive (CPR input) without students ever realizing everything that is being done to make it more than just comprehended.