TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling)

In the last post I wrote a little about the TPRS Seminar I attended at National Taiwan Normal University. I found my notes and thought I would edit them here. This is a method I first learned about from Pamela Rose, who I met on social media via our French Canadian friend, Fred. The speaker was Terry Waltz.

The first part of the seminar used Hawaiian to show how students could begin learning a foreign language. For maybe 60 minutes Waltz took us through a pictographic text with some English words spaced in. In TPRS you can provide quick glossing, but you primarily rely on context, repetition, and frequent variation using a small core of vocab that grows over time. It’s a little hard to explain here but I feel like I accept the core approach, which gives students the same word many different ways. (For me, French was very hard until I had the French in Action program, and I’ve always learned Chinese best through conversation and discussion.) TPRS is more complicated than I’ve described here–it also often adds hand signals to reinforce words, and it uses a method called “circling” where you approach the same set of expressions over and over again using variations. The goal is to get the student as much “comprehensible input” as you can, repeating and varying stories over and over again. It is a great, somewhat less painful way to learn. I tried it a little on Eva this last week with sight words, and it really seemed to help here.


The seminar was a good experience for me personally, for several reasons:

  1. It’s easy to coast on language after you’ve gotten to a comfortable point
  2. It was cathartic to see Chinese teachers in class who didn’t want to be called on and struggled to come with answers
  3. With Sam we’re always looking for a different system.

This system seems to work. They had a class they tried where they did 22 hours of Chinese in 12 days and then asked students to express English sentences in Chinese, and they were able to communicate a number of grammatical concepts. Close to 90% could correctly use 兩, use 沒 to negate a word, use of 個 as a measure word, and so on. Language learning is hard, so being able to give learners an approach that is interesting, non-shame based, and cumulative is very valuable.

Traditional Methods

I learned Chinese using a traditional method, with a lot of variations. I began at the University of Michigan on a fellowship (since discontinued) called Program for Intercollaboration Area Studies (PICAS). We used the DeFrancis book. At Wooster I did a reader called Taiwan Today. Then in Beijing we used a mix of Foreign Language Institute and the main PRC readers from the period. Later I did some classical, but most of this involved writing characters over and overagain and a lot of practice filling in sentences with vocab words or making sentences. I always hated the “make a sentence” model and I like that TPRS does more yes/no, rephrase/mirror the answer type methods. In Taiwan I spent a while at Taipei Languages Institute, and while they didn’t have an exact method I felt like the teachers were basically sympathetic and patient. If I learn another language (or return to Taiwanese) I’d probably try more TPRS. For me, I’m fairly happy with my current Chinese level: I can type emails and read a range of materials I use professionally, I can communicate easily for street life, and can teach in my field. I can’t read a newspaper and there are whole categories of vocabulary I’ve never learned, but my problem with communicating isn’t a lack of memorized word or needing to write long letters by hand.

TPSR for Kids

One of the challenges with language learning (I believe) is that native speakers learn differently from non-natives. Sam kind of sits between these two categories and he faces a different set of issues than I do. I would say that the issues are:

  1. Culturally he is often coded as a foreigner and either let out of work or ignored. He came out of kindergarten with only a loose grasp of 注音 alphabet, whereas most of his classmates could read using it. I remember near the end of kindergarten telling his teachers that he would continue studying in Chinese and they looked surprised. I think people here often assume that Chinese is just something he’s trying out. His teacher in first and second grade kept him close to grade level but his current teacher mostly ignores him.
  2. At the same time, as parents we’re also not as invested in the traditional learning system. Learning to write Chinese by hand takes a ridiculous amount of time. I would guess Sam’s classmates are doing several hours of homework a day after an 8 hour school day. We know a 4th grader who doesn’t end after school cram school until 8 pm. We’re not really willing to do that to him. His recognition is “pretty good” when I’ve looked at simple words with him and my guess is his comprehension could be close to classmates’ if we had the time/teachers to keep him on track.
  3. CSL in Sam’s school is kind of a Chinese lite curriculum, by which I mean that they use the exact same books as the regular class but go through them very slowly and don’t give quizzes or tests. CSL has been good for Sam socially in that it’s let him know other non-Taiwanese students and we really like the teacher (who has been a caretaker/advocate for him). At the same time, with limited funds it makes more sense to spend them on tutoring or something where he could work exactly at his skill level. If we “mainstream” him his main teacher would also have to engage him more.

An interesting take away from the TPRS seminar was how foreigners learn and use Chinese. Waltz said that she surveyed MRT riders in Taiwan on when they handwrite Chinese and they use it three ways: to write down phone message, to make shopping lists, and to send personal cards. Her takeaway was that in today’s world it is fine to focus on recognition of characters and being able to compose on computer. (The main exception here is testing: most Taiwanese testing still uses paper and pencil.) For Sam, I think I’m going to see if his school would let him take a tablet computer in and type during class, do flash cards, read, and do other exercises. I’ve started him on pinyin (the main foreigner romanization system) and he seems to get it. I’m not sure if he’s sufficiently self-motivated to so much learning on his own, but he has an amazing knack to work on something if he really wants to learn it (he’s now working on the names of Pokemon in Chinese–閃電鳥,噴火龍,等).

This isn’t a magic bullet, but our goal has always been to try to keep kids in Chinese for as long as possible. In some ways, language is a waiting game–how can you steep yourself in the language long enough to really learn and use? This seems like a promising approach.

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