Photo: Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral by Daderot CC BY-SA 3.0

Circling is a fundamental skill for most CI teachers and a core strategy developed by TPRS practitioners. Although I am not sure exactly WHO ‘invented’ circling, I know that Blaine Ray, Susie Gross and Karen Rowan are at least a few of the key contributors to its development. Like many great discoveries, I think that the original intent–providing a great deal of concentrated repetition–distracted people from recognizing circling’s true power, which is its effectiveness for differentiating questions/instruction and training students in pragmatic competence.

Circling is the term TPRS practitioners use to describe a process of asking differentiated or scaffolded questions according to a specific pattern, starting with low-level questions and progressing to higher-level questions. Circling questions shift in their focus, giving special attention to the 3 components (the subject, the verb and the complement) of any given statement.



The beauty of circling is that the process inherently provides natural scaffolding for learners. By starting with low-level questions, teachers differentiate for slower processors, providing the scaffolding needed to help them process and make meaning of the question.  The natural progression to higher-level interrogative questions and ultimately creative detail-seeking questions moves students along the continuum from low-level language/cognitive skills to higher-level skills.  In pedagogical terms, circling is actually a differentiation technique, the by-product of which is repetition (repeated exposures to key language structures), a much-needed condition for SLA to occur.

Circling can be a powerful technique, but it does not come without caveats. Due to the potentially redundant nature of the questions, instruction can become monotonous, and therefore becomes less effective/engaging.  Often based on a static pattern, (yes, or, no, interrogative), circling questions may soon become predictable, eliminating the NEED to listen or pay attention to the questions. Learners tend to tune out the questions and simply mumble the sound that fits the pattern. I call these responses the ‘Circling Mumble,’ which consists of slightly disengaged students who make simple sounds of yeah, nah, etc., leaving the teacher appeased and thinking that all students are listening to/thoughtfully answering the questions.

Circling questions can also become contrived, as teachers focus more on forcing the next question in the pattern vs. on creating a thoughtful question that will guide students down the road to proficiency.   An excess of circling questions can actually make input more confusing, as teachers provide aimless repetition without thinking about the implications of each echo of very similar information.  Ultimately, there are two things to keep in mind: Too much monotonous circling results in bad teaching, and ‘bad’ circling will never result in ‘good’ teaching.

So how does one ‘circle’ effectively? The answer is threefold:

1) By focusing on the principles of pragmatic competence, which is a listener’s ability to gauge the speaker’s intent and the impact it has on the interpretation of language. Pragmatics relies on voice inflection, body language and facial expressions to change the speaker’s intent and the meaning of a single statement. Imagine the following statement made in 3 unique ways, changing voice inflection and tone, and adding pauses where the < > occur to change the speaker’s intent.

<CAROL> has 3 World Series rings???? [shocked and incredulous tone]

Carol <HAS> 3 World Series rings???? [a bit sarcastic and skeptical; has vs. STOLE]

Carol has <3> World Series rings????  [Surprise & amazement, questioning the possibility.]

In terms of language acquisition, the goal should be to train students to achieve pragmatic competence. Students will naturally engage more readily with input that is easily understood and that also requires thoughtful processing.  By focusing on pragmatic competence, students learn to distinguish the various meanings of each statement. Failing to incorporate voice inflection, pauses, body language and facial expressions into your circling practice lulls students into a disengaged state of shallow attention and rote responses.

2) Listen to students!! You will become much less focused on the pattern of questions and what question you are supposed to ask next, if you just listen to your students’ responses. Even a yes or no question can inspire some creative or witty answers from students. Listen to those responses, recognize the contribution (with eye contact, a smile, laughter & a follow-up question or confirmation), and carry on a conversation just as you would when talking to someone in the hallway or at a party.

3) Think on your feet and circle LESS! Circling questions are potentially the most mundane questions a teacher can ask.  Use them sparingly and only when they are necessary to provide simplified input and repetition of core language structures. Circling should not be used as a crutch when teachers are unable to think of more engaging questions. Better to shift to another activity or another topic than to use circling as your perpetual questioning technique. There are plenty of other questioning strategies that are inherent in TPRS/other CI approaches to fall back on. If you cannot think of interesting comprehensible questions spontaneously, then jot a few questions down before class begins. Have an idea of what you are going to talk about / ask about ahead of time.

When teachers ask me when to circle or how much to circle, I like to use the analogy of salt.  The flavor of most foods is made a bit more robust by adding a touch of salt.  For most people, salt enhances (almost) every meal.  Too much salt, however, can quickly ruin a meal and destroy the flavor of the food. Generally, the more hearty the meal, the more salt required. The more meaty your language structures, the more circling required. Apply the ‘rule of salt’ to artful circling, and you’ll have found a great balance in your instruction.

The circling technique is brilliant, and when done artfully, the results are astounding. However, when over-used and void of linguistic style, circling can result in low-level thinking, disengagement and little to no acquisition. Thus my strong believe that “If you can’t circle artfully by focusing on pragmatic competence and differentiation of instruction, then stop circling… at least until you are able to do it more effectively.”

Carol Gaab, tprstorytelling.com

  • Keith Toda
    Posted at 09:30h, 14 April


    I appreciate your post very much. When I first began using TPRS years ago, I implemented circling to the T with my students, because I thought that I had to. I noticed that students soon became very bored with it or figured out the pattern; unfortunately I did not do anything about it, because I did not want to deviate from what I had learned. At NTPRS 2015, however, when I heard you say “Circling can get really old, really fast with students, so you need to vary it up,” I was so relieved! Finally, I heard someone say that it was okay not to circle all the time! Now I vary up the type of questioning and also realize that it is okay not to question all the time.


  • Dixie VanRemmen
    Posted at 11:29h, 14 April

    I am very pleased to read your definition of circling and I think that it is absolutely correct. If someone is unable to keep up the momentum, and drama, and dynamics, use another part of TPRS.

  • Tom Simms
    Posted at 14:40h, 14 April

    This was well explained. I realize I’ve been incorporating pragmatic competence more and more with experience, but when you start out, it’s enough just to keep track of the kinds of questions you’re asking.

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