unspecifiedRewind to me four years ago sitting in my first Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling® (TPRS) workshop. I was learning about great reading and storytelling techniques but I couldn’t wrap my mind around one thing: how does this work in the elementary classroom? How do I make reading an integral part of my curriculum when half of my students are preliterate? How are my squirmy first graders going to be able to listen to a story for a thirty minute class?

Below are some of the ways that I have adapted T/CI to keep my elementary-aged students engaged and my class comprehensible.


My students love storytelling! Often when my students enter my classroom the first thing they ask me is “Are we acting out a story today?” They love having their voices heard and playing an active role in their learning. I have found the general guidelines of storytelling are the same at the elementary levels as the upper levels with a few key exceptions…

  1. Less is more! Because my students are younger their attention span is short, and therefore I spend less time focusing on specific details in the story. Carol Gaab calls this “parking”– pausing the storytelling process to establish specific details in the story. While this does provide great comprehensible input, it is often difficult for a 7 year old to stay interested and focused on a small detail for a long period of time. The elementary T/CI teacher spends less time “parked” on specific details and instead focuses on keeping the story moving.
  2. Keep it tangible! I have found that with my younger students (especially first and second graders) I have the greatest success when we create stories that focus on their lives and community. Developmentally, my young students are more invested in stories that focus on their lives than stories about famous people in bizarre places. That is not to say that the bizarre doesn’t hold a place in storytelling because it certainly does (we all know that input needs to be comprehensible AND compelling), it just means that young learners are more engaged when they can see how the story relates to their lives.
  3. Props, props, props! The use of props during storytelling should always enhance class– the moment the prop turns into a distraction it becomes counterproductive. Having said that, adding a simple pair of glasses or jacket can make a story come to life! These props, however basic they may be, help add to the magic and excitement of storytelling.
  4. Asking questions is an integral part of storytelling because it adds repetitions of target vocabulary structures and lets the teacher gauge the level of student comprehension. For my students in the upper grades I rely heavily on question words posters to ask a variety of questions such as Who?, When?, Where?, Why?, What?, etc. The question asking process looks different for my students in the lower grades because so many of them are preliterate. If I refer to the question word posters I will often just focus on one or two words (usually who? and what?) and assign a person who yells out the translation every time I point at the poster. Otherwise, I do a variety of yes/no questions or I ask the question and give the students options to choose from. For example instead of asking “Who picked up the cat?” I would ask “Did Roberto or Marcos pick up the cat?“. When the focus is on comprehension of the story instead of on understanding the question itself, my preliterate learners can more accurately demonstrate comprehension.
  5. Time is everything — In a first or second grade class I spend a maximum of 10 minutes acting out/telling a story. If the story isn’t done in that 10 minutes it is ok…just move on to a comprehension activity and finish the story next class period. Storytelling requires intense listening and I have found that by breaking the storytelling process up into smaller pieces my students are more engaged and have higher levels of comprehension.


Change it up

The first time I tried telling/acting out a story with my first graders it was a complete disaster. Not only did I spend too long establishing details, I also tried to tell the story for the entire thirty minute period. One of the most valuable adaptations that I have made to my T/CI practice is the inclusion of activities to break up the listening and allow my students to get up and move around. In general, I think that incorporating movement and brain breaks into your lessons is important at all levels, but since younger learners have shorter attention spans movement is even more important in the younger grades.
Here are some simple ways I incorporate movement in my class:

  • Total Physical Response (TPR)–Developed by James Asher, TPR is the association of words with physical movement. An action is assigned to a word and the students respond to commands using physical actions. Not only does this technique get your students up and moving, but it is also engaging and provides great repetitions of target vocabulary structures.
  • Yes/No — This activity is extremely simple but my students love playing it! I ask students questions using the target structures and the students respond by getting up and standing by signs that say “yes” or “no” that are on opposite ends of the classroom. The physical movement provides a brain break for the students and everyone has an opportunity to participate and share their opinion. After the students are standing next to one of the signs I ask students personalized questions to get more repetitions of the target structures.
  • Vote! When we are trying to decide on a story detail I write down 3 or 4 students’ suggestions on separate pieces of paper. I post the suggestions in different locations of my classroom and the students have to get up and stand by the suggestion that they like the best. Not only is this a great brain break, but it also gives more students an opportunity to share their voice.
  • Use All the World’s a Stage to give everyone an opportunity to act out the story. I first heard about the technique “All the World’s a Stage” from Karen Rowan. Put students in groups of 2 (or more depending on how many characters are in your story) and have them find a place in the room where they can move around a little bit. Each group member chooses a role and silently acts out the role as I orally re-tell the story. Beware: This activity can get crazy if you don’t make clear expectations beforehand. I tell my students that this is silent acting, and the only time they can make any noise is if their character has a line of dialogue. All the World’s a Stage is great because everyone is hearing the story again and physically demonstrating to you that they understand what is being said.


I work in a district that has a play-based kindergarten program (I am so lucky to work in a place that values social emotional learning!). Having said that, most of my first graders start the year at very basic reading levels. When I started TPRS and T/CI I got hung up on “R” (reading) of TPRS–how much language should I be posting for my young learners? Am I harming them by posting words that they can’t read? By not posting written language am I depriving them of valuable comprehensible input that they need? I now post our target structures on the front white board with their English translations, and when we are first learning the word I will pause and point at the structure just like I do with my older students. I also write out short dialogues on white board thought bubbles that I hold above my student actors. Sometimes I also write a summary of the story on our storyboard for them to read along with me if they are ready. After talking to my colleagues I realized that providing written language for pre-literate students is still extremely powerful because they are starting to make connections between sounds and letters. I never force them to read until they are able to, but it is important to provide the written language for the students that are ready to read it (and know that the other students will follow suit when they are ready).

These adaptations are simple, but can go a long way in keeping younger learners engaged and actively listening.

Originally from Wyoming, Niki Tottingham now lives in Chicago where she teaches 1st-4th grade Spanish at Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, IL. She blogs about Teaching With Comprehensible Input (T/CI) at Mejor Dicho Blog www.nikitottingham.com Follow her on twitter @nikitottingham


1 Comment
  • maestraibrahim
    Posted at 08:14h, 02 May

    As a K-5 Spanish teacher who has just been introduced to TPRS, this is so valuable. Thank you so much for sharing from your knowledge and experience!

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