In the last few weeks, I have been learning about a methodology that many teachers of world languages are using in schools called TPRS, which stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. In my pre-mom days I was a Spanish teacher, and it’s been interesting to see how this methodology (new since I taught) meshes with what I have learned as a Kindermusik educator in terms of how any of us learns a language, whether it be our first one or our fifth.
A TPRS educator may teach very differently from the one you may recall from your own Spanish I days. She or he does not spend an hour conjugating verbs or giving lengthy explanations about what a present progressive verb tense even is. Nor does he or she teach vocabulary arranged by thematic topic (“Today, we’re studying ‘body parts’” ) without any context. Rather, in a TPRS class, the teacher and students, together, create a story in class, building on vocabulary with which the students are already familiar. Teachers expose their students to hearing many repetitions of only about three new phrases or vocabulary words in a lesson before they expect the kids to speak, and they teach grammar through natural use. Additionally, they ask their students to give an appropriate gesture or physical representation when they hear the new words. Vocabulary is taught in context (describing the main character of a story, an elephant, perhaps, will include some animal words, some body part words, as well as physical and emotional descriptive words). TPRS teachers encourage a playful and personal atmosphere, often asking silly questions about the story they’re telling or making sure that the vocabulary and stories reflect vocabulary that is germane to the students’ lives. After telling stories in class, the group moves to reading, and finally to free writing. Throughout the process, the class may sing little songs or create pictures of the stories they tell.
While the TPRS methodology isn’t without some controversy (mostly from those expecting a traditional foreign language approach), research supports its effectiveness. “In speaking, writing, vocabulary and grammar . . . TPRS has consistently outperformed traditional teaching, and has at least equaled traditional teaching in every study.” (“Show Me the Data: Research on TPRS Storytelling“) To me, this is no great surprise. It is exactly what we do in Kindermusik, and even what we do naturally as caretakers for our little ones. Of course, Kindermusik is more than just a music and movement program. It is about teaching the whole child, and language acquisition is a large component of that whole-child development.
In my daughter’s Kindermusik class last week, for instance, they created stories together about being frogs—what do the frogs do? Eat bugs, hop from lily pad to lily pad, and swim. They used gestures, including the ASL sign for FROG, and hopped and swam from lily pad to lily pad. They sang songs about frogs (my daughter loves the finger plays and requests them when we’re driving), and this month on the @home Kindermusik site the story is Frog Went a-Dancing, which includes a repetition of certain phrases and of course a lot of silliness (animals are speaking and each has a dancing song).
I don’t recollect ever explaining to my children that there is a difference between past and present tense verbs—instead, I use the verb tenses as they come up. Naturally, it takes kids awhile to figure out that “eated” is actually an irregular verb, but not because anyone sat down and said, “the verb ‘to eat’ is irregular and will be conjugated differently in the past tense.” No–eventually, with enough repetition and reading, our kids figure it out. Participating in Kindermusik helps with all of this critical repetition.
You will notice that our Song of the Heart Kindermusik studio supports language acquisition in a variety of ways, not just what happens in a Kindermusik class. Having puppeteers come for our Fall Festival exposes children to stories, thereby enriching vocabulary and helping them create meaning of the world. We have books for children to read while they wait for their class to start, or in the hall while they wait for their siblings to finish class. The educators incorporate natural gestures for words as well as American Sign Language instruction—both within a Kindermusik class and as part of a separate Signing Time class you can take with your little one. (Teaching your children ASL in and of itself has proven to be a fantastic way to help them develop language.) Taking a ukulele class encourages older students to learn a more sophisticated vocabulary—music-specific words as well as the more complex words that we find in other songs (the same holds true for the other music classes we offer for big kids).
Clearly, as humans we need connection with others. Language acquisition is an important part of that connection. Of course, not every child follows a neuro-typical path to developing language skills. Nevertheless, exposing our children to as many research-based best practices will give them great opportunities to receive the love and nurture that comes from communicating with others. Storytelling and reading are such important components of that communication and I appreciate being part of the Kindermusik studio where we nurture that connection with our kids.