How to Coach Yourself to be a Better TPRS Teacher


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Two experiences impacted my understanding of self-coaching.  One was Greg Stevens, who used a chapter from Fluency Through TPR Storytelling to coach himself one skill at a time over the course of a year.  He posted the skill he wanted to focus on on his back wall and didn't add a new skill until he had mastered that one.

The second was doing a small workshop in New Jersey, after which I added a day-long observation of Jason Fritze.  After his first class my comment was:  "You're doing it!"   He said, "Of course I'm doing it" -- as though this wasn't the first observation I had ever done in which a teacher was actually doing TPRS.

Jason and I would later co-teach a Fluency Fast Spanish class.  While one of us would teach, the other would post butcher paper in the back of the room and write and point, silently coaching.  This was a terrifying experience and also taught me that there are no teachers who have perfected their teaching skills so much that they will not benefit from coaching.  It was one of the best professional development experiences of my life.  

Why don't we videotape ourselves and put ourselves out there "doing it"?  Because we're scared we're not.  We're afraid everyone else is doing it right, but we aren't as good as we want to be yet and we don't want anyone to know.

I have seen teachers demand output instead of Asking Stories.  I have seen teachers simply not speak in the target language. I have seen teachers turn pleasure reading into vocabulary translation exercises.  

But we don't need to start with a scary Skype observation by a TPRS coach or a classroom observation (although I admire the teachers who are willing to do that!).  Ultimately, we want to be so confident in our teaching that we don't even care if we are videotaped.  That is the end goal!  But it's not step one.  I will add steps to this instructional blog post.  If you want to try it, let me know how it goes.

I absolutely 100% believe that any language teacher can become an amazing TPRS teacher.  It's not nearly as much about talent as committment to risk-taking.


So here's the mantra:  Feel the fear.... then do it anyway!


Find out how much you are speaking the target language already.  Assign a student to do that job for you and report to you at the end of the class period.  Do this every class period, every day until you are confidently, consistently with no exceptions, speaking the target language a minimum of 90% of the time.

Rachel Dixon How do you suggest that the student keep track of the percentage of time I spend in Spanish? If they use a stopwatch, do quick comprehension checks count as L1 time?
Karen Rowan
Karen Rowan If you want it to be really accurate -- record. But what I do is use the class start time as the beginning of the class... Say... 8:40am is when the class starts.... 9:35 is when it ends. The student is seeing how many minutes out of 55 I am speaking Spanish.. bell to bell. S/he can only time the non-Spanish minutes or stop the stopwatch anytime I'm not in Spanish and re-start. What I saw immediately when I did it was that if the clock started when the bell rang, I could easily lose the first 3 minutes of class. It's was creative math to only count from when I started speaking. At the end you just divide --- total minutes in spanish/total class minutes = x/100. Yes... if you are saying the word in English, comprehension checks count as English. What I started doing was asking, "Que significa" (pointing to the sign that says... "What does this mean" -- and then pointing to the word on the board. I could confirm and answer questions and also do comprehension checks by pointing to the English word on the board and never have to actually say words in English. --- That took some time. It was one of the skills I tried to practice. I still mess it up because I'm SO worried about comprehension.




Do comprehension checks frequently to be sure your students are understanding this level of Input.  

Possible comprehension checks:

Hand signals by students

Teacher asks:  "What did I just say?"

Check with the pacesetter students -- those who are slower processors -- make eye contact with them and directly ask them when there are words they might not know.

Ask students to demonstrate comprehension by percentage, holding up 10 fingers to represent 100% comprehension.

Use exit tickets.  At the end of each day have students write down:

I understood X%

Class was too fast / too slow / just right

I did / did not stop you when I didn't understand or you were going too fast.



No step 3 until you've mastered steps 1 and 2.  It's a marathon, not a sprint.  

Hint:  You will need butcher paper posted on the back wall of your classroom for this one. 



Focusing JUST on Storytelling / Storyasking, we will work on one skill at a time.  That most important skill is questioning.  The lowest level of questions is yes /no / either / or / fill in the blank.  If you do ONLY this, your students will acquire the language, but not the question words.  It's a good place to start.

What you are self-coaching yourself to do is ask more questions than you are making statements.  In fact, my rule of thumb is "never make two statements in a row."  


So, start your story.

Ask a question that gets a yes.  (Is this a normal boy?)

Ask an either / or question. (Is this a normal boy or a vampire?

Ask a question that gets a no. (Is he a vampire?)

Use the negative....( No, he isn't a vampire, he's a normal boy.)

Fill in the blank. (He is a normal........)


This is called Circling.  If you're a TPRS teacher, you already know how to do this.  But we're focused on "Asking" not "Telling" the story as a skill, so ask a student to tally questions versus statements as you tell a story.  


Your poster on your back wall should say:

95% espanol!

Slow Pace*

Comprehension checks

Ask questions


But... because I don't want my students to know what I'm doing, my sign might say:






At the end of each class period, ask your students to give you feedback:  One is still counting the number of minutes in the target language.  One is counting the questions versus statements in stories.  Continue asking students what their level of comprehension was -- anonymously at the end of the period.


Self-coaching doesn't mean you stop doing everything else you already know how to do.  Of course you will proceed with your lesson normally.  But your focus will be on the essential TPRS Skills, one at a time.  Once you have the basics solid, you can pick and choose which skill to practice, increasing your mastery of each skill one at a time.  Don't skip over them, imagining you are already an expert at the basic skills.  Someday you may want to teach someone else or mentor a student teacher.  Unless you've applied these skills to yourself one at a time, you won't know for sure if this is the order you would teach them in.  Run yourself through the ringer and see if self-coaching works.




A note about pace.  The average adult speaks 180-190 words per minute.  Mr. Rogers spoke at 124 per minutes. That's still probably too fast for a second language acquirer. To find this pace, find a reading selection of 100 words.  Read it aloud while watching a timer for one minute.  Tell students... "You know how when I'm talking, sometimes you understand what I'm saying WHILE I'm saying it and sometimes you know what I'm saying JUST AFTER I say it... like you're a word or two behind, but then you figure it out?  (Most students agree with that feeling.)  "THAT is the definition of 'too fast', and that's when I need you to slow me down with a hand signal.  I'm like a car.... press the gas, let off the gas... depending on how fast I'm coming at you."


In SKILL 2 the exit ticket gives you feedback on your pace.



Coaching student responses















SELF-COACHING AT NTPRS After presenting this session on self-coaching for the first time at the National TPRS Conference, I have new resources for you. We used the first 2 pages of Chapter 9 of Fluency Through TPR Storytelling as our list of skills. The content of the handout (abbreviated from what is on this blog) is here: Self-coaching options: Coaching from the back of the room with a partner Videoing yourself Having a student / students record feedback Skype coaching with a partner (paid or trade) SELF-ASSESSMENT CHECKLIST 1. INPUT Percentage of classtime in the TL: Goal: Average repetitions per target phrase: _______ Average student responses per minute: _______ S= Strength WO = Working on NI= Needs Improvement 2. COMPREHENSIBLE _____ Comprehension Checks _____ Pace 3. COMPELLING ____Story-ASKING ____Spinning a Story on my feet ____ Personalization ____ Student responses (engagement ____ Writing personalized readings Making a rule to speed up language acquisition is like passing a law that pregnancy should last only 7 months. – Dr. Stephen Krashen Strengths Working on Needs Improvement Goal How will you coach yourself? How will you know you are done? “Your number one job is to provide comprehensible input. Comprehensible input leads to language acquisition. Your job is to facilitate language acquisition in your students. On September 16th. On May 23rd. Keep your internal alignment even though the voices outside of you are screaming about assessment and accountability and grades and students are bouncing off the wall ready for summer. Self-coaching is like getting yourself to the gym when you'd rather Binge-Watch Netflix. Don't listen to them. You know ---- Comprehensible Input leads to Language Acquisition. Every day. Send them off into summer excited to find ways to expose themselves to language over the summer. Teach them the theory so that if you don't see them again, they know what to be hungry for from their next teacher.” – Karen Rowan The end of the workshop contained this new coaching technique that I encourage other trainers to use. After a conversation with Blaine Ray, Mike Coxon and Laurie Clarq, all of whom were enthusiastic about incorporating it into workshops, I named it, so that we could all experiment with a new technique that had been christened! So.... the Self-Coaching Video Selfie is this: 1. Find a partner who speaks or understands the language you teach 2. Bring yourselves and your phones into a far corner. 3. Hand your phone to your partner. 4. Your first sentence is.... There is a woman. Circle it for 30 seconds while your partner both plays the role of the student and also uses your phone to record you. 5. 30 second later, swap partners. Second sentence is... The woman wants to buy... 6. Partner records and plays the part of the off-camera student for 30 seconds. 7. Instructor... have a third sentence ready in case there was a group with 3 instead of 2. Also, have your own phone ready for whomever says that their phone is full. She wants to go.... 8. Stop. Sit down and watch your 30 second video. With the group process their feelings about how they felt watching themselves. If these fears are the obstacle that keeps us from improving as teachers, we've overcome the biggest hurdle and done it for the first time.

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