TPRS in the Adult ESL Classroom: Part 3—The “Life Skills” Focus of Most Adult ESL Classes

This is the third part in a series of blog posts on how to use TPRS in the adult ESL classroom. The first post in the series focused on age, and the second post focused on translation.

Most adult ESL programs emphasize teaching students “life skills” or “survival skills” that they will need to get by in life in the United States—things like going to the doctor’s office, reporting a problem to a landlord, or filling out forms. But TPRS was designed by a high school Spanish teacher in the U.S. and was designed for use in foreign language classrooms, so it doesn’t really seem to fit the mold of most traditional adult ESL curriculums. I think that some adult ESL teachers or administrators would say that TPRS is not very helpful because the stories just seem silly and pointless. “Our students need to learn basic life skills so they can survive! How is a story about Michael Jackson going to a restaurant and eating 100 dumplings going to help them do that?!” they might say.

But even TPRS stories that seem silly and pointless can be an extremely effective tool in helping students to acquire language. People acquire language by receiving comprehensible, compelling input, and TPRS stories are a great source of comprehensible, compelling input. The stories are interesting, so students are likely to pay attention and remember the words from the stories. Also, especially at the beginning level, students need to first set a foundation in the language by acquiring the most frequent words before they move on to the lower-frequency words. Sure, you can try to teach beginning-level students how to talk to a doctor by having the students read an example dialogue or having them memorize sentences like “My stomach hurts.” But if the students haven’t acquired a lot of the high-frequency words in the language yet, then their visit to the doctor’s office will be a huge struggle because they won’t be able to understand what the doctor says to them, and they won’t be able to communicate anything beyond just a few short phrases. TPRS stories are an AWESOME way to help students encounter those high-frequency words in a meaningful context so that, eventually, they will acquire enough language that they will be able to successfully communicate with the doctor.

However, if you are teaching in a program where you are required to teach certain life skills, you can still make TPRS work. In the stories, you can choose settings and plot points that involve the life skills lessons you need to teach. And you can still make the stories compelling by using funny scenarios or details. For example, if you need to teach about calling 911, you can make a funny story about a person who has various injuries or mishaps and keeps needing to call 911 for help.

I have found TPRS to be very effective in helping beginning-level adult ESL students to acquire a lot of the high-frequency words that they need in order to communicate in everyday situations. Even TPRS stories that don’t specifically focus on a “life skill” can help students to acquire the language they need to handle these types of situations.

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