Using TPR to Improve Storytelling

Using TPR to Improve Storytelling

Using TPR in your storytelling will help the stories come alive for your audience and help them become active participants rather than passive listeners. Whether you are a children’s author like me doing book readings for a large audience, or a teacher, parent, grandparent or favorite aunt or uncle, you can improve your storytelling and make the experience more engaging and more fun by using TPR.

What is TPR?

TPR (Total Physical Response) is a teaching method often used in teaching a second language where the whole body is used to teach a concept.  I used this method a lot when I taught English to children in China. In some ways, it’s intuitive, for example, when teaching the word nose, you point to your nose, or when teaching drink, you mime drinking with your hand shaped like a cup.  As an ESL teacher teaching 4-12 year olds in virtual classrooms, I really had to over emphasize my movements so they were clear and easy for my students to see.  I know I looked silly to my family as they saw me with my big, overemphasized movements and gestures, but my students loved it and it really helped! 

Why use TPR in storytelling?

Children love to feel like they are part of the story. I remember my dad would tell us crazy stories when I was little, and we often acted them out as he told them. I loved it! As a children’s author, a big part of my job is doing book readings to groups of kids.  The first time I did a reading for my first book I Can Sleep When the Wind Blows, it was at a library and there were about 25 children and their parents. I was nervous. I sat in my chair and read my story. I used different voices, but I didn’t use any TPR. It was a flop. I started to doubt myself. Maybe my story isn’t very good? Maybe it just isn’t a good story to read aloud to small children?  I didn’t do another reading for a few months.  In the meantime, I was waking up at 3 am (yes you read that right!) to teach English to my adorable students in China and I was making the phrase “a cup of milk” so fun they were giggling and really enjoying themselves.  Finally, the lightbulb clicked. (To be fair it, I might have been extra slow from lack of sleep. Two years of teaching at 3 am will do that to you lol.)  I realized that the problem wasn’t my book, it was me. I wasn’t getting the kids involved with my story.  They were passive listeners, not active participants.

The next time I read my book, I Can Sleep When the Wind Blows, I used TPR. When Jim said he could sleep when the wind blows, I had all of the kids move put their arms out and blow like the wind while waving their arms.  When the farmer was confused, I had them all show me what it looks like when they are confused.  When Jim was sleeping, we all laid on the floor to pretend like we were sleeping too and had a contest to see how loud we could snore. It was so much fun! The kids loved it! I loved it! And guess what? The parents loved it too! Now, I use TPR in all of my readings. I feel confident that the kids will love it and stay engaged and I am invited back to read again and again. 


How do you do it?

TPR is not something that comes easy to everyone.  I took a whole college class on the subject. It’s ok if it doesn’t feel natural at first. Just imagine me sitting in my office at 3 am waving my arms and making huge, exaggerated gestures lol. That was good practice for virtual visits though. Here are some practical tips to help you get started:

  1. Anytime the main character has an action, act it out. If he ran, move your feet, and pump your arms like you are running. If he is eating, get out your imaginary fork and pretend like you are eating too.
  2. With TPR, bigger is better. Big movements get a bigger impact. You might feel silly at first, but you will get over it when the kids are doing it with you and having fun!
  3. Use props! Props are fun and really add a lot to the experience for kids. You might have a puppet, or stuffed animal, or it might e something more basic. When I taught English as a second language, my most popular prop was a big pink toilet brush from the Dollar Tree that looks like a toothbrush. I haven’t found one of my books that it works with yet, but I will. The Dollar Tree is a great place to get props.
  4. Whenever possible, let the kids get loud! Acting out a thunderstorm is so much more fun when you can loudly crack like lightning and roar like thunder! When their bodies make big movements, their mouths want to make big sounds. If you can’t be loud, try a “loud whisper”. Let the kids have a contest to see who can “look the loudest” while being very quiet.  That is a fun game to play, and the kids have a lot of fun.  You can also win friends with parents by telling the kids to practice this at home.
  5. TPR is perfect for those new vocabulary words. There are bound to be words in any story that are unfamiliar to your audience, these are great times to use your body and your props to teach the meaning. As an ESL teacher I can promise you that almost every word can be taught through TPR. Some might take some creativity, but you can do it and Google is your friend.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. The more you can relax and have fun, the more fun it will be for the kids. Give yourself permission to look ridiculous.

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