Middle School Spanish: Talking Story and Teaching Language

Standing in front of the class, the sandy-haired boy shuffles his feet, avoiding eye contact with the middle school students seated before him. He looks up, shyly meets his classmates’ gaze, and takes a deep breath. Exhaling, he begins telling a story in Spanish. The words come haltingly at first, then, as his confidence improves, he relaxes and expands his vocabulary, exploring different sentence structures and verb conjugations.

“Hay un chico que se llama Pablo,” says the boy. “Pablo quiere ocho gatos. Pablo va a Australia para hablar con el presidente de los gatos. Pablo recibe los gatos.”

“¿Pablo quiere gatos?,” asks elementary and middle school Spanish teacher Jen Block to the listening students. “¿Pablo está feliz o está triste? ¿Cuantos gatos recibe Pablo?”

The other students respond with a “sí or no,” or, depending on what is asked, with longer answers to open-ended questions.

While at first impression this may seem more like informal conversation rather than a structured, academic lesson, these students are engaged in a creative, innovative approach to second-language acquisition. Known as Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS), this method integrates physical actions and cues with vocabulary practice, speaking and listening skills.

TPRS is a kinesthetic activity, so for students who learn best by “doing,” the combination of physical activity and speaking out loud make it a particularly effective way to increase their comprehension and skills when learning a new language.

TPRS involves creating gestures which students perform to represent Spanish words. In this class, for example, students will make a smiley face and point to their cheeks to demonstrate ” está feliz” or point to the ground and tap their feet to show “right now” or ” ahora.” Block facilitates the TPRS lesson by developing a skeletal story outline from questions she asks to elicit students’ input. Using this information, the class creates an imaginative story together incorporating the vocabulary words they are studying.

“It is fun to hear different people tell the story in their own words, their own versions,” shares students Indigo Kelly.

Later, students read a story similar to what they created, and then Block asks questions to gauge their understanding. To further reinforce comprehension, the lesson generally concludes with students either taking turns retelling the story they’ve read; or a personal question and answer component, allowing each student to review questions from the story in a way that relates to their own personal experiences.

“Getting up in front of the class and retelling a story isn’t too scary,” comments 6th grader Carl Ward. “I think it goes pretty well.”

Classmate Lekha Duvvoori says combining the actions with spoken stories helps her comprehension: “I like watching for the hand gestures,” she says. “They are helpful and make the questions easier to understand.”

Block explains that with TPRS, the stories are new to students even if some of the vocabulary is a review. By utilizing this teaching method in her classroom, she says, students new to Spanish don’t feel like they’re missing out on something that was previously covered; while students who have been in Spanish for a while do more than practice vocabulary in rote fashion. For her 3rd and 4th grade classes, Block says she incorporates some elements of the TPRS method into the lessons, and in 5th grade is able to start working with TPRS-type stories.

“Students feel good about being able to understand what I’m saying since it’s supported with gestures and there is a lot of repetition,” she notes. “They are also much more willing and comfortable in terms of speaking in front of the class when they retell stories. The ability to adapt the type of question that I ask students is very helpful since I have various levels of students in my class. I can reinforce vocabulary for one student and then ask an open-ended question to encourage more conversation with another student, and everyone gets to participate at their own level.”



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Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.