Practical and Common-Sense Tips for Personalizing Stories


Personalization is one of the most important things we can do to make our input compelling. As a new CI teacher, I found that I was focusing too much on making input comprehensible and forgetting to make it compelling. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have gotten to the point where I need to do some things a little bit differently in order to keep the kids attention. I have tried to stay positive (when the kids say, “We’re hearing another story about someone who wants something…aw,” I used to get frustrated, but now, I say to myself, “They know enough of the language to be bored by it!” It’s all about being positive!)

I know now that I can make lots of not-very-interesting stories comprehensible. So it’s time to take the plunge into making the stories more varied and interesting for the students. They crave something different. I think that’s why TPRS was so successful at the beginning of the year: it was new and fresh and different. But like having pizza and French fries for dinner every night, something that seems awesome can get old after a while.

That’s what this post is about—how I have taken stories to the next level by involving the students to a greater degree. Personalizing the stories keeps the kids involved and interested. These are some of the things that I have learned in the 7 months that I have been using TPRS with Kindergarten through 8th grade:

When Telling a Story:

I use the kids’ real names and/or let them pick their own silly names

Don’t pick characters’ names yourself and assign them to the characters unless they are specific to the story (because you’re doing a story about a historical personality or a fairy tale story or something similar). I usually give the kids the opportunity to choose the names of the characters. I use it as an opportunity to practice “como se llama?” And “como te llamas?” This is a fun strategy because it gives all the kids the chance to make suggestions. That being said, sometimes, in the “juicier” stories, like the story I did with the kids about the kids being in love with each other for Valentines Day. They had a lot of fun with their own names and pretending to be in love with their classmates.

Giving Students Control of the Story:

(The following suggestions are all thematically similar. A big part of personalization to the students is to give them some control of the direction of the story or of the activities we do in class)

I allow students to dictate where the story will go.

Allowing students to make contributions to the plot of the story is a great way to get them interested in what’s going on. Of course, you might get a lot of kids with smart-alec-y responses like Djibouti or Uranus, but the kids get a good laugh and if you have a good sense of humor about it, you can diffuse the disrespectful aspects by saying, in the TL, “no, sorry, he wasn’t going there,” or “no, he actually went to ___.”

If my scripted story is failing, I change it up with suggestions from the students

The students know what they like and what they are interested in. Taking a vote or taking suggestions on what should happen next is a good way of getting the students engaged and back into the story. I have lots of scripted stories that I have completely changed because they were going in directions that the students just weren’t interested in. Adaptation is super-important in TPRS and can take your lesson from frustrating to engaging for the students and for you.

Personalizing Writing Assignments:

Writing assignments are really fertile grounds for personalization. The students get a chance to express themselves in their own words. I allow them to write whatever they want that is in their small circle of vocabulary (the words that they know and that the other kids in class know). I let them go wild and use dictionaries sometimes, but when doing this it is important to make sure that they don’t use too many unknown words. This can cause problems with other students comprehending the content of the story.

I show students a picture and allow them to write their own stories, then share the results.

I got this idea from tprsquestionsandanswers. This is a great site with lots of ideas on the WHY? of TPRS and lots of ideas for activities and assessment. The writer of that blog, Sr. Stoltz uses this assessment with his classes. I used it and this is what I’ve found: The kids love to express themselves in different ways. They have gotten sick of writing stories that are so similar to my stories. They wanted to branch out. So I put up a picture of a family in front of a house that I found on google images and wrote up a lot of guiding questions and told them to write as many sentences as they could. The results ranged from really good to not very good, which is to be expected because it was the first time the middle schoolers had written something in Spanish that wasn’t modeled on what they had read before.

I have noticed that as they get better at expressing themselves in writing and in speech, love to have the opportunity to share their work. Kids are funny. Really funny. And the older elementary school kids have few inhibitions about writing truly silly stories. They just want to crack each other (and me) up and they succeed. Letting them share their work with the class is a great way to build their confidence.

A note about this tip: DON’T force them to read aloud. The last thing a self-conscious kid needs is to be forced to talk in front of a group of his or her peers in a situation they’re not comfortable with. This will do the opposite of motivating the student. I guarantee that each kid will want to share once he or she feels comfortable. If any kids don’t want to share after you think they are ready, you should encourage them, but not in an unprepared situation, but rather talk with them individually and encourage them to volunteer.

I start with a group story voted on by everyone, then the rest of the story is written individually and shared with the class.

There is usually a lot of buy-in with this type of activity because the students can vote on the particulars of the story that they all agree to. And if they’re unsatisfied with the story as it is when they work together, they can change it to be whatever they want in the individual writing portion of the activity. Again, sharing what they came up with after they’re finished writing is a great way to build more confidence, rapport, and personalization into the lesson.

I use individual students’ stories as scripts for class stories and for readings

I got this idea from the Comprehensible Classroom blog by Martina Bex. I saw it in her post on sub plans and decided to put a little twist of my own on it. Instead of using them for sub days, I use them as our primary readings in the classroom. Students’ stories are a great source to go to if your story scripts are starting to feel stale. Students’ stories are great because they contain all the vocabulary and grammatical structures that you are targeting anyway. They are not great for introducing new structures and vocab, but they are great for review. And there is added benefit: the kid whose story you chose will be beaming the whole time from pride about their story being the one that the whole class gets to hear.

I try to involve different forms of media that your students like

I recently did a story with the 5th grade based on a story from Look, I Can Talk. In the story, the character moves, but forgets his books. In a moment inspired by the student-actor’s fidgetiness, I named the character Baile Bob (kinda like naming him Dancin’ Dan) and instead of forgetting his books, he forgot his CDs. He goes around the world to find new music to dance to. I pulled up different songs Nd styles of music from different countries and “sent” him to each one. He dances to the music from each place and ends up back in FL, dancing to NYC salsa music. The story is fun because the students get to hear the music and they give their opinions (both bad and good) on the music. At the end of the story, there was still time in the class period, so baile Bob and Baile 5th grade dance to other songs and modern hits (Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, etc). Baile viernes is a great place to find interesting music to incorporate into your classes.

The final and most important tip of all:

I have gotten to know my students

I have an advantage that other elementary level language teachers probably have: I get to teach the kids over multiple years. I am currently the only language teacher in the whole school. I have taught the majority of the 5th graders I talk about above since they were in 1st grade. I have known them for 5 years. I know what sports they play and i know their parents and their siblings. I see them at church and I see them out in the community. Secondary level teachers generally don’t have that same amount of time to get to know each student, but that doesn’t make it impossible. It does so much for building rapport between yourself and the class. It also can foster an informality or a comfort that the students don’t have with their other teachers. This is a blessing and a curse because they know me as a teacher really well. They know what I can take and what sets me off on a teacher tantrum (the name I give to the haranguing, lecturing, voice-raising tendency that I have when I get super frustrated or ticked off because of behavior)

At the end of the day, I need to make my class comprehensible and compelling. The students need to have a reason to keep paying attention and personalizing the stories (along with lots of variety!) is one of the ways to do that.

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