Building a Language: Students with Dyslexia and ADHD Can Successfully Learn Foreign Language through TPRS

written by: Miriam Pallant
The woodworking course at our school is without a doubt a favorite. The sense of pride that students feel as we all admire and utilize their finished pieces is palpable. While I am certain that each course begins with explanations of how to operate the machinery safely and effectively, it is clear that students dedicate the majority of their class time to measuring, building, and constructing.

Learning a language is much the same. Students want to be able to build, construct, and take ownership over their language. They are more interested in learning how to speak than learning the inner workings of each grammatical tool they use to do so. For those of us who learned foreign languages with a grammar-based approach, introducing vocabulary and verbs in what we believe to be an objective order of grammatical complexity is logical, predictable, and safe. My own foreign language instruction was grounded in this way, but as a teacher, I have found myself increasingly entangled in my own safety net.

I am certainly not the only educator who has watched students’ eyes glaze over when I introduce a verb conjugation or a carefully selected list of related vocabulary words. Each class generally has one or two students who can both see clearly how grammatical pieces fit together to form the puzzle of the language and use them to construct it. Much of “traditional” foreign language education is designed for these students,[1] yet those who learn in this way make up the small minority. How can we reach that majority of students, especially those who struggle with dyslexia or ADHD for whom “rules” obstruct rather than facilitate the process of building a language? The field of research in this area has sought to uncover the discrepancies between the very intentional “language learning” versus the more osmosis-based “language acquisition.”[2] How do we mimic the conditions under which students acquired their first languages (without explicit grammar instruction) in the foreign language classroom?

One such method is called TPRS, an acronym which stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.[3] I am by no means an expert in this method of teaching, nor do I follow each of its rather prescriptive guidelines. I do, however, agree with TPRS researcher Marissa Garcyznski, who posits that “storytelling is one of the most emotional and humorous ways that humans interact with each other. It is a natural tool to teach any language. Through TPRS, students recognize that they are actually learning meaningful and relevant language. They additionally recognize that they are accomplishing something valuable that can be used in the real world.”[4]

I have begun to use several elements of TPRS in my own teaching practices, namely teaching vocabulary in the context of a story, repeating elements of the story, and asking questions about the story.[5] On the days when we are learning new parts of the story, I come to class with a set of slides containing images that correspond with the new vocabulary I plan to introduce. I reuse these images as I recycle vocabulary throughout the story so that students begin to associate the images and the words. I reinforce the information in the story by having students utilize the words and concepts in games such as Memory and Apples to Apples. For homework, I provide the students with a written version of the story I told in class, a list of the new vocabulary words in Spanish and English, and a series of four to seven comprehension questions that they are to answer in Spanish. Students work on the speaking, listening, and social elements that are necessary for language learning while they are in class surrounded by peers. The homework assignments help them to solidify reading and writing skills independently.

I have also found this method of teaching to be an effective way to weave in relevant cultural information. For example, the story I have used with Spanish I students is about a 15-year-old girl who is preparing for her quinceañera, a coming-of-age celebration practiced in many Latin American cultures. In my Spanish IV class, I also used this approach to teach some of the significant scenes from Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

I have not ignored grammar completely. I often try my own interpretation of a method recommended to me at a conference this year. Instead of presenting all of the rules and then instructing students to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, I give them the assembled pieces and once they become comfortable with the whole, I begin deconstructing. In other words, instead of teaching the verb conjugation rules, I teach the two different verb conjugations as if they were two vocabulary words. When students feel comfortable with these words, I point out that they are connected and give a brief explanation, generally lasting no more than the recommended couple of seconds.[6] As my friend and colleague Katherine Poulson (who was one of the first to bring TPRS to my attention) observed, students for whom these patterns are effective ways of stimulating acquisition, such as those with dyslexia or ADHD, will often pick up on them without explicit instruction.

TPRS (or my interpretation of it) has given my students a positive sense of immediacy. In the woodshop, students are using their tools instead of just learning about them, and I have witnessed the same happen in the foreign language classroom. In the same way that beginning woodworkers do not start by building houses, beginning language students do not necessarily need a full grammatical foundation to gain a sense of ownership and pride in what they can create.

[1] Garczynski, M. (2003). Teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling: Are TPRS students more fluent in second language acquisition than audio lingual students? (M.A.). Chapman University, United States—California. Page 8.

[2] Garcyznski 8.

[3] For a more comprehensive explanation of TPRS and its history please visit or

[4] Page 19.

[5] Project, U. L. M. (1600, December 31). TPRS. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from

[6] Carrasquillo, P. (2015). Go Slow to Go Far Without Textbooks. Presented at the MAFLA 2015 Fall Conference.

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