Wisdom from Carol Gaab

Over the Easter holidays, I spent some time viewing a 3 DVD set purchased from the US. It was recorded at the National TPRS Conference in Burlington, Vermont in 2006. The presenter was Carol Gaab and she was demonstrating and talking about  teaching TPRS to primary level children.

I took copious notes as I watched, so I now hope to pass on the gems of wisdom to you.  I hope you find these strategies/explanations as useful as I did! I have used orange text for the strategies that helped me the most. 

Younger L2 learners differ from older learners in many ways, such as:

  • need to move more
  • less self-conscious
  • shorter attention span
  • low literacy
  • better pronunciation
  • limited vocabulary in L1
  • cognitive ability – concrete, not abstract
  • need visual stimulation
  • need manipulatives
  • lower cognitive capacity (one concept at a time!)
  • likes and dislikes (poo and wee!)
  • attitude towards ambiguity of the L2 (don’t ask questions – why is it so?)

First step in TPRS is establishing meaning of new words/phrases. Translate, then gesture. You may have to say what new words mean over and over!! Could take 10 times or more. 

For Years Prep to 2, just show visuals of what words mean, you do not introduce the new words in written form until Year 3. Use props or photos to show younger students what the new words/concepts mean.

A wonderful strategy that Carol uses is to chant new phrases repeatedly, but in an engaging way. e.g. if you are teaching ‘harimau lari ke rumah’, students would chant this phrase rhythmically, then clap at the end. BUT to repeat it and make it fun, the clap can be to the right, to the left, up high, down low, on your sides, on your tummy, on your ‘pantat’ etc. 

Use some cool expressions, such as ‘aduh’, ‘hore!’ and ‘astaga’. Make these into mini posters and get wriggly members of the class to hold them up at appropriate times. I will add the ones I made to this page. Feel free to print out and use!

For Prep to Year 2, steps in TPRS are show, tell and sing/play.

For Year 3 and upwards, steps in TPRS are show, tell and read. These steps will be explained in more detail below. 

With young students, don’t use open-ended questions! e.g. Harimau makan apa? Better to give a choice of two things, ‘Harimau makan pizza atau harimau makan kancil?’

Things that Carol used that helped her learners recall the vocal included: using a picture, gesture, repetition (lots!), using lollies as rewards, realia, changing activities (game, moving, TPR, 2 or 3 students doing things while others watched and responded, using students’ names, chanting, participation, acting out things, word association).

She suggested that the Show and Tell parts of the lesson take about 10 – 15 minutes, then have students doing something, such as colouring, organising using manipulatives, partner work or make something. e.g. Today in my Prep lesson I taught them two new structures ‘Harimau lari’ and ‘Harimau makan’. After introducing these structures (one at a time!) and circling the structures (more about circling later), I showed the kids how to make a origami tiger face, step by step (in English!) It was a nice way to finish all our work about ‘harimau’.

I love that Carol stressed that we as teachers need to have that ‘break’ locked into each lesson to prevent exhaustion! As children colour, fold and help each other, it gives you time to breathe again!

To reinforce vocabulary learning at each level, these activities are highly recommended:

  • Prep: use props/gestures/games
  • Year 1/2: pictures/story participation
  • Year 2/3: singing – music is great at any level, such a powerful learning tool!
  • Year 3/4: reading words!

Sometimes we are very aware of how much work we want to get through for the week, and we forget to ‘love the kids’. At least I know I am guilty of this. Carol spent some time discussing how students need to be relaxed and comfortable to learn. If they have a negative response to some stimulus, such as Johnny pushing someone over at recess, then the ‘mini blinds’ come down and less learning takes place. Our students need to feel smart, pretty, good about themselves. The best way to change the mood of a class (esp after recess or lunch) is to tell a joke, show a funny photo, sing! SO IMPORTANT to take the time to do this. Carol said the most important thing to do in your classroom is to LOVE your kids.

For younger students with lower L1 literacy skills, the goal of 90% comprehension for 90% students may be unrealistic. Better to aim for 70-80% comprehension for 70-80% of students.

At the Year 5/6 level, they can cope with up to 3 new structures and big paragraphs of text to read.

With pre-literate students, the steps are:

  • show
  • tell
  • sing/play

and with literate students, the steps are:

  • show
  • tell
  • read

To make up songs for younger students, take simple nursery rhymes/songs you (and they!) already know and change the words to suit you. e.g. Here is one I made up to go with ‘harimau makan’. (to the tune of ‘Makan Apa?)

Makan apa? Makan apa? Makan apa harimau?

Makan kancil, makan kancil, makan kancil, harimau.

Another great one for ‘Siapa namamu?’ is to the tune of Farmer in the Dell.

Siapa namamu, siapa namamu? (The farmer in the dell, the farmer in the dell)

Siapa namamu, teman (Hi ho the whatever)

Siapa namamu. (the farmer in the dell)

Now for an detailed explanation of SHOW and TELL.


  1. Select 1 – 3 structures, then introduce them one at a time. No more than 3.
  2. Convey the meaning of the structure. This can be done by direct translation, use of prop, photo/drawing, gesture or video.

Remember that you may have to do the translation 3, 4 or 5 times! Don’t expect to say it once and students will remember! Don’t ever feel like you have said something too many times!

3.  Use skits, reenactments and demos. These are better than translation for long-term memory, good for obscure concepts or when translation is not an option.

Remember that use of visuals and demos is very important for your EAL kids who may not understand the translation in English.

Once students know the meaning, attach a gesture. Brain-body connection works!

For pre-literate, visual learners, work on your new structures for about 5 – 10 minutes.


  • it’s all about input
  • repetition, repetition, repetition
  • we need to hear something 50-75 times before it is internalised
  • the best input is contextualised, comprehensible input
  • practise 1 -3 structures at a time

The best way to get repetitions is by using questions.

PQA = personalised questions and answers

PMS = personalised mini-situation/class story

eg: Siapa mau makan coklat?/ Josh mau makan coklat?

Siapa mau makan pisang?/ Susi mau makan pisang?

Siapa mau lari? / Jeff mau lari?


Use circling to get lots of repetitions. Carol’s presentation really helped me improve my circling. I was doing just what she said NOT to do, getting stuck on one type of question, such as harimau makan apel?, harimau makan pisang?, etc until kids were getting restless and bored.

Here is the no-fail way of circling!

Learn this sequence off by heart:

  1. YES
  2. NO
  4. YES
  6. INTERROGATIVE (leave this one out for Preps!)

If this is your new structure (as mine was today), here’s how you do it.

Structure: Harimau lari ke pohon. (I had already introduced and demonstrated the words below)

  1. Harimau lari ke pohon?
  2. Harimau lari ke rumah?
  3. Harimau lari ke pohon atau harimau lari ke rumah? (My preps found this one tricky) Really important to say the whole structure here, not just atau rumah.
  4. Harimau lari ke pohon?
  5. Harimau lari ke mana? (They found this tricky too – I  gave a translation to help)

Each time they say ya or tidak, REPEAT the structure. Ya, bagus kelas, harimau lari ke pohon.

Then do the whole thing again, this time focussing on harimau.

  1. Harimau lari ke pohon?
  2. Kancil lari ke pohon?
  3. Harimau lari ke pohon atau kancil lari ke pohon?
  4. Harimau lari ke pohon?
  5. Harimau lari ke mana?

Then we do it again, focussing on the verb. Amazingly, the kids did not get sick of this method because the question was different every time.

  1. Harimau lari ke pohon?
  2. Harimau berdansa ke pohon?
  3. Harimau lari ke pohon atau harimau berdansa ke pohon?
  4. Harimau lari ke pohon?
  5. Harimau lari ke mana?

Now we have about 30-40 reps, probably more because we tend to repeat ourselves a bit. so hopefully ‘harimau lari’ is locked in! With some chanting and dancing, we can easily get to 50-75!

With older students, you can ‘fish’ for more details by asking more advanced questions. e.g. When did harimau run to the tree? Why? Ask simple questions, even if you know the answers! Fish for student ideas, interest, laughter. ‘Hook’ them with something that engages them. But remember, all questions must include target vocabulary.


The class story is a short story that is cooperatively created by teacher and students based on 3 vocabulary structures. It should include high frequency vocabulary and fun words or structures that engage kids.

Tell the story through QUESTIONS.

Class story: where do I start?

  1. with answers to PQA
  2. with hooks and/or conflicts
  3. with a statement or fact

Hook: a twist, quirky character, weird event, an exaggerated quality, anything humorous. Basically anything that hooks students and gets them interested in the story. Good to have humour in your story – laughter causes release of endorphins, which make your brain feel confident. Positive emotions enhance retention. Brains remember the bizarre – make stories weird or unexpected.

Conflict: a problem that has to be solved, or situation that has to be resolved, or anything that gives your story direction. A conflict creates suspense. Use simple problems with simple answers.

Building a PMS/class story

  1. start with 1 – 3 vocab structures
  2. ask PQA in terms of student interest
  • the answers design your PMS
  • Be selective! Take only the most fun, creative or bizarre answers.
  • Tides give you more reps

3. give students options for hooks/conflicts

4. accept answers in English, but translate them

5. let students drive the story with answers and input. T keeps foot on the brake by guiding.

TIPS for great PMS

  • choose wigglers to be actors, but be very specific about what they are to do
  • coach melodramatic acting
  • encourage audience participation – keep them busy with props
  • designate space – keep story elements in the same place so kids can remember words more easily
  • teach to the eyes
  • believe the story is true
  • assess constantly
  • make it more than comprehensible, make it comfortable
  • laugh! Have fun!

To get kids involved:

  • stop and ask Siapa lari ke pohon? (Whisper answer to your partner) Did your partner get it right?
  • use some TPR about the story
  • draw for me – harimau lari ke pohon
  • show partner your picture; describe it in L2 to your partner
  • fill in the blanks














4 thoughts on “Wisdom from Carol Gaab”

  1. Thank you so much for posting these ideas. It’s hard to find detailed descriptions of exactly how to modify CI strategies for young learners and this post–and the rest of your blog–have helped me more than anything else I”ve found. THANK YOU for the many hours you’ve devoted to it! I so appreciate that you’ve shared your ideas and work with us.


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