Catharina Greenberg on Elementary CI

This long but invaluable text from the Big CI Book was originally a series of Forum posts from a year or so ago by Catharina on ways to incorporate CI into the elementary classroom:

Appendix I – Thoughts on Elementary TPRS Instruction

Catharina Greenberg, an expert on elementary TPRS instruction, shares ideas that are directed towards elementary TPRS teachers, but pertain to all levels. Catharina shares:

All my students are beginners. I work in a typical setting for an elementary FL teacher: French-on-wheels, no walls, tables or chairs, crammed spaces, right before or after lunch, 30 second transition time, and stress. I have a lesson plan for pre-K + K and one for 1st + 2nd + 3rd grade.

When teaching the very young I have found it essential to not go out of bounds. Every word is a foreign sound. Even yes and no in the target language confuse some kids. Once at a conference I was very fortunate to have Kate Taluga teach us some Muscogee, a Native American language. I must remind myself that French sounds like Muscogee to my students.

The TPRS art of going slow isn’t only about speed or intonation, it is also about slowing down the amount of new vocabulary. This is where the super mini stories come in. It is a perfect tool when we only have a few target structures and two or three question words. There is no way we can add details (all are out of bounds). We cannot use difficult sentence structures (also out of bounds). There can be no locations. There can be no problem to solve. I must work safely within the boundaries of two or three sentences, keeping it 100% comprehensible.

It does take some practice to be able to stretch three sentences over sixty minutes. Linda Li and Diane Neubauer are experts at this. If you watch Linda or Diane teach, you understand better the art of going slowly. It is an art, and it brings ultimate respect to our students.

There is heavy use of cognates: local places, pop culture, brands. There is a subtle mix of TPR and questions, asking one student, confirming with another, then asking the whole class, back and forth. The teacher acts confused, absent minded, pretends to be interested in some trivial detail. All are tricks to get extra reps.

When kids get restless, we stand the group up to do TPR gesturing of target structures. This also provides a brain break to cross the hemispheres and drop previous instruction from the desktop into the hard drive.

Ten finger checks provide another clever trick to give the teacher time to think about the next move. We chant or sing or play an invisible instrument and practice with a little output. Some will have to “volunteer” as actors. With the actors, the target structures come to life. It’s all entertaining, easy, fun, and what seemed so foreign at first but becomes familiar after a while.

I use the same short story with all my students. I even repeat it the following year. They don’t complain, and that’s a good sign because little kids don’t hold back. What matters to them is that they understand. And since Susie Gross taught us that ‘nothing motivates like success’ I strive to learn the art.

Sometimes the children draw the details of the story on a pre-drawn storyboard of 4-6 box grid. Fabulous idea with young kids.

Like many CI teachers I “recycle” the story while looking at a Power Point slide show of photos of our actors/ drawings made by the kids. I don’t add the text, but am considering doing that. I balance my laptop on my knees.

A favorite of my students is retelling/asking using Playmobile/dollhouse furniture/action figures. The 3D visual effect, and miniature props is always a big hit. There is no touching until the end when each kid may help clean-up.

I use magnets to retell (like magic as one magnet is hidden)/ lots of Velcro to add-remove pictures as we retell/draw the story /color in the details etc. etc.

I find it easier to keep the children focused on the story through “activities”. I am still struggling with getting little kids to act. I am a terrible director. I love Jason Fritze’s idea of auditioning for the part. That’s been a huge hit. We use a director’s clapper board to get silence. The kids want me to get an Oscar, so we practice and practice. Their words, not mine.

Catherina on Why There Isn’t More Elementary TPRS Done in Schools

Out of curiosity, I’ve looked into when and why schools choose to start foreign language study and have yet to hear a logical answer. Two prominent private schools in New York City did extensive research and came to the conclusion that FL classes were not efficient before 4th grade. How they came to that decision was not clear to me. Neither school had done research on TPRS.

I would disagree with their conclusions based on my experience after nine years of teaching early elementary. With sound FL pedagogy little kids can greatly benefit from FL classes starting at a very early age. As an approximate guideline my students move on to 4th grade with a receptive word bank of +/- 250 words after 150 hours (typical FLEX setting of French 30 minutes two times per week).

The productive capacity differs from kid to kid. Some children start to speak spontaneously after a few hours (one word utterances, songs, greetings). After +/-100 hours I’ve noticed that many students start to talk, spontaneously expressing themselves with simple sentences, story retells, and asking questions within the limits of what they’ve acquired.

It takes so long to become fluent. For that reason alone we should start early.

Jim Tripp echoes some of what Catharina has written above in his own description of how he works with really young kids:

…I’ve been feeling like a failure, somewhat, using the same two structures (tiene/quiere) with the first/second graders the last couple weeks. Their teachers are sitting listening to us and wondering “When the heck are they going to move on?” I haven’t moved on because acquisition is (or seems?) so much slower the younger they get, and I am trying to heed our first responsibility to them to stay comprehensible….

Catharina addresses Jim’s point:

We notice that 3 year olds confuse “I go’d” with “I went” in their first language. Parents giggle, gently correct and wish time would stop right there, in how cute they are. In an elementary classroom where kids get “optimized targeted immersion” to use Terry Waltz’s fine expression, I find it difficult to know what structures will be acquired early or late. My students don’t output much. If they volunteer to retell a story I don’t correct as long as the wording is understandable to a native speaker. The “mistakes” come from not having had enough input, not from structures being late acquired. The lack of input comes from lack of time and lack of focus. Elementary teachers can only do so much – our time with the kids is so limited.

What I’ve done – again based on instinct – is to shorten the sentences and use short words (few syllables). I have found that longer words are late acquired. They don’t stick. No matter how I chunk words together into a string of sounds, if there are too many syllables the sentence will not stick. No matter how much time we spend on it. Basically, what I am trying to say…is that what we teach in early programs doesn’t seem to matter as long as it is high frequency and …short.

Personalization and Small Children

Catharina addresses the topic of personalization with very small children:

1. Use characters from classroom books that all the kids are familiar with (i.e. Charlotte’s Web, Ramona the Pest, Curious George). It is a simple way to make personal connections without involving a particular student. It’s also good for variety and it keeps things “neutral”.
2. Let a student take photos during story-acting. Make a Power Point slide show using the students’ photos for retell. This also works with kids’ drawings but drawings often don’t work when our lessons are already too short).
3. Insert the children’s names in songs, rhymes, chants.
4. Whenever possible use students’ coats, action figures in their pockets, lunch boxes, back packs, etc. to personalize a story. Avoid hats (lice) and always ask beforehand for permission and thank them profusely.
5. Use enlarged photos of teachers and siblings when circling certain structures.
6. When personalizing the lesson I find it important to honor the diverse make-up of the class: ethnicity, socio-economics, family make-up, same sex parents, culture, heritage, etc. I work with a diverse group of children and personalize by honoring that aspect of our class. My soft baby doll is African-American gender neutral (Ikea). I include celebrities from a variety of countries and think of bringing crayons in many shades. I avoid sensitive subjects like expensive electronics, vacations, or birthday parties.
7. Anything unusual that captures the kids’ attention becomes a teachable personalized moment (i.e. shoving-pushing-getting hurt at recess may become the story for that day).
8. To retell use popular toys: Playmobile, dollhouse furniture, Legos. It’s great for variety. Set up on the carpet with strict rule of no touching.
9. Hang up student artwork and discuss.
10. Keep a copy of the illustrated class story to read in coming years.
10. Know the latest Disney/Pixar movie (and watch it) and the popular recess games of the moment.
12. Less is more. When you think you cannot simplify any more try simplifying even more. Unlike some expert elementary teachers I tend to avoid or use sparingly sound effects, too quirky details or too many props (wonderful TPRS tricks that energize a middle/high school student but do not work with kids who cannot self-regulate).
13. It is interesting how kids stay focused and quiet when we read out loud. The same thing happens when I retell a story. Pin drop quiet.

Students Who Get Too Excited

As soon as I start to ask questions, PQA, hand out jobs, turn on/off the lights, draw on the board, get the kids lined up… it sets off the “chit-chat” mode. Not all kids talk. And it’s most often the same kids that will comment out loud. I’ve thought about this lengthily. I’ve carefully watched classroom teachers and sat through meetings listening to veteran teachers. In early elementary it seems to be a lack of self-regulation for some children. They haven’t yet mastered the skills to regulate their emotions, bodies, feelings, stuff like that. Helping kids develop these essential skills are a huge part of what classroom teachers do (through the language they use, specific wording, tone of voice, body language, consequences). They constantly model proper behavior to the kids and coach them. Often there is no point in punishing these children, they cannot do yet what is expected from them. They need more time.

So we must tone things down for the sake of our easily stimulated young students? But how?

– make it very clear that the TPR action and any corresponding sound should take 2 seconds only
– go extra extra slowly (what is the rush?)
– use obedient robot-type actors
– stick to tragedies rather than comedies (there must be some suspense…)
– be consistent with the rules day in day out
– stop at every single infraction and praise proper behavior
– keep a neutral face
– I am the adult
– rely more on Listen and Draw/Listen and Find/ Listen and Color type activities
– alternate high and low energy activities
– try to limit the activities with minimal transition/disruption
– use activities that require a silent response (thumbs up/ thumbs down/lifting a picture, etc.)

Catharina shares a few more tricks to use with elementary kids:

1. I hand out jobs to my little students. We call them “les responsabilités”. We have the mailman (hands out, picks up things), the journalist, the photographer, the judge, the actors, etc. I have a homemade pocket chart (portable, colorful, and child friendly). I stick the children’s nametags into the chart. We start slow, and keep adding/removing jobs. Kids beg and beg to help. The jobs do distract some kids, they fuss with the camera, take the timer apart, clown around. (What better opportunity to get massive repetitions on “Who wants to be…?” “Mrs. please I want to be…””Mrs. please I want to pick up” (a little output is fine) “Who is the mailman?” “Raise your hand if you want to be…” “Do you want to be the judge?” “No, you don’t want to be the judge?” “Do you want to be the judge or do you want to be the photographer?” . We do this in almost every class, week after week. The language seeps in naturally. The kids are fighting for the jobs, so I get tons of reps of some difficult French language structures. Handing out the jobs without any props or clues brings the language to an ever deeper level of acquisition.

2. At some point during class (usually at the beginning) I will quickly ask for the date (with only two options to keep things simple), the weather (hot or cold), breakfast (Lucy ate what? a few choices only), clothing. We circle each category very briefly. If we put an image up on the screen, it’s easy to establish meaning. As the year progresses the kids know more words, and I keep adding options (visible, invisible…). I draw what I say, use colorful markers, make it fun. It’s a mindless routine, great to catch one’s breath while the stragglers shuffle in. Everybody wants to answer, so often I’ll focus on one kid only. In this way we can teach a variety of high/low frequency words that are dry and not so memorable or interesting. After a while I can sneak in these details into our stories without going out of bounds!

3. Blood and Teeth (credit: Leslie Davison). When teaching little kids you are pretty much guaranteed success if you somehow include blood or/and teeth. Anything about animals, tripping and falling, losing teeth, dinosaurs, shark-infested waters will engage the kids. We should try to make it a “happy” extravagant ending not to upset anyone. Our students are always superheroes: strong, brave and smart. In my classes most often boys will pick a dramatic ending whereas girls cringe and beg for a happy resolution. It is what it is.

4. If you keep speaking to them, they’ll start to speak, so keep speaking to them in the TL so that they are focused on the message. It will happen. My students are becoming little mini-me’s. I hear them say in the TL: “Sit properly” “Johnny is clowning around” “Close your mouth.” “Sit on your behind.” I also overheard: “You have a big behind.” Because of the age and immaturity of some of my students we should limit reps of “derrière”. Instead, “toilette” “fait pipi” and such will have to do. Output is still a wonderful thing!

5. Listen to what kids talk about in L1 (hallways, cafeteria…). It helps us to know what to teach, and gives us personalized details and material for super mini stories. Jason Fritze says not to fight the energy coming from a barking dog outside the window. No activity or story can compete with the excitement of a new puppy or a fire truck pulling up the driveway.

6. Try throwing a soft ball when asking questions. I use a regular size basketball (soft pillow type) that I throw to the kids. It helps with attention, and is a great distraction. One student stands up and we throw and catch while I ask questions or check for comprehension L1 to L2. If your students don’t have PE/ Art/Music they must sit all day long and they are too young to do that. Kinesthetic-type activities help some kids process. I don’t like sitting for too long myself.

Use of Duplos

Once I threw a big pile of Duplos (chunky Legos) in the middle of our carpet with the little kids seated around the pile. Instead of yes-no/thumbs up/fist in the hand… the kids responded to my statements by picking a piece (yes) or not (no).The students who made a mistake had to give one back. They each built something out of 7-10 pieces. Pre-K classes have Duplos/Legos by the buckets. Mine came from home. Play. Play. Play. That’s all they want to do.
Duplos are big, bold, colorful and 10 pieces/kid are enough to make something cool (robot-staircase-sword). It takes 30 seconds to take them apart for the next group. We admire each kid’s creation, and get reps with structures like “a fait”. 3rd graders even buy into it. Novelty.

Other ideas from Catharina:

Teaching foreign languages to little kids has some advantages. There is zero accountability. Happy kids mean happy parents mean happy administrators, which means I keep my job. There are no formal assessments, no grades, no parent phone calls, no homework, minimal prep, no textbook, no curriculum, no nagging colleagues. It’s still black and white, a little praise buys a lot of goodwill. We can practice circling, try, fail, try again, learn how to go slow and simplify. No projects, no reading or writing! The stories unfold naturally. And what is cuter than a bunch of four year olds responding in French as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Little kids are not sponges. Quite the opposite. They need extra time, extra reps, extra love and care. 150 hours of elementary comprehensible input is not negligible.

Elementary Course Descriptions

Once Catharina was asked to write a few paragraphs describing what she does in each class. She was asked specifically not to mention TPRS as such. Here is what she wrote:


In Lower School French class we mimic as closely as possible the process by which children acquire their first language. The children are immersed in a language-rich environment made comprehensible through the use of body language, visual aids and abundant repetition in a variety of contexts. The teacher uses mainly story-based activities to bring the language to life. Through careful scaffolding of new and recycled words, and ample repetition, the children acquire a foundation of basic vocabulary, and simple useful phrases.


In Nursery the children are introduced to French through hands-on experiential instruction. The students acquire the language while participating in interactive age appropriate activities. A typical lesson will include some of the following: puppets, movement, imaginative play, games, music, and drawing. The focus is mainly on listening, and understanding what is said.


In Kindergarten French class the main instructional focus continues to be on listening comprehension. To engage the students, and make the learning memorable, the instruction is based on the children’s environment, family, school, friends, and fantasy world. The class relies on basic vocabulary and simple language structures which the children become familiar with over time. A typical lesson may include puppets, movement, imaginative play, games, music, drawing, and storytelling.

First grade:

In first grade French class we continue to work on the children’s receptive language skill of listening comprehension. A typical lesson will include meaningful and personalized conversations, storytelling, music, movement, and a variety of hands-on activities. The instruction is based on topics of interest to the students, as we work in an atmosphere of “comprehensible” immersion to promote and accelerate the acquisition of French.

Second grade:

In second grade French class the underlying teaching philosophy continues to be based on comprehensible input. The emphasis is on listening, understanding, and responding, as the children engage in simple conversations within the limits of familiar contexts like their immediate environment. The students are given multiple opportunities to use their language skills in a wider range of practical settings.

Third grade:

In third grade French class we continue to provide the students with meaningful and comprehensible language. The children engage in conversations on topics related to their interests, family, friends, and community. A typical lesson may include a variety of story-based and hands-on activities, music and movement. While the students are given multiple opportunities to use their language skills, they are also taught how to best “learn” a language within the limits of a classroom setting.

[Note: most elementary programs will describe “what they cover” each year – colors, numbers, farm animals – without explaining their approach or instructional strategies. It makes parents feel confident. Their kids are learning something that is tangible, measurable, similar to the way they learned.

Unfortunately, some elementary schools claim to “do” TPRS, but clearly struggle with the method or how to describe it to others. It most often sounds like a mixed bag of different approaches, with the term TPRS thrown in to cover all bases.]



3 thoughts on “Catharina Greenberg on Elementary CI”

  1. Thanks to Ben And Catharina for posting/pulling all of Catharina’s wonderful insights, reflections and practices into one post. I find it so incredibly rich – I will print it out and re-read again & again, experimenting with new ideas.
    It’s true that classroom management is a completely different beast with the very young, and these kids can’t be held accountable for behavior they can’t yet manage. So we have to avoid the triggers as best we can and drink a patience shake.
    Lil kids wear their sensory needs on their sleeves – in any given class you may observe humming, singing, tapping, kicking, twiddling, diddling, fiddling, crouching atop their chair (yikes!), playing with a neighbor’s hair, dancing, stretching, poking fingers into mouth/ears, picking scabs (HUGELY POPULAR!), touching MY shoes at the rug, and of course, the ubiquitous nose picking. (The list goes on!!!)
    They (like all of us) are ruled by their energy level and it’s quite obvious when they’re spent. I see my 1st graders at the end of the day, which is always a challenge. Luring them into a compelling scene, story, game or activity from the get-go is key!! Luckily, they LOOOOVE routine, so adding new beginning and end of class songs, chants, exercises, TPR sequences, etc. is great.

  2. I would love it if Catharina were to detail a class including her go-to, hit lessons. Even better, see it somehow in action. This is a selfish request. I want to improve my elementary instruction. I realize such a request asks too much.

  3. Alright, I’ve gone back to the basics for elementary: TPR and TPR + Storytelling.

    I also thought this 2-activity sequence would make a good warm-up for my middle schoolers. Of all grades, the 8th graders actually got the most into it! We had some hilarious TPR leading up to the story. I’m definitely going to ride the TPR and TPRStorytelling wave as far as it takes me 🙂 I’m attaching the link to the story (in English), along with the requisite language and some notes.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Search

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to Our Mailing List

No spam, notifications only about new products, updates.

Related Posts

CI and the Research (cont.)

Admins don’t actually read the research. They don’t have time. If or when they do read it, they do not really grasp it. How could

Research Question

I got a question: “Hi Ben, I am preparing some documents that support CI teaching to show my administrators. I looked through the blog and

We Have the Research

A teacher contacted me awhile back. She had been attacked about using CI from a team leader. I told her to get some research from

The Research

We don’t need any more research. In academia that would be a frivolous comment, but as a classroom teacher in languages I support it. Yes,



Subscribe to be a patron and get additional posts by Ben, along with live-streams, and monthly patron meetings!

Also each month, you will get a special coupon code to save 20% on any product once a month.

  • 20% coupon to anything in the store once a month
  • Access to monthly meetings with Ben
  • Access to exclusive Patreon posts by Ben
  • Access to livestreams by Ben