Using Storytelling to Increase Fluency

You might not expect a story about learning the Lakota Language to start off with one of our Language teachers talking about how much German she learned at her most recent training, but we often like to do the unexpected here at Thunder Valley CDC. 

“The first few hours of the training were in German,” says Second Language Learner Program Coordinator, Christina Giago. “And when it was all finished and we were evaluated, we had learned close to 700 German words.” 

The training, attended by Christina and other members of our Lakota Language Initiative, focused on a Total Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) approach to language learning. This approach combines the Total Physical Response (TPR) method of language learning –– where people “act out” what they are saying as they say it –– and adds in the engaging pull of storytelling. 

“A big part of telling your story is engaging your class and being animated as you speak with them,” says Christina. “And you’re not just telling them a story; you’re also having them repeat every sentence in the story back to you in multiple ways by ‘circling’ around that statement.”

She explains how “circling” is the process of focusing on a statement and then asking numerous questions about it in order to engage with the words, sentence structure, and verb conjugations of the language being used. All of the words in the statement are written on a board. The questions get more complicated as students become comfortable with the words they are repeating. 

Teacher: A woman named Christina puts the chokecherries in a bucket.
Students: A woman named Christina puts the chokecherries in a bucket.
Teacher: Does a woman named Jill put the chokecherries in a bucket?
Students: No, a woman named Jill does not put the chokecherries in a bucket, a woman named Christina puts the chokecherries in the bucket. 

By asking an array ‘Who, What, When, Where’ questions (What does Christina put in the bucket?) or switching perspectives from first person to third (Do you put the chokecherries in the bucket?) students are interacting with a single component of a story in numerous ways. As stories go on, more statements and words within them are added to the board, creating a visual network of words that are repeated throughout the story.

“It really helps build your ability to have a conversation about a subject in a more natural way,” says Christina. “We are definitely going to include it in the curriculum we are creating and our approach to teaching.” 

The creation of the curriculum is a big piece of the language learning puzzle. While other languages teachers and learners have a multitude of curriculums, workbooks, audio guides, games and so on to help them, resources for the Lakota Language are not as abundant or diverse. Teachers and students alike must not only take on the challenge of language but also the challenge of developing methods and resources. 

“At the training the Spanish and French teachers already had curriculums ready to go,” said Christina. “Like, ‘Here is your French TPRS book: Voilà! Start teaching!’ But with Lakota you essentially have to create everything yourself.” 

Creating language resources is not a new phenomenon for the Lakota Language Initiative. Hundreds of children's have been translated into Lakota from English, original Lakota children's books are constantly being published, and online mediums such as videos are also part of the Initiative's work through the Lakhotiyapi Press. The difference here is creating stories that are applicable to the everyday conversations of adults.

So, after returning from her training, Christina began creating multiple stories to begin utilizing the TPRS method of storytelling. A key element of this method is incorporating the 1000 most used words of a language, so using the list of 1000 most common Lakota words, Christina's stories combine everyday phrases with local locations and activities. And as we have found with much of the work we do at Thunder Valley CDC, things created with the local community at the center resonate more deeply and help people feel more connected with what they are doing. 

“We are going to start doing TPRS using traditional Lakota stories as well,” says Christina. “I think that would be ideal.”

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