Circling: How slow is slow enough?

This summer I attended a TPRS workshop through TPRS books.  We spent a LOT of time on circling.  At first I thought it was going to be a drag of a workshop as I felt like I understand the procedure and value of circling.  I discovered quickly that I am much weaker at circling than I realized.  1 major thing stuck out to me.  In the 3 prior years in which I’ve moved toward CI/TPRS, I have not been going slow enough.  We shouldn’t just go slow, we must go slower than we ever imagined that we should.  It struck me in the workshop as we learned German, which I hardly knew before the 2 days.

Two goals for me this year are to slow everything down and really work on circling.  I don’t think I will never be strong at walking into a classroom with a handful of structures to circle for a whole class period, but the power of circling entwined within other activities is immense.  The basics of circling are as follows:

Teacher says a statement in the target language.

Teacher asks a yes question and confirms the statement.

Teacher asks a no question and confirms the original statement.

Teacher asks an either/or question and confirms the correct answer.

It seems too repetitive, but this summer I quickly learned that it is necessary.  What is beautiful about circling is that anytime a class seems to struggle with a word, phrase or structure, a teacher can take a circling break to insure students have it.  Also, as students advance in acquired structures, circling can be used to review past structures.  Here is an example sequence of circling a statement I will use in my Latin 4/AP class as a warmup next week.

Caesar naves longas removeri iussit. – Caesar ordered the long boats (warships) to be removed.

Teacher:  Caesar naves longas removeri iussit.

Teacher:  Caesarne naves onerarias removeri iussit?  (Did Caesar order the transport boats to be removed?)

Class:  Minime – No

Teacher:  Ita, Caesar naves onerarias removeri non iussit, Caesar naves longas removeri iussit.  (Yes, Caesar did not order the transport ships to be removed, Caesar ordered the warships to be removed.)

Teacher:  Caesar naves onerarias aut naves longas removeri iussit?  (Did Caesar order the transport ships to be removed or the warships to be removed?)

Class:  Naves longas  (the warships)

Teacher:  Ita, Caesar naves longas removeri iussit.  (Yes, Caesar ordered the warships to be removed.)

I’m quick to feel the danger with circling is that one can get caught in an overly repetitive sequence, but this summer I realized it takes much longer for a language learner to get to that point than it takes me.  Go slow, engage the class with choral responses and mix up the circling a bit.  In the example above, if I feel the students understand the terms for ships quickly, I can switch from circling the object (naves) to the action or the complementary infinitive.

The trick to circling well is to create just enough novelty for the students.  Here are some simple ways to try and create that novelty while proceeding at what feels like a slow pace.

  • Begin with a statement to the whole class.  Ask for a choral response.  Insure all students are processing and repeat as necessary.  Use a 2nd statement that is close to the 1st and ask students what is different in L1 after the sequence.
  • Personalize the statement and ask 1 student a question about it.  Circle the response to the individual student and then to the whole class.  Continue with more students until it seems to fade.
  • Ask a 2nd student what he or she thinks about the previous student’s answer.  Go back and forth between students.
  • Project 2-4 simple questions that are similar to the statement.  Students discuss with a partner.  Roam the room and circle with pairs.  Afterward circle with the whole class based on some students’ answers.
  • Add an image for students to connect with a new word that is out of bounds from the circling plan.

This year I will circle more and focus on going slow.  As I train myself to slow down, then I will focus on improving the variety of my sequence.  The best part of circling is that you don’t have to prepare it.  You simple need a sentence from an activity, reading or textbook that you are already teaching.  You can plan to circle or you can use circling when you check for understanding and notice students are not getting it.  I’ve learned quickly that I need to force myself to practice this skill as it is invaluable.  And when circling seems to be dragging, I look to myself and remind myself that language learners need a lot of processing time.  I will lose them when they do not understand the statements before I will lose them because it is boring.

Where can you add circling into your routine?  Find more Pre-reading types of activities at


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