What is Total Physical Response?
Total Physical response is a language teaching strategy developed by James Asher. He observed how babies learn language and noticed that every time a parent said something, the child would respond physically. From there he hypothesized 3 things:
- language is learned primarily by listening,
- the right hemisphere needs to be engaged while learning a language (the left side of the brain is responsible for language), and
- language learning should not be stressful (Wikipedia, yes, I used it).
Babies don’t learn from memorizing lists; why should children and adults? -James Asher, Speech at Cambridge University (TPR World)
Total Physical Response Method
How do you use the total physical response method? When you implement TPR students must use their bodies. If not, this strategy will be fruitless. Why? Body movement allows for understanding and retention of the words being learned.
How does it work? The teacher gives a command and the student uses their body to respond to that command. A simple example is “sit” and “stand”. The teacher says “sit” and the student sits. The teacher says “stand” and the student stands. However, as a middle school teacher I used TPR in a more advanced manner.
Total Physical Response Activities
I taught grades 6-8 for four years as a Bilingual/ESL teacher. Sometimes I would support students in a monolingual setting and other times I supported them in a bilingual, dual language setting. In both settings I used TPR to help the students learn vocabulary. I would pick 10 to 15 words essential for understanding the big ideas in the unit. Next, I worked with the entire class to create body movements to match those words. Then, I would have students invent the movements so they would have ownership over it. Having ownership makes it more memorable for them, which connects to the objective of TPR; retaining new vocabulary and building overall language acquisition.
Typically, I used TPR with social studies or language arts, but you can apply it to any subject, even math. Let’s look at some examples for each major subject area.
- In social studies, if you’re teaching the Bill of Rights and you want the students to learn freedom of speech have them create a hand movement that represents talking
- For language arts, when you teach literary devices imagine teaching simile by shifting your arms in opposing positions to represent comparison
- As a math teacher, if you’re telling students what a fraction is, have them create a sign that represents a fraction.
- For science teachers, when you have a unit about cells and you’re discussing cytoplasm use your hands to represent a jelly like substance
Total Physical Response Lesson Plans
Always plan to incorporate pictures along with your TPR lesson. I create a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation with all of the vocabulary words I want to teach. I recommend teaching 5 to 10 words a day. Do not overwhelm students.
Every time you teach a new word the students should come up with a movement, gesture or signal to represent that word. Next, you practice the signal/movement in three steps.
- The teacher says the word and does the movement with the class
- Say the word and the students do the movement
- The teacher does the movement (or shows the picture on a projector without the word visible) and the students say and do the movement
This repetition is very purposeful. It allows the students to engrain the word in their head. By the time they get to step three saying the word and doing the movement they are producing the vocabulary without your help.
Another excellent way to use TPR is through storytelling. The teacher creates a story and the students have to come up with a movement to act out the story. Within the story the vocabulary is repeated dozens of times in different ways. This leads the students to internalize the vocabulary in a fun and engaging way. This is a great way for math and science teachers to incorporate literacy in their lessons.
Tell the class to do a movement. If you don’t say “Simon says” the students that do the action are out of the game.
Have the class stand up and say a command or a vocabulary word. The last person to do the movement is out. You might need to divide the class into smaller groups and then have the winners from each group compete against one another.
Have the entire class stand. Pass a wand or a ball to two students. The two students that have the wand or ball have to compete by doing the correct TPR move the fastest. The one who is slower has to sit down. There will be one winner by the end of the game.
Evidence That TPR Works
“The essence of total physical response is that learners are silent, listen to a command in the language being taught, then, obey the command by acting it out with the instructor as a model. The method was applied to teaching Russian after an initial experiment had been tried with Japanese. The experimental group acted out the commands. The control group imagined they were acting out the commands, but actually remained seated throughout the session. The total physical response method produced superior learning in retention of Russian words after a period as long as 2 weeks. This article is from the, ‘International Review of Applied Linguistics, Volume 3, Number 4, 1965.'” (ERIC)
When to Use It and When Not To
TPR should be used when students are learning new vocabulary. Once you see that students remember the words, remove the body movement. Similarly, do not overuse TPR because just like any strategy, students can get sick of it. Intermix this strategy with other activities that students look forward to doing . On the website TPR World they recommend incorporating the verbal side of the brain with dialogues, stories and patterned drills. In the past, I used word sorts, the Frayer Model, vocabulary games, cloze writing, visual aides, and I had students draw images of the words.
While teaching online I have ramped up my TPR game by focusing in on words that lend themselves to body movement and that are a major part of the entire unit. Focus on words that will be useful in real life. For words that are not conducive to body movement, I fall back on other strategies such as modeling language patterns and having the student repeat them, modeling instruction so the student can take my lead in an activity, using visual aides such as a whiteboard or the writing tool on the PowerPoint, and incorporating props.
Using TPR Online vs. In Person
Part of the reason I am writing this article is because I currently work as an online ESL teacher (Plug, we are currently hiring at Gogokid) and there are so many fun ways to teach ESL online, but one of the biggest ways to not only engage, but also instruct is to use TPR. I have worked for several online companies (VIPKid, iTutorGroup, 51Talk and Gogokid). These companies consider gestures and signing as TPR, which strays from the purpose of James Asher’s theory.
When I went through online ESL training, they showed a teacher doing a body movement to explain instructions and vocabulary, without emphasizing the importance of the child repeating the body movement. This does help to make communication clear, but I am not sure how well the students are retaining the vocabulary if they are not repeating the body movements themselves, which is the purpose of TPR; to retain the vocabulary. So it is my hope that this article and the resources provided will help you to gain a better understanding of TPR, how to use it and how not to use it.
Be sure to incorporate TPR when it can help a student understand you and learn new vocabulary, but remember that interweaving other strategies are just as important when working with language learners.
If you are using TPR in your classroom, I would love to hear different ways that you incorporate it in the comments.
Here are some YouTube videos to help you understand TPR
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