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: 1) language is learned primarily by listening, 2) the right hemisphere needs to be engaged while learning a language (the left side of the brain is responsible for language, and 3) 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 connects both sides of the brain.

When you use 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.

My Experience Using Total Physical Response

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. Then I worked with the entire class to create body movements to match those words. 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.

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 a reprint 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


Learn More From These TPR Resources
TPR World
A study about using TPR with adjective
Example of TPR in a bilingual class

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