Teaching Language Using the Total Physical Response

What is the Total Physical Response (TPR)?

TPR is derived from the same methods used to develop our language skills as children. Parents will often combine words with gestures and objects, connecting their vocabulary with whole body actions when teaching their child what something means. First developed by James Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, he discovered that coordinating language and physical movement helps students learn more effectively.

TPR is another example of the ‘comprehension approach’ to teaching, or the ‘understanding before speaking’ approach. It works well for languages due to how quickly learners can recognise the meaning in the foreign language being taught, while at the same time passively learning the structure of the language itself. Through James Asher’s studies of parents and their young children as they attempted to communicate, he hypothesised that language is best learned through three key conditions:

  1. Children predominantly listening to their parents and responding physically
  2. Engagement of the right hemisphere of the brain (where physical movement is controlled), which is required for effective language learning
  3. Calm and stress-free conditions, which optimise language acquisition through positive feedback loops

In his own words, Asher went on to further hypothesise that:

‘A reasonable hypothesis is that the brain and the nervous system are biologically programmed to acquire language, either the first or the second in a particular sequence and in a particular mode. The sequence is listening before speaking and the mode is to synchronise language with the individual’s body.’

These findings form the basis of each lesson using the TPR method.

How is TPR taught?

Lessons are often organised around physical objects such as posters, props and pictures that are used to illustrate what each word means. A teacher will say various words in the chosen foreign language and combine it with a gesture, prop or facial or body movement. They will then ask the students to mimic their behaviour while repeating the word. Eventually, that action will be enough to call the word to mind. Repetition is key, as well as ensuring the written word is visible so the students can connect both the written or oral word.

Some teachers use different games to teach TPR. These can include:

Simon Says: This classic game can be adapted for teaching languages. The same rules apply (the teacher must say ‘Simon says’ to initiate action), but instead of a generic action like whisking an egg, they will say, ‘Simon says [foreign language word]’ and the students must mimic the gesture for that word. If they get it wrong or forget what it is, they’re out.

Circles: The teacher will organise their students in a circle around them and say the foreign language word. The student who is the last one to mimic the right gesture is out, and they then have to stand with the teacher and discover who is last next time. This continues until one student is left and is crowned the winner.

Sounds: This game requires the teacher to ask their students to do the actions connected with the foreign language word, but then add a sound onto it. Eventually, a unique action and corresponding sound is created for each word. Students then take it in turns to say a word and their peers must make both the sound and the gesture in response. This game can be played in smaller groups too.

How does TPR benefit students?

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a method used to reinforce comprehension when learning a foreign language. It’s best used for teaching children, although it’s been known to benefit beginner adults too. TPR works best when used to teach vocabulary that is then connected with an action, although it can be used to teach other types of vocabulary too. It’s most beneficial when used as a strategy for teaching both English Language Learners and even native speakers who want to learn new words quickly and efficiently. It increases both short term and long-term language retention and is praised for its stress-free approach. That said, there are limits to TPR. It’s a difficult technique to use when it comes to teaching grammar, and it can be restrictive for shier students due to the requirement for active participation. On the other hand, it’s beneficial for students with dyslexia or those who struggle to learn in more traditional classroom environments. Ultimately, it’s down to the teacher and how they choose to implement the TPR technique in their classrooms. For the best results, they can ask their students what their preferred methods are, which helps them take a more active role in the way they’re educated.

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