What Is TPR (Total Physical Response)?


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What is TPR? Total Physical Response (TPR) is a language teaching method using actions to create a mind and body connection to words making them easier for the student to remember.

What is TPR

ALO7 tutor using TPR to teach the word ‘nose’

When I was a university student studying to be a middle school math teacher, I learned all kinds of handy techniques for teaching complicated math concepts. And, I also learned how to create a dynamic classroom. Twenty years later, I began my adventure in online ESL teaching with ALO7 and my extraordinary Chinese students. I thought the complicated part would be dealing with technology and the distance between my students and me. Instead, I found that it was more intimidating to learn and change my methodology, not technology. The main change for me was to learn to use TPR, which stands for Total Physical Response.

What is TPR?

According to The Teacher Toolkit, “Total Physical Response (TPR) is a method of teaching language or vocabulary concepts by using physical movement to react to verbal input. The process mimics the way that infants learn their first language, and it reduces student inhibitions and lowers stress. The purpose of TPR is to create a brain link between speech and action to boost language and vocabulary learning.”¹

TPR was developed by Dr. James Asher, of San Jose State University, in the late 1960’s. It is based on the theory that infants don’t learn language by memorizing lists, so why should adults who are learning a second language? Babies learn languages as they watch the physical responses to their words. If they say “mama” and mama gets excited, smiles and exclaims, “She’s looking at me! She’s saying my name!”, the baby sees the reaction, and her brain connects the word with the actions.

As a person is learning a second language, their brain will continue to work the same way and connect visuals with the language skills. Dr. Asher believes that TPR engages both hemispheres of the brain, which is useful for language learning. He also believes that TPR helps a student to learn with less stress, in a more fun and engaging manner without the burden of memorization.

TPR, in layman’s terms, is the use of physical actions, such as motions and body language, to accompany verbal expression. As ESL or EFL teachers, we use it to show the definition of the word, to help the student associate meaning to words or phrases, and to help them have a better comprehension of what is being expressed. The use of Total Physical Response is not a stand-alone method of teaching a second language but combined with other techniques it can be extremely useful. Also, it is important to remember that it was created to especially help beginner language learners. It engages a learner in conjunction with other techniques to effectively maximize classroom time.
Considering the three main types of learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic, we can see how the use of TPR can meet the needs of kinesthetic learners through motion if the students are encouraged to mimic the actions. As the words are spoken, read and acted out, all three types of learning styles are accommodated, and the usually short class sessions are filled with fun and engaging content for all.

Advantages to using TPR in an ESL classroom

  • Teacher-centered: Having all eyes on the teacher helps a lot with shorter attention spans. The students are waiting to see what the teacher will do, rather than looking at each other or even being self-conscious about their speaking.
  • Engages shy students: Shy students do not have to speak until they are ready, but they can show they understand the concept through physical actions. This helps to take the pressure off of those who are paralyzed by the thought of speaking incorrectly or in front of their peers.
  • Time management: As mentioned already, usually our ESL class time is limited. The use of TPR can maximize the time available by corresponding actions with reading and auditory instruction.

“An important condition for successful language learning is the absence of stress. First language acquisition takes place in a stress-free environ­ment, according to Asher, whereas the adult language learning environ­ment often causes considerable stress and anxiety. The key to stress-free learning is to tap into the natural bio-program for language development and thus to recapture the relaxed and pleasurable experiences that ac­company first language learning. By focusing on meaning interpreted through movement, rather than on language forms studied in the ab­stract, the learner is said to be liberated from self-conscious and stressful situations and is able to devote full energy to learning.”~ Professor Franz Ludescher, MAS²

How to use TPR in the online ESL classroom

Once we understand the answer to the question ‘What is TPR?,” the next question for us as online educators is “How do we apply this to teaching English through the internet?” Here are some ideas to get your TPR creativity flowing:

  • Simon Says is a great way to have our students learn body parts and actions. Use the imperative tense and tell your students to “Touch your head!” or “Jump!” The actions along with listening to the words will create a connection between the auditory and kinesthetic learning. As the students advance in their language skills, the commands can become more complicated. “Walk to the door, open the door, then sit down.”
  • Guessing games are another fun and engaging way of learning through our online portals. First, I send each student a word to act out in their personal chat box. Next, the students take turns acting while the others guess the secret word. These words can be anything from verbs like crying or laughing to nouns like lion or bird. The kids are most creative, and we all end up laughing quite a bit.This game can even be used for verbs and adverbs. In an online environment, we can use stuffed animals or action figures and have them act out the specific verb. Have the puppet walk, ask the students “What does he/she do?” for simple present or “What is he/she doing?” for present progressive. If you would like to teach adverbs, have the figure walk slowly, quickly, excitedly, sadly, etc. The students can also use their toys for TPR.
  • Movement songs are also fun and engaging for younger students. I still remember the actions from “I’m a Little Teapot” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and I was probably two when I learned them! The students are acting out vocabulary words, learning language structures and having fun all at the same time. Meanwhile, their brains are making connections that we don’t fully understand but will help them to retain new words. And, the addition of music while teaching helps to form even more of these types of connections.
  • Show and Tell can also be used as a TPR method in your online classroom. Grab a book, open the book, close the book, read the book. Have the students do the same. So many of their senses are involved in this process, and they are engaging their physical bodies as well as their intellectual capacities.
  • The ALO7 Giphy Catalog is a great resource for gleaning ideas for actions you can use to model words and concepts. Many ALO7 tutors contributed video snippets of their best moves to make this compilation a success. Here is a sample from the collection:
Swing Total Physical Response GIF by ALO7.com - Find & Share on GIPHY

Have fun and feel free to use TPR in your online ESL classroom, knowing that you are creating a stress-free learning environment for students. At the same time, you are helping them to understand English in a practical way as they connect their memory with real-life actions.

¹ “Total Physical Response (TPR).” The-teacher-toolkit. Accessed November 19, 2018. http://www.theteachertoolkit.com/index.php/tool/total-physical-response-tpr.

² Ludescher, Franz, MAS. “Language Acquisition.” Didactics. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://www2.vobs.at/ludescher/Ludescher/LAcquisition/language acquisition.htm.

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