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An introduction to Total Physical Response (and four activities to try)

An introduction to Total Physical Response (and four activities to try)

Do you have beginners or young learners in your schedule? We bet you (and they!) will get a lot out of Total Physical Response. Not sure what that is? Here’s an introduction.

What is TPR?

Total Physical Response, or TPR, was created by American psychologist Dr. James Asher and is based on the experience of how humans learn their first language. You see, when children learn their mother tongue, their parents and carers are very physically involved in imparting language. They demonstrate and instruct, and the child responds in kind. No one demands or requires very small children to speak at all: only to listen and understand, which is to say, to comprehend.

The result is that we acquire our mother tongue, rather than learn it as we do additional languages. Therefore, the idea of TPR in a nutshell is to create a neural link between speech and action.

Why consider TPR

Total Physical Response has a lot of benefits, particularly for beginners and young learners.

  • The pairing of movement with language is innately associated with effective learning

  • Students actively use both the left and right sides of their brains

  • It works with both small and large groups

  • It sharpens students’ listening skills

  • Students are not required to speak until they are ready to, therefore creating a “safe zone” that greatly lowers inhibitions and stress

  • Students will appreciate the change of pace and potential for humor—even teenagers will crack a smile!

  • Kinaesthetic learners (who respond well to physical activities) and visual learners (who learn best with visual cues) will get a lot out of TPR. (This is another reason why it’s important to know your students’ personalities and learning types.)

  • As no one is called upon individually, TPR is great for introverted students

  • Limited materials and planning mean it’s simple for teachers to prep

TPR works well when teaching:

  • Vocabulary, particularly verbs

  • Difficult to explain actions (think wiggle, slide, launch)

  • Storytelling and narrative language

  • Imperatives and classroom language

Remember: Like any other method, it’s not to be used in a vacuum, but as a part of a varied collection of techniques employed in a given semester

How to use TPR in class

Here is a basic method for using Total Physical Response in the classroom:

  • The teacher performs an action, both demonstrating and saying it (e.g., “I’m brushing my teeth,”). Be prepared to exaggerate, use gesture, facial expressions, and props if necessary

  • Call on the students to repeat the action

  • Repeat once more

  • Write the verb/phrase on the board

  • Repeat with other verbs and return to them regularly during the semester to check retention

Try these four activities

1. Songs and nursery rhymes: These provide excellent TPR potential. Plus, once you’ve prepared memorable, creative actions for the songs you’ll have ROI for the rest of your teaching career!

2. Simon Says:  The classic TPR game.

3. Circle games: The teacher says and performs an action which students repeat. The last student to react is out. (You may like to have this student watch for whoever is out next.)

Extra: Here are more circle games to try.

4. Scavenger Hunt Challenge: Divide the class in teams and give instructions one by one, such as:

  • Bring me something orange

  • March like a soldier

  • Shout out your favorite color

  • Dance salsa

Tip: If you think this could get noisy, go outside. After all, teaching outside the classroom has many benefits.

You may have found yourself using touching on TPR in the classroom without even realizing it. Well, now you know it has a name—and is a tried and true technique for effective language acquisition. Consider it another tool for your beginners, young learners, and teenager teacher toolbelt!

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