What is Total Physical Response?

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Total Physical Response

During my doctoral studies, I had the unique opportunity to delve into a variety of teaching methods, some of which blossomed into prominence in the latter half of the last century and astonishingly retain their relevance today. Among these, one method stood out and became the focus of our discussion today: Total Physical Response (TPR).

Developed by James Asher, TPR is especially helpful in language teaching and learning contexts. This method distinguishes itself by integrating physical movement with language instruction, grounded in the theory that memory is notably enhanced through association with physical actions.

In this post, we will talk about what TPR is all about, how it works, and some of its examples in class. In doing so, I will be referencing Asher’s seminal research throughout, inviting you to read his original work and further deepen your understanding of this amazing instructional method.

Related: 30 Innovative Instructional Strategies Examples

What is Total Physical Response?

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a language teaching method developed by James Asher during the 50s and 60s (e.g., see 1965, 1967, 1969) . TPR is primarily kinesthetic as it integrates physical movement with language instruction. TPR is also based on the theory that memory is enhanced through association with physical actions.

The strategy of the total physical response is to have the students listen to a command in a foreign language and immediately obey with a physical action.

(Asher, 1969, p. 4)

In practice, TPR might involve a teacher commanding the class to “Stand up” or “Open the book” in the target language, and students immediately carry out the action. This direct association between words and actions helps cement the language in the learner’s mind, making it easier to recall and use spontaneously.

This approach aims to mimic the natural language acquisition process, focusing primarily on understanding and immediate physical response to verbal cues, before moving on to speaking. TPR is especially effective in the early stages of language learning, facilitating rapid comprehension and making the learning process more engaging and interactive.

How Was TPR Developed?

The story behind TPR is quite fascinating. James Asher, the brain behind TPR, pointed out a critical issue that many of us in the educational field might find relatable even today: American students, as he observed, were significantly underperforming in foreign language acquisition.

Asher (1969) attributed this underperformance to the fact that US schools at the time allotted only an hour a day to language learning which is, according to Asher, grossly insufficient for developing fluency across the essential language skills: speaking, listening, writing, and reading.

With that being the case, Asher proposed focusing intensely on developing one key language skill at the early stages of learning, which could, in turn, facilitate the development of the other three skills. His choice? Listening comprehension. The rationale is compelling: First, there is the fact that children learn their first language through listening and responding to the physical environment around them, long before they start speaking, reading, or writing.

For example, young children in America acquire a high level of listening fluency for English before they make English utterances. This listening fluency can be demonstrated by observing the complexity of commands which the young child can obey before he learns to speak; and even as speaking develops, listening comprehension is always further advanced.

(Asher, 1969, p. 4)

Second, proficiency in listening has a high positive transfer effect, particularly to speaking, and depending on the language’s phonology and orthography, to reading and writing as well. As Asher confirmed:


There is evidence that the skill of listening comprehension has high positive transfer especially to speaking a foreign language. And, listening skill seems to have a large positive transfer to reading and writing depending upon the fit between phonology and orthography of a specific language.

(asher, 1969, p. 4)


The genius of TPR lies in its simplicity and directness. Instead of overwhelming students with multiple tasks, it involves them in physical action in response to commands in the target language. This method makes the learning process more engaging and less daunting for beginners.


What is Total Physical Response

How Does Total Physical Response Work?

James Asher’s research study (1969) with students learning Russian provides a concrete example of how TPR is implemented in practice and showcases its effectiveness. In this study, the procedure was straightforward but meticulously planned. Participants were positioned on either side of the experimenter (‘E’). The experiment involved listening to commands in Russian from a taped voice and then physically executing these commands along with the experimenter, who acted as a model.

The commands started simple, with one-word directives like “Stand!” and progressively became more complex, eventually evolving into commands requiring a series of actions, such as “Pick up the paper and pencil and put them on the chair.” This gradual increase in complexity allowed students to build on their understanding and fluency in a stepwise manner.

The training was divided into four units, each varying in duration from 1.5 to 7.5 minutes and spaced out over four days. This structured approach ensured that students had time to absorb and practice the new language in manageable segments. Retention tests were conducted after each training session and at various intervals post-training to assess how well students retained the language.

Asher’s study demonstrated the effectiveness of TPR in foreign language learning by showing that students could successfully interpret and act on commands in a new language, even when those commands were complex or novel. This underscores the potential of TPR as a powerful tool in language teaching, capable of facilitating rapid comprehension and long-term retention of the language. The methodology aligns with the naturalistic way humans learn languages, making it not only effective but also engaging for learners.

Total Physical Response Examples and Activities

Here are more examples of TPR activities that teachers can incorporate into their teaching practice. These activities not only make learning more interactive but also help in reinforcing new vocabulary and phrases through physical movement:

  1. Classroom Commands: Start with basic commands that can be used around the classroom like “Sit down”, “Stand up”, “Open your book”, “Close your door”, “Raise your hand”, and “Turn the page”. This not only teaches students commands but also helps in managing the classroom in the target language.
  2. Simon Says: A classic game that can be adapted for language learning. The teacher gives commands like “Simon says touch your nose” or “Simon says jump”. Students only follow the command if it starts with “Simon says”. This game can be used to teach body parts, action verbs, and can be made more complex for advanced learners.
  3. Weather Commands: Teach weather vocabulary by associating actions with different weather conditions. For example, “When it’s sunny, put on sunglasses”, “When it’s raining, open the umbrella”, “When it’s snowing, shiver”, or “When it’s windy, hold your hat”. This can be a fun way to learn weather-related vocabulary.
  4. Daily Routines: Describe daily routines and have students act them out. Use phrases like “Wake up”, “Brush your teeth”, “Eat breakfast”, “Go to school”, “Study”, “Eat dinner”, “Watch TV”, and “Go to bed”. This helps students learn phrases associated with daily activities.
  5. Obstacle Course: Set up a simple obstacle course in the classroom or outdoors. Give instructions like “Jump over the rope”, “Crawl under the table”, “Walk around the chair”, and “Climb over the box”. This activity is great for teaching prepositions and action verbs.
  6. Shopping Spree: Simulate a shopping experience where students have to pick up items based on your commands. “Pick up the apples”, “Put the bread in the basket”, “Pay for the groceries”. This can be a fun way to learn names of food items and shopping-related phrases.
  7. Zoo Visit: Pretend to take a trip to the zoo and see different animals. Use commands like “Walk to the lions”, “Look at the monkeys”, “Feed the ducks”, and “Take pictures of the elephants”. This helps in teaching animal names and actions.
  8. Sports Day: Use sports and activities as a way to teach verbs and nouns. Commands like “Kick the ball”, “Catch the frisbee”, “Swim in the pool”, “Ride the bicycle”, and “Run to the finish line” can make the learning process dynamic and physically engaging.

Related: 4 Highly Effective Instructional Strategies

Final thoughts

In conclusion, Total Physical Response (TPR) is an effective language teaching method that is especially helpful in the early stages of language learning. James Asher’s innovative approach, conceived in response to the challenges of language learning in the mid-20th century, continues to resonate with educators and learners alike, transcending decades with its simplicity and effectiveness.

The essence of TPR—prompting students to respond physically to verbal commands—encapsulates a powerful pedagogical tool that leverages the innate human capacity for kinesthetic learning. This method does more than facilitate language acquisition; it revitalizes the classroom, making learning an active, engaging, and holistic experience

References

  • Asher, James J., “The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning,” Modern Language Journal 53.1 (1965), 3-4.
  • Asher, J. J., & Price, B. S. (1967). The Learning Strategy of the Total Physical Response: Some Age Differences. Child Development, 38(4), 1219–1227. https://doi.org/10.2307/1127119
  • Asher, J. J. (1969). The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning. The Modern Language Journal, 53(1), 3–17. https://doi.org/10.2307/322091

Further Readings

  • Davidheiser, J. (2002). Teaching German with TPRS (Total Physical Response Storytelling). Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German, 35(1), 25–35. https://doi.org/10.2307/3531952
  • Pattison, P. (1987). Developing communication skills: A practical handbook for language teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Taylor, H. M. (1981). Learning to listen to English. TESOL Quarterly, 15(1), 41-50
  • Ur, P. (1990). Teaching listening comprehension. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wolvin, A., & Coakley, C. (1982). Listening (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Brown.
  • Wolff, F.I., Marsnik, N.C., Tacey, W.S., & Nichols, R.G. (1983). Perceptive listening. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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