Total Physical Response

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Are you completely new to ESL? Or maybe you’ve been a teacher for a while, but you feel like you’re in a rut. It may be time to try a different classroom method in order to engage your students and have a more successful (and fun!) class.

If you have young children or complete beginners in your ESL classroom, they will probably benefit from TPR, or total physical response.

What is TPR?

Total physical response (TPR) is a language teaching method that was developed by psychologist Dr. James Asher. While observing children acquiring their first language, Asher noticed that interactions between the parents and children usually included some kind of physical movement. Parents demonstrate, speak, and instruct; and children respond with an action. For example, a parent would say “Look at the cat!” and the child would react by physically moving to see his or her pet.

If you know anyone who has a child, then you’re probably aware that it takes months of this kind of physical response before the child is ready to speak. And then one day, bam! When the child has decoded enough of the language, he or she will start to speak spontaneously.

So, is this method applicable to learning a second language, too? According to linguists, absolutely! The goal of TPR is to mimic this process of natural language acquisition in the second language.

This method of language acquisition is a little different than the communicative method. The communicative method focuses on language output- students should be talking a lot. On the other hand, TPR focuses on language comprehension. Students don’t really need to say anything; instead, they demonstrate through their actions that they can understand the teacher’s words.

Basically, they create a neural link between speech and action.

Why is TPR so effective?

TPR is especially great with children or complete beginners because it is fun (although it can definitely work with adults too!). Here are some other reasons TPR works so well in the ESL classroom.

  • By using actions and movement, it breaks up the monotony of book based learning .This is perfect for young students who are full of energy to get moving.
  • It’s really creates a stress free classroom environment. Students are not required to speak; they demonstrate understanding by action. What great news for the introverts in your classroom!
  • No matter the students’ English level, they can instantaneously understand the target language based on body movement. No translation necessary.
  • Pairing movement with language is effective for long term memory retention of new vocabulary words.
  • It works well with small and large groups.
  • It takes minimal materials and planning, making it easy for the teacher to utilize in the classroom.

So, those are just a few of the benefits of incorporating TPR into your classroom. Still stumped on when and how to use TPR? Keep reading for some ideas.

How to Use TPR in the Classroom

TPR is an effective method to demonstrate simple classroom commands and routines. For example, when you want students to repeat, put your hand to your mouth as you talk, and simply cup your ear when it’s their turn to respond.

You can also use TPR to explain vocabulary, particularly verbs, and for storytelling exercises. Here are TPR based activities:

  1. Say and repeat: The teacher introduces new words while exaggerating the action (for example, “I brush my teeth”) and the students repeat the action several times.
  2. Simon Says: This is a classic game you can use to teach new vocabulary. An easy example is the parts of the body. Prompt the students to touch certain various body parts (Simon says, touch your nose). You can also use this game to elicit more complex responses. For example, “Simon says walk in a straight line. Simon says turn right.”
  3. Songs and nursery rhymes: Kids love songs, and by pairing actions with the lyrics, you can involve the students without asking them to sing out loud.
  4. Charades: Using charades is a great way to have students act out vocabulary words, strengthening that connection between movement and language. If you have young students, you can use pictures as prompts, whereas higher level students can use sentences.
  5. Classroom movement: You can give simple classroom instructions to demonstrate different language patterns. For example, if you’re studying definite and indefinite articles, you may use a set of instructions like the following:
    Go to the tallest bookshelf.
    Open the red book.
    Find a page you like.
    Show the page to the class.
  6. Scavenger hunts: Ask students to bring you various objects in the classroom.
  7. Role plays: More advanced students can respond to role play prompts in which they have to act out a situation with another student.

So, as you can see, there are various ways you can use TPR to make your classroom more successful. You’re probably already doing some of these activities now. By pairing TPR with other effective ESL methods, you’ll have a more active and engaged class in no time.


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