Total Physical Response or TPR is a strategy for language teaching that many people have heard of before. It’s usually thought of as a way to get students moving around the classroom, or a way to use physical movement to learn language (such as when doing the motions to Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, a popular English children’s song).
While these are all definitely forms of TPR, it can take a variety of forms, be used in a variety of activities, and help such a wide range of students improve their language learning experience. If you haven’t previously used TPR in your ESL classroom, you’ll definitely want to after learning more about it below!
Today I want to talk a little bit more about what Total Physical Response is and the different ways that it can be used in the classroom to help your students learn a second language more naturally.
What is Total Physical Response?
Sometimes Total Physical Response is framed as a strategy to help children learn. The activities can often be viewed as silly or as simply a way to have fun in the classroom, but what you may not realize is that TPR is a well-researched way to enhance and aid language learning. There may be more going on behind the scenes than you realize!
At the end of this article you can find a few more resources to help you learn about the history and research behind TPR, as well as to help you find activity ideas for your classroom. However, I want to hit on a few of the reasons, strategies, and logic behind using Total Physical Response with adults.
TPR Mimics the Way That Children Learn
Total Physical Response was developed and named by James Asher from San Jose State University. One of the most important goals of TPR is to mimic the way that children learn. You can read more about the research behind this here.
For time’s sake, simply imagine the way that a newborn infant acquires language. They typically aren’t studying grammatical concepts or practicing tedious aspects of English pronunciation. Language is usually acquired through a process of listening and responding to commands (nonverbally) before working on production at all.
The goal of Total Physical Response is to mimic the process of language learning that children follow, which means that there’s a strong emphasis on comprehension and listening, and not as strong of an emphasis on producing language from the get-go.
TPR Aims For Comprehension Before Production
Most times listening in an ESL classroom is seen as a passive activity. We’ve talked about this a little bit in a previous article, but listening can be really difficult to assess, measure, or even practice. TPR views listening in a different light entirely.
When using Total Physical Response in the classroom, listening is not seen as a passive activity, but rather the first (and most integral) step to language acquisition. In much the same way that children start their language learning journey by listening, TPR aims to have adults follow the same path.
One important note that I want to make is that taking a Total Physical Response approach to an entire class will find that students begin by listening, not producing. However, using a TPR activity within a classroom (that may be based on a different language learning strategy), will find that students are taking a break from production or simply responding nonverbally to language. Just because you are interested in TPR doesn’t mean you have to completely rework your classroom trajectory.
TPR Values Language Acquisition Over Language Learning
An important distinction within the Total Physical Response approach is the distinction between language learning and acquisition. Because TPR mimics the typical trajectory a child’s learning journey, the focus is more on acquisition or acquiring a language for everyday use.
Language acquisition implies that a language is picked up naturally, such as you would if you moved to another country and had to learn how to communicate with your landlord. On the other hand, language learning implies grammar, pronunciation, formal vocabulary, and other things that one might learn about a language.
As a result, you won’t find specific TPR activities to use for pronunciation or grammar, but you can modify some activities for those subjects. For instance, you could have students hold up a sign to say whether a sentence that the teacher spoke was grammatically correct or not. Likewise, you could ask your students to tap out the rhythm of a sentence after hearing an audio recording.
TPR Should Be Stress-Free
When learning a second language, motivation is key, and nothing kills motivation like stress, which is why Total Physical Response aims to create a stress-free learning environment. When teaching a child to speak, you will find that they make a ton of mistakes. Sentences like, “Me no like it” or “hold it me” will be laced through their daily speech.
I don’t think any language teacher or parent would say that responding to those mistakes negatively or harshly would be beneficial. However, a lot of times in the language classroom we can jump on a student’s mistakes in an effort to quickly correct them. The downfall of this approach is that it can make students wary of making mistakes and can make the learning environment stressful.
Total Physical Response’s aim is not to create students who speak perfectly, but rather to help students slowly acquire the language. A lot of times TPR can feel like games or just goofing off, but teachers can rest assured that behind the scenes their brain is soaking up the language.
The term, “Total Physical Response,” gets thrown around a lot when talking about kinesthetic activities, or activities that require our students to move around, but there isn’t a lot of clarity when it comes to actually understanding what TPR is. Learning more about TPR can help you to either incorporate more production-based activities into your routine, or it could help to shape your teaching methodology.
To learn more about Total Physical Response, check out the extra reading below!
Fluent U: 5 Total Physical Response Activities That Every Language Teacher Should Know ——————— (also has a great summary of the history and science of TPR)
Teaching English : Total Physical Response ————————————————--—————————-- (a well-thought-out, quick synopsis of why, when, and how to use TPR)
Busy Teacher: TPR Tricks: 5 Fabulous Ways to Use Total Physical Response in the ESL Classroom ———— (super easy and engaging activity ideas for any classroom)