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Total Physical Response (TPR): How and Why it Works

Admin - May 06 2017

                  Total Physical Response is an essential component of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) no matter what age group you are working with. If you are new to the field of teaching you may not be familiar with this concept. Total Physical Response (TPR) is the process of engaging your learner by adding kinesthetic elements to the material. These can be simple gestures or elaborate movements: the key is to connect the meaning of the word or phrase with the movements. Movements should not stand alone, but should be a primary characteristic or component of the word being learned (either in it's look or actions.)


                  While this may seem overwhelming, and a little confusing, it is actually quite simple. Whether you are teaching online or face-to-face using TPR for ESL students greatly enhances their ability to learn English. The more you understand TPR, the more effective you will be when you use it with your students. Remember that knowledge is power and that as you develop your pedagogy and learn about how to help meet the needs of your students, the greater your impact as a teacher will be.


How Does TPR Work?

                  Total Physical Response is not one of those fads out there that aims for you to spend countless hours and money on “invaluable resources.” In reality, it is quite the opposite. James Asher, an American Psychologist, who made the connection that memories are retained more effectively when they are connected with movements, is credited with the development of TPR. The key is to make sure that the physical action that is being performed with the word or phrase strengthens the learner’s overall comprehension. For example, when learning the word “cat” a teacher/student would make the gesture of whiskers by their nose, or act as though they were licking their paw. This action connects with the student’s existing knowledge about cats and ties it with the new word “cat.”

Total Physical Response works because it helps to activate multiple learning centers of the brain to form deep, lasting connections. In order for TPR to be most effective, the teacher should have movements designed prior to the start of the lesson (ideally, they will be noted somewhere so that all of the motions are used consistently). The teacher will model the movement with the new word or phrase being taught, at which time the student will repeat the movement and word back to the teacher. This is crucial as it begins to develop the connection between the action and the word or phrase.


Why Does TPR Work?

                  The research readily available for the success of using Total Physical Response with beginning learners of English, as well as the benefits of kinesthetic learning. Because teachers are supposed to use specific language and movements students are able to absorb the information and practice it with much success. Over time, as students become more comfortable with their new language, other material and/or props can be introduced to stimulate the learning environment. Initially, TPR is taught with minimal distractions, which affords the learner to be more attentive to the material.


                  Most significantly, young learners and beginning speakers have been recognized as utilizing TPR with the most ease. However, success is also noted with older students and students with greater familiarity of the language. This is because Total Physical Response is engaging and makes connections with the student's prior knowledge, making deeper connections with the new material. This can be connected to the premise that English Language Learners have a greater propensity to learn with visual cues and imagery. This would also support the use of visuals and props as the student's understanding of the language develops.


Make sure that however you incorporate Total Physical Response into your instruction that you practice ahead of time, especially if you are working with an older group of students. If you wish to use TPR, as it is intended, and truly help your student(s), the language and movements used should be intentional and repetitive. Try your best to avoid incidental language and be as direct as possible. Signal your students when to listen and when to repeat. Be positive and encourage your students often: you must remember that YOU are the expert, so your praise means more to them. This language is new and unfamiliar, so the more praise they are given the more readily they will attempt unfamiliar words and phrases. Furthermore, try not to anticipate that the student will have the action and word memorized after one try – encourage them to practice and repeat them often throughout the lesson (practice and repetition are your friend!)


TPR works well if you are working one-on-one with a student, but can also be used with a group of students. You can also use embed it throughout your instruction or use it as a group activity (for example, you can have student do a round robin demonstrating their pronunciation of the word in conjunction with the action.) Depending on how your class is structured, you can use TPR in a whole group setting or in learning circles. When deciding how to select a movement or action to use with a particular word, research what common actions are used or think of defining characteristics of an item. As mentioned before, gesturing "whiskers" can help signal "cat." You can form your hand as if you are holding a glass and bring it to your lips to represent "cup."


You do not have to try to come up with all of these things on your own! There are plethora of resources available to help you work with your students and to successfully teach them English. Your cohorts are an excellent source of knowledge and support. And, just as these experiences may be uncomfortable and new for you they are also for your students, so have fun with it! If your students perceive you having fun in what you're doing, they will too.

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