Total Physical Response: An Instructional Strategy

for Second-Language Learners who are Visually Impaired
by Paula Conroy
Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, May 1999, pp. 315-318

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Imagine that you are a monolingual teacher of students with visual impairments with a new child on your caseload who is blind and does not speak English. What will you teach? How will you teach it? Where will you begin? One instructional approach to facilitate second-language learning for students with visual impairments is total physical response (TPR).

What is TPR?

TPR is a teaching technique that teachers of English as a second language (ESL) use to instruct students who are in the process of learning a second language. Students in programs that use the TPR approach spend much of their time listening to and physically responding to the teacher. Because commands are an easy way to get students to move around and loosen up, TPR instruction makes heavy use of the imperative mood, even at advanced levels of language proficiency. As language learning progresses, the teacher adds more complex syntax, including interrogatives. As students grow more comfortable responding orally to commands and questions, they begin to give commands to the class on their own, taking the role of teacher.

Although the TPR lesson procedure differs, depending on students’ ages, abilities, and language levels and the size of the group, several basic features are common to all TPR instruction:

• Students develop new vocabulary through the use of commands.

• Students develop understanding before speech.

• Students demonstrate their understanding through actions.

• Students speak when they are ready. The teacher allows and encourages a “silent period” (Pallen, 1988).

The basic procedure for a TPR lesson is as follows:

1. The teacher gives the command then models the action while the students listen and watch.

2. The teacher gives the command, and models the action; the students copy the action.

3. The teacher gives the command without modeling; the students perform the appropriate action.

4. The teacher gives the command without modeling the action; the students repeat the verbal commands and perform the action.

5. One student gives the command and the teacher or other students repeat the verbal commands and perform the action.

It is important for teachers to be tolerant of students’ errors and maintain a focus on communication, rather than grammar. Speech should not be forced; students begin to speak when they are ready. Asher (1982) suggested that teachers should introduce three new vocabulary items at a time and estimated that students may comfortably understand as many as 36 vocabulary words in one session.

Teachers are encouraged to use topics that are relevant and of interest to the students with whom they are working. Topics that can be used for vocabulary development in TPR lessons include classroom routines, parts of the body, clothing, and cooking. Teachers can list appropriate activities for the students in command form or use a commercial TPR program that contains ready-made lessons and vocabulary topics (Asher, 1982; Segal, 1994). Using TPR with students who are visually impaired (are blind or have low vision) is exciting because the activities and topics help them develop orientation and mobility (O&M) skills that are necessary for independent travel as well as language development. The four categories of commands presented in Box 1 illustrate this point.

Assessment is an ongoing part of each lesson, and the teacher proceeds only when a student responds accurately to the commands given. Students’ expressive comprehension can be assessed as they begin to initiate their own commands through speech (Asher, 1982).

Modifications for Students with Visual Impairments

Modifications of the five procedural steps listed earlier can be made for students who are visually impaired. Since a student who is visually impaired cannot see the teacher model the action, he or she must be put through the action or be allowed to feel the teacher demonstrating the desired response. Use of visual aids to encourage movement should be limited because even a student with low vision may have difficulty identifying and interpreting the content of pictures.

At first, the pace of the lesson may be slower than what Asher (1982) suggested, and fewer vocabulary words may be introduced at one time to ensure that the student understands the concept thoroughly. The teacher must familiarize the student with the physical layout of the room and the location of objects that may change from day to day. When performing an action, the student will need to use protective techniques and/or a cane to ensure safety while moving around the room independently.

Concepts that reference the child in relation to other objects, such as point, may take longer to develop, since it can be difficult for a student who is visually impaired to keep track of where he or she is in space and body-image awareness skills may be underdeveloped. Instead, during initial lessons, it may be necessary to ask the student to “show” the location of the item. AS the student becomes proficient in moving to show objects, the teacher may ask him or her to stand still and show where an object is located. In this way, the development of body-image awareness and mapping skills can be facilitated.

A modified version of TPR can be particularly valuable for students who are visually impaired and are learning a second language because it provides a learning environment that is rich in context and variety, focusing students’ attention on the experience at hand. The opportunity for direct communication, meaningful physical activity, ongoing achievement, and independence is also compatible with a wide spectrum of teaching techniques used in O&M instruction of students who are visually impaired.

Box 1. Four Categories of Commands In TPR Instruction

Category: Manipulating objects Command: “Put the box on the table.”

Category: Abstractions-pictures

Command: “Put the picture of the teacher next to the picture of the box.”

Category: Body actions

Command: “Stand up,” “sit down.”

Category: Moving abstraction

Command: “Jump over the box,” “crawl under the table.”


Asher, J. (1982). Learning another language through actions: The complete teacher’s guidebook (2nd ed.). Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions.

Pallen, F. (1988). ESL, English as a second language: Total physical response. New York: New York City Board of Education.

Segal, B. (1994). Practical Guide for the Bilingual Classroom (rev. ed.). Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions.

Paula Conroy, M. A., teacher of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility instructor. 37/ West Cherrywood Drive, Lafayette, CO 80026: E-mail


This material is reproduced and distributed by an Authorized Entity for educational purposes in accordance with Copyright Law of the United States of America, Title 17 of the United States Code, Section 121, “Limitations on exclusive rights: reproduction for the benefit of blind or other people with disabilities.”

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