Total Physical Response (TPR)

Excerpted from Whole Language for Second Language Learners by Yvonne S. Freeman and David E. Freeman, with additions and modifications by Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan.

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Total Physical Response (TPR) is a method that was developed by James Asher (1979) who found through psychological research that we learn best when our muscles are involved along with our minds. In TPR students are given simple commands or directions such as, “Raise your right hand.” Students then indicate their comprehension by raising their hands. Other commands or directions might be: “walk to the door,” “put … something on the table,” or “give me … something,” (Asher, 1969). As students progress through TPR lessons, the commands or directions become more complex. For example, “If you are wearing a blue shirt, scratch your nose” might be one combination command or set of directions. Others could be: “Take the paper from the student in the back of the room, roll it into a ball, and throw it away in the basket under the desk.” Students are not required to respond verbally until they feel comfortable doing so. The increasingly sophisticated, meaningful use of commands or directions and the focus on comprehension mimic the first language acquisition process. Hands-on and interactive activities go a long way toward helping students to internalize the new language by giving a physical association to language as a memory aid and a nonverbal means of response to a linguistic problem set (Diller, 1978). By interpreting meaning through movement and appropriate action, rather than through the abstract study of language forms, the learner is less subjected to stressful, test-like classroom situations and thus learns more effectively.

Eventually students begin giving the commands or directions as well as following them.

Students can also follow commands or directions that are written, and write commands or directions for others to follow.

One popular adaptation of TPR, developed by Contee Seely and Elizabeth Romijn (1979) is called Live Action English. With this approach, the teacher presents commands or directions in contextualized sequences. Their book also includes reading and writing as part of the exercises. Here is an example of an action sequence that would be appropriate to use with blind or low vision students:


1. Unwrap the soap.

2. Smell the soap.

3. Put the soap in the soapdish.

4. Turn on the faucet.

5. Wet your hands.

6. Pick up the soap.

7. Rub the soap on your hands.

8. Put the soap back in the soapdish.

9. Rub your hands together to lather the soap.

10. Rinse the soap off your hands.

11. Dry your hands with the towel.

Steps of a Live Action English Lesson

1. A Live Action English lesson begins by having the teacher set out the props, perhaps talking about them as she or he does so.

2. Then the teacher goes through the steps in the sequence, acting each one out and repeating the words while helping the students to feel and/or see what is being done.

3. Once students are familiar with the sequence, they perform the actions along with the teacher, while the teacher speaks the commands or directions.

4. Then, the students are shown a written version of the sequence and may be asked to copy it.

5. Then, the teacher performs the actions without speaking, while helping the students to feel and/or see what is being done. The students provide the dialogue. The teacher may stop at any point to work on students’ pronunciation.

6. Then, students read the commands or directions and the teacher performs the actions.

7. Then, if there is more than one student present, the students go through the sequence in pairs, one student reading the commands or directions and the other student acting them out.

The Natural Approach

Although most teachers do not rely on Total Physical Response as their only method for teaching a new language, many have found that it is of great value with new language learners. Two teacher educators and language researchers, Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell, have developed a method for teaching a second language they call The Natural Approach. The early lessons incorporate strategies from TPR.

In The Natural Approach Lessons are designed to provide large quantities of comprehensible input and to keep the anxiety level low.

Here are some examples of possible Scenarios for each stage of language development:

Scenario 1: Pre-production—First Stage

a. The teacher talks about the English words for various body parts while pointing to each of them individually or touching them—whichever works best for the student. The teacher points to parts of her or his own body and the same parts of the student’s body.

b. Then the teacher has the students point to and/or touch body parts.

c. Finally, the teacher asks some yes/no questions about body parts, such as, “Is this my nose?”

In pre-production, students do not have to talk except to answer yes and no. They are encouraged to communicate with gestures and actions. Lessons focus on listening comprehension and build receptive vocabulary. TPR is often used as a teaching strategy during the pre-production stage.

Scenario 2: Early Production—Second Stage (about a month later)

a. The teacher holds a flowering plant and talks about the flowers and leaves.

b. The teacher asks “Do any of you like to smell flowers? students answer with responses like “I do” and “Yes.”

c. Teacher asks and students answer questions about the color of the leaves (green) and what we use our noses for (to smell).

In this stage students use one or two words or short phrases. The lessons expand the learners’ receptive vocabulary and activities are designed to motivate students to produce vocabulary they already understand.

Scenario 3: Speech Emergence—Third Stage (some time later)

a. The teacher holds a flower and smells it while helping the students to feel and/or see what is being done.

b. Then, the teacher asks the students to say what she or he is doing; students answer, “smell flower” and “You smelling flower.”

c. Then the teacher explores the students’ understanding of their senses by asking, “What do our eyes and hands tell us about the flower?” Students answer, “it’s white and yellow,” “Leaves are green… It feel smooth.”

In the speech emergence stage, students are speaking in longer phrases and complete sentences. The lessons continue to expand students’ receptive vocabulary. In this stage, activities are designed to develop higher levels of language use.

Scenario 4: Intermediate Fluency—Fourth Stage (months later)

a. The teacher shows the students several objects that can be experienced through multiple senses.

b. The teacher asks “How do our senses help us?” One student answers, “We can know if something is hot or cold.” When asked how our senses could tell us about an orange that the teacher is holding, students explain “I smell it… I can see it. It’s round and orange, and “You could taste it.”

c. At the end of the discussion, the students and teacher write a story together about their senses.

At this stage, students engage in conversation and produce connected narrative. They continue to expand their receptive vocabulary. The activities are designed to develop higher levels of language use in content areas, and reading and writing activities are incorporated into the lessons.

The Natural Approach combines listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Krashen and Terrell state that “with adults … both reading and writing can be profitably begun during the pre-speaking and early production stages” (Krashen and Terrell 1983).

In his article “The Power of Reading”, Krashen (1985) discusses research findings clearly indicating “reading exposure” or “reading for genuine interest with a focus on meaning” provides language learners with reading that is comprehensible input” similar to oral “comprehensible input.” He argues that reading contributes to second language acquisition in the same way as listening to oral language does and that reading contributes to competence in writing just as listening helps develop the ability to speak.

Krashen advocates lots of “reading exposure.” He cites many studies that show “reading exposure alone has a strong effect on the development of language abilities.” He adds that reading “May be the primary means of developing reading comprehension, writing style, and more sophisticated vocabulary and grammar” (Kras5).

Other Researchers, such as Harste, Woodward, and Burke, have also found that it is of great value to combine functional reading and writing with speaking and listening as integral parts of all language lesson activities because all these processes interact with one another. Each time someone reads, writes, speaks, or listens it is a language encounter that feeds into a common “data pool.” Subsequent encounters with language can then draw on this pool. Speaking, listening, reading, and writing are not separate skills. All of them are expressions of language which “support growth and development in literacy” (Harste, Woodward, and Burke, Language Stories and Literacy Lessons (1984).

It is also important to focus on content-based language teaching, with particular emphasis on the learners’ intellectual interactions and on their activity. Forming concepts about language—oral or written—is easier when learners are presented with whole, natural language, not fragmented unnatural language patterns in drills.

Behaviors to be expected in the developmental process of students acquiring a new language

The following is excerpted from Culturally & Linguistically Diverse (C.L.D.) Resource Guide developed by Tove Andvik, Anita Foxworth, Meg Horrigan and Linelle Lillie, Seattle Public Schools, Department of Student Services; Seattle n.d, with additions and modifications by Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan.

The following behaviors are to be expected in the developmental process of students acquiring a second language;

a. There may be a silent period during which time student will not speak in English at all.

During this silent period communication in a primary language may be observed. The silent period is an important part of second language acquisition and should not be interrupted by forced production.

b. If the student is exposed to ‘comprehensible input’ and is allowed to respond physically rather than orally (Total Physical Response, TPR) the silent period will lead to spontaneous production of single words or known phrases learned during physical interactions.

c. Teaching of English grammar at the beginning stages of English acquisition probably does little to improve language skills, and may be counterproductive.

d. Many errors will be present in syntax, pronunciation, etc., as the student begins to speak English.

Correct modeling by teacher and/or peers will correct errors. Direct error correction is usually counterproductive.

e. The student’s oral language skills in English will in most cases exceed the ability to handle reading and writing unless the student is literate in the primary language.

f. The student may appear to be fluent based on oral language skills; however, thinking processes may still be in the primary language. Processing information and answering questions will take longer because the student is still mentally translating from English into the primary language and back into English since he/she is translating material in his/her head.

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