Total Physical Response
As a teacher educator TPRS (Storytelling for Language Education), I often get questions about TPR, or Total Physical Response. Many teachers appear to have only a vague idea of what exactly TPR is and what you can use it for. This prompted me to write this article, in which I answer the most frequently asked questions about TPR, and some more.
TPR®, or Total Physical Response, is an active way to quickly learn the basics of a language, developed by psychologist James J. Asher in the 1960s. This method is not so well known among MVT teachers, but it is an old acquaintance in the Nt2, and is therefore sometimes (wrongly) regarded as outdated. However, for many teaching situations, TPR is still a great tool to quickly acquire great receptive and productive language skills. In this article, we'll show you what TPR is, where TPR comes from, and what you can do with TPR in your classes.
What is TPR?
As mentioned, TPR is an active way to learn (the basics of) a language. In short, a TPR lesson follows the following format: The teacher gives a command in the foreign language, ie: an order to perform an action, such as "take the book". The teacher demonstrates this action himself, at the same time as pronouncing the assignment.
The students carry out the commands, showing that they have understood what the teacher has said. The teacher repeats the command a few times, and waits longer and longer before presenting it, until only the command is spoken, without modelling. As a result, students gradually have to rely more on what they hear and not on what they see. By repeating the command, recognition of the sound quickly becomes easier.
Then the teacher makes variations in the command, for example by adding a positioning (to the door, under the table), adverb (fast, slow, funny) or other variables. The next step is to alternate between commands. For example: “touch your nose quickly, walk to the door, slowly touch your hair”.
Commands can be made a bit more difficult by combining different commands: “Walk quickly to the door while touching your hair with two fingers”. In this way an extensive vocabulary is learned step by step, and understanding of grammatically complex sentences is achieved in an organic way.
You can see a nice example of a TPR French lesson, with humor, here. The teacher uses various forms of the verbs: 1st person singular, 3rd person singular, imperative you form, imperative you/u form.
What are the principles of TPR?
dr. James Asher defines TPR's principles as follows:
"1. You have to learn to understand spoken language before you start speaking yourself.
2. Understanding must be developed through movements of the learner's body. The imperative is a powerful tool because the teacher can give commands to direct the student's behavior. Our research shows that skilful application of the imperative makes it possible to learn most of a language's grammatical structures and hundreds of words.
3. Do not try to force the students to speak. When students internalize a cognitive map of the target language by understanding what is being said, a point will be reached where the student is ready to speak. The student then spontaneously begins to say things in the target language."
The emphasis in TPR is therefore on understanding spoken language by connecting this language with movements of the body, or with the performance of actions.
How did TPR come about?
The creator of TPR, James Asher, started his career as a psychologist with a deep interest in how people learn skills. In search of a good research topic for his PhD research, he came across 'how people learn a new language'. Not only was this a practical topic with direct application in the 'real world', but it was also a complex topic that many researchers shunned for that reason.
In addition, Asher herself was interested in languages. He had tried to learn Latin, Spanish, French and German at school, but even though he had passed the exams, his language skills were still virtually nil. This raised the question in his mind of what the key to acquiring a second language would be.
Asher started his approach to language learning from the theory of skill learning. It would go too far here to discuss this research in detail. His research led to the idea that the body played an important role in learning a new language.
From his many experiments at the University of San Jose and a university in Japan, a teaching method emerged in which the language learners do not have to say anything, but only show that they understand the new language by performing actions. He filmed a lesson and sent it to the US Navy. The Navy thought it was very interesting and gave Asher a hefty stipend for additional research. The Navy Language Centers have used TPR for years to help their people learn languages quickly.
Asher coined the term Total Physical Response, a term he later regretted because the term "physical" had a negative connotation in academic circles. As a result, the acceptance of TPR has been severely delayed, according to Asher. Asher and several colleagues have further developed the methodology, and to date he is conducting research into the effective aspects and results of TPR.
Who is TPR intended for?
Many people think that TPR can only be used for lessons for absolute beginners, or for example only for children. Asher contradicts this himself, stating that this 'language tool', as he calls it ("TPR is not a 'method'"), when properly applied, leads to immediate understanding and language acquisition in children, teenagers and adults alike. . I myself know many teachers who apply TPR to high school students or adults, and always with great pleasure and good results.
Because TPR links language acquisition to the motor part of your brain, and not to the cognitive (thinking) part, it is suitable for all language learners with 'normal' intelligence. So you don't have to have a talent for languages, you don't have to have an education, and you don't even have to be able to read to learn a language through TPR.
However, teachers who want to work with TPR should realize that it is a skill that you really need to learn and master. It is therefore advisable to follow a training course or, if you cannot, read a good instruction book, watch TPR videos and practice a lot.
What are the benefits of TPR?
According to the creator of TPR, James Asher, the benefits of TPR are:
1. TPR gives a quick understanding of the new language, because the student learns to understand the language in 'chunks' instead of in single words. This quick understanding also ensures a success experience that is highly motivating.
2. It is suitable for everyone, regardless of the learner's intelligence or education level. So you don't need to have a special 'talent for languages' to learn a language with TPR, and older people, who usually have trouble remembering words, do experience success with TPR.
3. TPR provides immediate recording of the language in the long-term memory, so that after days, months or even years you still know what 'levántate' means;
4. TPR provides a completely stress-free learning situation, where no one has to perform or be judged, and where teacher and students enjoy the lesson.
What is the role of commands in TPR?
Although TPR is more than just commands, commands (commands in the imperative mood) play an important role in the early stages of TPR. By means of so-called commands, the teacher gives short instructions in the target language, which the language learners (pupils or course participants) carry out. For example, the teacher says, "stand up," and the students get up. The teacher says "point to the door" and the students point to the door.
What is striking here is that the students themselves do not have to say anything yet, but only show by means of an action that they have understood what the teacher is saying. This is the 'physical response' from the name of the method: Total Physical Response. The phase in which the students themselves do not yet speak is also called a 'quiet period', about which more below.
Commands are thus the basis of the TPR lessons. These commands can be very simple, such as the examples above, but also much more complicated, such as: "First walk to the door, and if there is a bag there, pick it up and put the bag on the table. If there is no bag standing, turn around and walk back to your seat." It is also possible to give series of commands, such as: "Walk to the tap. Turn on the cold tap. Grab a bar of soap. Hold your hands with the soap under the tap. Rub your hands with soap." and so forth.
In this way you can have complete sequences of actions performed, which greatly increases both the vocabulary and the understanding of more complex sentences. In addition, it is possible to have a single student perform the actions, and then ask questions to the class about what that student is doing. TPR therefore offers a wider range of possibilities than you might think at first glance.
What is the 'quiet period'?
Asher had observed that 'speaking oneself' is not necessary to acquire the (base of a) language. He says: "We have shown in [a] series of laboratory experiments that people who only focus on understanding using a language-body strategy outperform people who try to understand and pronounce utterances in the foreign language on all counts. " (1)
He incorporated this fact into his teaching form by not asking the students to speak for themselves during the first period. All students do is listen and show that they understand what is being said. Sometimes self-talk is even expressly prohibited. However, many teachers find this too drastic, also because students would like to start speaking themselves. This is therefore a part of TPR that in many cases is set aside.
Still, there is something to be said for a quiet period. For starters, you avoid a lot of stress: if people only have to listen and can't be 'judged' yet on pronunciation or language errors, they are a lot more relaxed. As a result, they listen better and absorb the language better.
Marvin Brown, the developer of ALG (Automatic Language Growth) states that "The reason children always learn to speak fluently and without an accent is that they learn to speak by listening. And the reason adults don't learn to speak without an accent is that they learn to speak." by talking."
His colleague David Long has experience with a program in which a very long 'quiet period' (from 600 to 800 hours) was used. He says that students who "tried not to speak, but respected the quiet period, performed much better than students who tried to speak anyway before they were 'ready'." In his own words, he has seen no exception to this.
The positive effect of the silent period can be explained by the fact that having to speak (too early) places a heavy burden on the working memory, causing the working memory to resort to the mother tongue, which is more readily accessible than the new, incomplete information of the second language.
Listening comprehension therefore plays a key role in learning a new language, and prioritizing listening in the early stages of language acquisition reflects the natural way of language acquisition.
Steve Kaufmann, the creator of Lingq, the well-known online language learning platform, also has a quiet period when he is learning a language himself (the first 3:55 minutes of this video is an introduction, you can skip it):
Why does TPR work so well?
TPR works so well because it connects to the natural way of language acquisition, i.e. the way children learn their native language: by hearing the language and by interacting with those who speak to them. Babies and young children hear language and understand what it means from other signals (body language, objects, facial expressions, events). On a conscious level the child is only concerned with meaning and his own reaction to it, but on an unconscious level the structure of language is stored in the brain.
Linking language to the motor system is a second cause. The motor memory, or kinesthetic sensory system, is, as it were, a second memory in which the language is stored, next to the 'dictionary' in our head, and with which the language can be easily activated.
Also, the fact that TPR classes are so fun, active and stress-free (when done right) helps a lot with language acquisition. The so-called affective filter is then not active. The affective filter is a term coined by renowned language acquisition scientist Dr. Krashen, which means that stress and negative emotions can form a 'filter' that hinders the absorption of language in the brain. That is why it is very important that language lessons are free from stress and the urge to perform, and preferably even cheerful and full of humour.
A final reason for the effectiveness of TPR is credibility at the brain level. As a student or student, you want to believe your teacher when he says that mesa is the Spanish word for table. Your brain isn't that gullible, though. Your brain already knows a word for such a flat surface on four legs, namely: 'table'. Your brain sees this word as 'true', and a new word for this same thing as 'false'. So your brain has no reason to memorize another word for that thing, and it refuses at first to allow that new word into your memory. That's why it's important to convince your brain that the new word is indeed 'true'.
The most efficient way to show your brain that mesa is really 'true' is to give you a command like 'siéntate en la mesa' (sit on the table), and your body will perform that action. You thereby create a 'fact' that your brain cannot deny.
Your brain then hears "siéntate en la mesa" and immediately notices that you sit down on the table. If you do this several times, and also carry out other assignments (for example: put your cup on the table, touch the table, roll the apple across the table), your brain can only conclude that 'mesa' is indeed a 'true' given, that is, relates to reality. This is what is meant by TPR's credibility.
Left and right brain hemispheres
Asher assumes that the left hemisphere of the brain deals with language differently than the right hemisphere. Quite simply put, the right hemisphere is the part of the brain in which language is stored as an unconscious system. The left hemisphere is precisely the part with which you consciously think about things and formulate thoughts.
According to Asher, the traditional way of learning a language with a textbook uses the left hemisphere of the brain. With some puzzling, this half of your brain can produce language based on 'words + rules', but that is not spontaneous language. This is constructed language, which does not come from the language system of the brain.
The right part of your brain has its own way of learning a language, by slowly deciphering the incoming language and creating a kind of map of it, with grammar, word meanings and, for example, the melody of the language.
With TPR you give the right part of your brain the input (language) and the context it needs to build this unconscious system. Your students then understand how the language works, but cannot explain it to you. However, they do respond adequately to sentences in the target language, showing that they do understand how the language works.
What TPR activities are there?
According to TPR is more than commands - at all levels, from Seely and Kuizenga-Romijn, there are four basic types of TPR exercises:
Single commands and descriptions. These are commands like: 'unpack your bag', 'write an appointment in your diary', 'blow out the fire' and descriptions like: 'Petra puts her keys on the cupboard', 'Henry is playing guitar',' Mees eats a handful of gingerbread cookies'.
Series of actions, also known as action chains or sequences. An action chain is really no more than a complex action that is divided into individual steps. An example mentioned in TPR is more than commands is: 'Get the jar of vitamin pills. Twist off the cap. Take a pill from the jar. Put the pill in your mouth. Swallow the pill."
Natural action dialogues. These are dialogues that arise naturally from the actions. The dialogues are therefore not in a textbook, but flow naturally from one or more actions. If a command reads "give an apple to Petra", then it makes sense for the giver to say "please" and Petra then responds with "thank you". This creates natural language use in an appropriate context.
In the role-play assignment, a sequence of actions is given and a situation is outlined. The students each have their own role. In broad terms, their actions are described in advance by the teacher, and the students can interpret them themselves.
The first two are part of the classic TPR, the last two follow from it. In addition, there are many variations on these exercises, which can be found in the Instructor's Notebook by Ramiro Garcia, and Fluency through TPR Storytelling by Seely and Ray.
A fun follow-up activity after simple commands is the 'three-ring circus', devised by the TPRS teacher Ben Slavic, or a circus in which three tricks are shown at the same time. Three students are spread across the room. Each executes his or her own (already known) command, after which the teacher will ask questions to the class to compare the three versions. An example of this activity can be seen in the following video:
What are the pitfalls of TPR?
The success of TPR depends on good execution, which can leave a teacher feeling that TPR is "not working" if he or she falls into one of the following pitfalls:
repeating too little, as a result of which the new words and structures do not stick enough;
repeating too much or too one-sidedly, causing boredom (see “What is adaptation,” below);
persisting for too long, causing students to continue to rely on visual information;
not hold a comprehension check, so that the teacher cannot see whether students really understand the commands;
doing commands alone for too long, causing lessons to "get stuck" in the imperative.
What is adaptation and how do you prevent it?
Because TPR has such good results so quickly, it can be a bit addictive for the teacher. Out of sheer excitement at the great interaction with the students, who can understand so much so quickly, the teacher may be tempted to do only TPR. But then suddenly the students don't like it anymore. They begin to grumble and struggle.
What happened now? Habituation has set in, the new has worn off, the exciting becomes routine and routine is boring. That habituation is called "adaptation" in psychology, and it's a common pitfall in TPR.
Adaptation, which causes students to react negatively to TPR, is the most common reason teachers stop using TPR, or think you can only do it in the first few lessons. However, with good planning, you can easily prevent adaptation.
The most important tip for avoiding adaptation is to vary your activities. The 'pure' TPR works well to introduce new words or new grammatical constructions, whether you are teaching beginners or advanced students. But once the students easily recognize these words and constructions, it is important to move on to other activities, such as stories, games, dialogues, worksheets, or whatever activities you want to do for reading, speaking and writing.
According to Asher, this alternation in activities also means that you alternately call on the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The books TPR Is More Than Commands - At All Levels and Instructor's Notebook: How to apply TPR for best results provide many ideas for varied activities that align well with TPR.
Can you teach grammar with TPR?
Grammar is, in fact, nothing more than a coherent set of ways in which words can be combined into sentences. In our brain, this takes the form of a very complex network, which our brain builds itself based on large amounts of input (either language we hear or read).
TPR is therefore an excellent way to lay the groundwork for this grammatical network, because TPR provides the language learner with a continuous stream of varied input: short sentences, long sentences, compound sentences. It is important to ensure that the TPR lesson does not only consist of commands, otherwise the students only learn the imperative.
In the video below (the late) Elizabeth Kuizenga-Romijn explains how you can use TPR for teaching grammatical structures. The video is in English.
Can you also teach abstract words with TPR?
A frequently asked question is how to present abstract words with TPR. Abstract words are usually discussed a little later, because with real beginners it is easier to work with concrete words. Concrete words are easier to understand and portray.
Teaching abstract words with TPR is quite possible, but it requires a slightly broader view of TPR from the teacher. A single command is usually not enough to make an abstract word like “before” clear. For this it is necessary to create a small scene about which you can then ask questions. This is already close to working with stories as is done in TPRS.
For example, give a student (Mees) the assignment to get coffee, and then give another student (Eva) the same assignment. Eva soon returns with coffee, and then Mees returns with coffee. Now you can ask questions: who came back earlier, Eva or Mees? Did Mees come back earlier or did he leave earlier? And so forth.
A similar example is a scene about "want to." Ask a student, Henry, to the front of the class. Ask Henry if he wants coffee. Henry might say something like "yes" or "yes, please". Make it clear that you don't want a really enthusiastic response. Then ask if he wants a coke, and make it clear that you want to see an enthusiastic response now. Henry sits up straighter, looks happy and says, “Yes, please!” Now you can ask questions about this: Does Henry want coffee? Yes, he does want coffee. Does he want coke? Yes, he would like Coke! Would he rather have coke or coffee? Would he rather have coffee? What would he prefer?
As a follow-up to these scenes, you can give the whole class TPR assignments: put your hand on your head if you prefer apples to ice cream. Stand up if you'd rather swim than walk. Amira, point to someone who would rather go for a walk. And so forth.
Can you also do TPR in 1-on-1 lessons?
It can sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable for the teacher and the student, but you can do TPR with a single student, as shown in the example of a Hungarian lesson below.
How does TPR work in young children?
Within the framework of the Research Group Development-oriented Education, Hanneke Pot has conducted research into the effectiveness of TPR in teaching the very first words to 'absolute beginners' in playgroups or primary schools. Research from the same Lectorate
"suggests that children who do not yet know much Dutch do not pick up words from the usual offer, however rich. It is too much of a flow of Dutch sounds and unfamiliar words."
Pot's research was conducted at two primary schools in Rotterdam. Two teachers took the students who barely spoke Dutch aside and taught them 120 words with TPR. The study group consisted of 6 children, and the control group, which was not taught with TPR, also consisted of 6 children. The TPR children learned more than 80% of the target words and still knew them six weeks later. They also spontaneously used the words in other classroom activities. The children in the control group had learned fewer words and also remembered them less well. A special side effect was that the TPR children appeared more independent and emotionally free than before they received the TPR lessons.
According to Pot, TPR has the effect that children do not experience language learning as difficult, but as a game they are good at, making them feel competent. According to Pot this does
"suspect that TPR for (absolute) beginners, even in group 1, can be an effective approach that also appears to fit well in development-oriented education."
See the full research report at:
Read an article by Esther Pouw about this research:
What is the status of TPR in Dutch language education?
From conversations with many colleagues, I conclude that little or no use is made of TPR in secondary schools in the Netherlands. TPR is regularly used in language lessons in primary education, at international schools and in Nt2 education. No official figures are known about this, I also deduce this from conversations with teachers and school leaders.
What are good books about TPR?
Learning Another Language through Action , by James J. Asher, discusses the genesis and scientific underpinnings of TPR, and gives examples of the application of TPR.
Instructor's Notebook: How to apply TPR for best results , by Ramiro García is a very practical book, with a step-by-step guide to setting up your TPR lesson and many directly applicable examples.
Recurrent Action Grammar provides instructions and examples for TPR with a focus on grammatical constructions.
TPR is more than commands - at all levels , by Contee Seely and Elizabeth Kuizenga-Romijn, provides a thorough explanation of the method and possibilities of TPR. It shows variants of TPR that can make your lessons more varied, and also discusses the addition of stories, from which TPRS originated.
What are good TPR textbooks?
Recurrent Action Grammar - Contrary to what the title suggests, this 300+ page book doesn't just contain grammar exercises. On the contrary, it is a very comprehensive, practical TPR guide. Using action chains from both Live Action English and the Live Action English Interactive interactive program ( see the videos on our playlist ), you could think of this book as the teacher's guide to the Live Action series. You can also use Recurrent Action Grammar as a standalone manual for setting up your TPR lessons.
Enseñando y aprendiendo español por medio de la accion - With many illustrations and a solid structure, this is an ideal book to do a piece of TPR in every lesson. Each unit contains a bit of repetition from the previous unit, new short commands and new combined commands. Some of the vocabulary is offered through pages with pictures and words.
An English version was published by Arcos Publishers in 2020.
Sources and links
Current links to articles, lesson plans, etc. can be found on our Pinterest message board .
In addition to the books mentioned in this article, we made use of the following online resources:
TPR on YouTube
NB! Many videos that have TPR in the title show something completely different from the actual Total Physical Response. Do you want to make sure you see 'real' TPR? Then visit the playlist " TPR - Total Physical Response " on The CI Bookshop's YouTube channel .
More Dutch information about TPR