TPR for ESL: How Total Physical Response Can Shake Up Your Classroom

Dying to get your students to pay attention to you? 

How would you like to have them hanging on your every word?

Bringing Total Physical Response (TPR) into your classroom will have them eagerly awaiting your commands!

Don’t believe me? Just keep reading, and you will soon see how this teaching approach injects excitement and fun into your classroom and every word you speak.

If you don’t know what TPR is, then you are in the right place.

Using the Total Physical Response method in your classroom will allow your students to develop their English skills in an exciting, fun way, kicking stress to the curb.

It has a long history with characteristics developed from psychology and the innate natural ways we all learn our first languages as children. Your students will hone their listening skills and begin speaking English after one lesson. Their confidence will boom as their motivation to learn more grows and grows.

The Total Guide to Total Physical Response (TPR) in ESL Classrooms

A Brief History of Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response is a teaching method revolving around the coordination of speech and student action. Its foundation is teaching and learning through physical action, utilizing your students’ motor skills while they respond to commands as quickly as possible.

It was developed by Dr. James Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, California. Dr. Asher combined several theories and methods in his design of the method, including learning theory, developmental psychology and humanistic pedagogy.

What Theories Support the Effectiveness of Total Physical Response?

This learning method takes many of its cues from behavioral psychology.

Dr. Asher’s methodology has often been discarded or redeveloped by language psychologists and linguists, however, his views and methods are still very much a part of language learning today.

  • We should develop language learning activities that surround our natural, childhood-esque learning patterns.

For example, building commands that promote action. This is what Dr. Asher saw as the bio-program for language learning. This is why Total Physical Response is based on a child’s learning abilities during their acquisition of their first language.

Children learn speech through commands, both giving and receiving them. They ask mommy for a snack, ask daddy to take them to the park and respond (hopefully) when they are told to go to bed, all the while building memories for their future actions.

Another development principle applied here is delaying speech until listening comprehension is acquired by your students. Listening is the foundation for other language skills, so meaning of language should be emphasized and there should be little to no student stress during any learning activity. They do not necessarily need to communicate, they just need to focus on responding.

  • We should utilize brain lateralization.

This is when you develop language learning through the use of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The left side of your brain is normally the language learning center, but combining right and left, your students’ connections, imagery and logic can both be stimulated and used for optimal success.

This is, in fact, based on a stimulus-response model taken from behavioral psychology, known as the Sv-R type learning. The (Sv) represents the verbal stimulus you give to your students during a TPR activity. The (R) represents your students’ responses to the stimulus (command) you provided. The behavioral psychology of the stimulus-response methods still stands strong. Stimulus-response remains a simple and effective way to elicit action from your students as they build the cognitive map essential for language retention.

This relates to the ideology represented in how we learn language as children, revolving around the fact that children respond to verbal commands more than anything else.

Dr. Asher also utilized the principles of yet another theory in order to build up his new language learning methodology. Trace theory is a psychological method used to connect memory with action. The idea behind the trace theory in language is to develop a more intense memory of a word or set of words, which in turn creates more intense imagery and is connected strongly to an action. So, your students should have a visual image and physical response logged away for every word they learn.

  • We should recognize that stress is a language learning killer in many aspects.

TPR aims to eliminate as much stress as possible from the learning process. This should be the goal for you as an ESL teacher anyway, but keeping this practice in your TPR activities is essential.

The TPR learning theory is based upon one aim, despite the amount of different theories, approaches, task types and objectives involved. The one, single-minded aim of this is delivering memorable language lessons.

The 3 Elements of Total Physical Response Tasks

This method revolves almost exclusively around the use of verbs and, of course, eliciting action from your students. Dr. Asher believed that the mighty verb was the key to unlocking language learning and the core to language use and organization.

However, it goes a bit deeper than that. Here are the three cornerstones of Total Physical Response.

1. Non-abstractions and abstractions

Non-abstractions are first developed by your students using nouns and imperative verbs. These create detailed “cognitive maps” for your students, while also putting grammar at work behind the scenes. For example, using non-abstractions puts your students into action mode, while the reasoning behind the action may be left out until commands are met with quick response.

Your students will be doing a lot of moving around as you command them to do certain things like, “stand up and touch your head.” It is straightforward and simple. There is one, clear cut route from command to response. Nothing remains unclear or uncertain in the middle.

Abstractions are brought into the picture later, once the detailed cognitive map has been firmly set in your students’ minds. If you instruct your students to “stand up and talk to your neighbor about how they are feeling today,” this goes a bit deeper. This is more open-ended, and the questions and responses can be whatever the students want them to be. How can you talk to someone about their day? How can you nicely ask about feelings, without being invasive? What feels like the right way for you to speak to your neighbor? Which words to choose?

The abstraction or deeper meaning behind it is explained after commands and responses are nearly perfect, or at least complete. At this point you will explain the abstract meanings behind what your students were doing during the activity. What is the purpose of talking to someone about how they are feeling? Is it common culturally for Americans, Australians or other native English speakers to address each other in this way? For example, you might explain that asking someone how they are is polite, starts conversation and shows empathy for someone else’s feelings and daily life. You might also explain how Americans always say “How are you?” as a type of greeting, and the response to this does not have to be elaborate.

2. Speech acts

Total Physical Response is heavily based on commands and actions, but the methodology also involves more in-depth areas of language learning and usage as well. Utilizing speech acts and role plays is also a large chunk of learning with this method.

Students do not have to remain silent. As noted in the above point, you can instruct students to interact with one another, get information and have conversations.

For example, you can instruct a student to ask another student about a commonly known word in your class. “Jose, ask Maria the definition for dog.” Jose will ask Maria and Maria will give a response. This builds communication and discussion, while producing language skills for asking questions and receiving answers.

3. The lexical approach to vocabulary acquisition

Dr. Asher drew from the lexical approach to language learning, which encourages people to learn and teach language in chunks instead of isolated units. So, instead of teaching one single vocabulary word, you should teach it within the context of a more complete phrase or sentence.

For Total Physical Response purposes, this can be achieved by compounding nouns and verbs through commands and actions. The use of single words simply does not lend itself well to these methods.

In fact, the methodology behind this focuses more on grouped words rather than singular forms found in more traditional English learning. Sure, you can bark, “jump, run, walk, sit!” but that takes some of the depth out of the method. You also miss lots of opportunities to teach more words.

For example, instead of telling your student what an apple is by showing a picture on a board and saying “apple,” you will say “Juan, stand up, find the apple and place it in the fruit bowl.” This will have that student stand up, remember what an apple is and locate the item itself, then recall what a “fruit bowl” is and place the item inside it. See how much more involved this can get?

How to Set Up Total Physical Response Activities for Total Success

TPR encompasses three essential principles for you and your students to develop and implement for a great, stress-free TPR activity in your classroom:

1. Students listen before speaking.

2. Students learn through commands.

3. Students target language speech evolves from listening.

The process is quite simple and exceptionally effective.

  • Create a stress-free learning environment.

Low stress in your classroom is optimal in any ESL activity and this is especially important in TPR. You can develop a stress-free learning process by keeping the information simple at first, showing your students before commands are given.

Building on simple commands are also essential in keeping the stress levels low. Allow your students to develop the cognitive map based on non-abstractions before moving into the the deeply-rooted meanings (abstractions) behind the language.

  • Assign student roles.

Your students will need to hone their listening skills. The TPR principal of listening before speaking should be at the forefront of your TPR lesson plan. Students will need to listen individually and as a class in order to respond effectively to you or other students’ commands.

Students will eventually take on their own commands and you should encourage them to speak when they are confident and ready to do so.

  • Assign teacher roles.

The roles of teachers in TPR activities are to first instill confidence and fun in order to keep the stress-free environment in the classroom. You will be responsible for building your students’ cognitive maps during the TPR activity.

You will need to have a plan in place to slowly build on the target language for student ease of comprehension. Focus on simplicity and give crucial feedback, allowing students to really grow as they listen, respond and speak.

  • Provide props.

For beginner students who are experiencing TPR for the first time, you will in most cases not need any materials for a successful class. They will be focusing on your simple commands, like “stand up,” “sit,” “raise your left hands” and so on.

For more advanced TPR classes, you can begin implementing objects in the lessons. For example, having a student stand, walk to the back of the classroom, grab a specific book or item, then carry it to a student to give it to them, is an example of utilizing TPR materials. You can also put doors, windows, light switches or bookshelves into use as well.

A Sample Activity for Putting Total Physical Response into Practice

Putting TPR into practice is easy and you will find enjoyment as a teacher, while your students experience a new, fun way to learn English. There are a few elements of your TPR lesson plan to remember before beginning. Think about the commands and language you are going to present.

  • Is it easy for your students to comprehend?
  • Do you have a plan in place for showing your students first?
  • Are you using materials, and if so, are your students ready?
  • How will you keep stress out of your lesson?

Always question your lesson from a student’s perspective. You should have a fairly good idea about your students’ needs and English levels by the time you are ready to create a TPR lesson that will be fun, exciting, stress-free and informative.

Warm up your students with a fun, quick activity. For example, command your students to stand up. Have them touch their toes, stretching out. Have them touch their ears, head and shoulders. Left and right directional warm up activities are also great, developing a directional cognitive map essential for future TPR lessons.

Once your students are warmed up and ready to go, start with target language you want to present. Say a command and show the response you expect to see. Your students’ memories begin with your actions and voice command. They will begin connecting listening with action immediately.

For this TPR lesson, you will use the verb “hold.”

Command your students to hold up their hands, letting them participate as a class first, before you begin calling individual students. This will instill confidence as a group and keep stress out of the TPR equation.

Next, command one student to hold up his or her hands. Then command him or her to hold up a pencil. Then command him or her to hold up the pencil of another student. This command will build on the original command and be developed into a sentence.

Here is the sequence of commands. 

  • Everyone, hold up your hands.
  • Great! Put your hands down.
  • Class, stand up.
  • Class, hold up your hands.
  • Put your hands down and sit down.
  • Jose, hold up your left hand.
  • Jose hold up your pencil in your left hand.
  • Jose, stand up, move to Maria’s desk and hold up her pencil.
  • Maria, hold up Jose’s pencil at his desk.

And the TPR activity will continue in that manner as you work through all your students, giving commands and watching for correct and quick responses.

You will also begin to have other students give commands to their classmates. You can build on one verb in many ways, it is all up to your TPR creativity.


TPR is an excellent way to develop your ESL students’ listening, response and speaking skills in a fun and collaborative way. They will have an understanding of English in a more practical and cognitive way as they connect their memory with actions they will use in a variety of real-world English situations abroad, at their office or in school.

Give them a stress-free way to learn that promotes excitement, confidence and eagerness to learn more.

Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe