Total Physical Response: How TPR Works in the ESL Classroom
Want to have your students hanging on your every word?
Bringing Total Physical Response (TPR) into your classroom will have them eagerly awaiting your next command!
Total Physical Response is a teaching method that focuses on coordinating speech and physical action. Instead of only sitting through lectures, students also engage in learning activities where they have to move.
Developed by Dr. James Asher, a professor and psychologist, TPR lets students develop their English skills in a fun and stress-free way.
- How to Set Up Total Physical Response Activities
- 7 Sample Activities for Putting TPR into Practice
- TPR in Modern Language Learning
- The 3 Elements of Total Physical Response Tasks
How to Set Up Total Physical Response Activities
Create a stress-free learning environment
Minimizing classroom stress is key to any ESL activity, but especially important for TPR. Keep the information simple at first and share it with your students before commands are given.
Building on simple commands will allow your students to develop their cognitive map at their own pace before moving into the language’s more deeply-rooted meanings.
Assign student roles
The principle 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 commands.
Your students will eventually take on their own commands and you should encourage them to speak when they are ready.
Assign teacher roles
The role of teachers in TPR activities is to instill confidence, reduce stress and make sure all your students are having fun.
Having a plan in place will help you build on the target language gradually and make it easier for your students to comprehend. Focus on simplicity and give crucial feedback.
With students experiencing TPR for the first time, you will usually not need any materials to have a successful class, as they will be focused on your straightforward commands.
For more advanced TPR classes, you can begin implementing objects, such as having a student walk to the back of the classroom, grab something, then bring it to another student. You can also use doors, windows and light switches.
7 Sample Activities for Putting TPR into Practice
Before you begin, remember to always view your lesson from a student’s perspective. You’ll need a strong understanding of your students’ individual needs and English levels to create a stress-free and informative TPR lesson plan.
It’s also important to go over all the relevant concepts before beginning. Start by warming up your students with a quick activity to review any recently learned grammar and vocabulary.
Once everyone is ready to move, say a command and show the response you expect. Your students will begin connecting listening with action immediately.
For this TPR lesson, you will focus on the verb “hold.”
Let your students participate as a class first to instill confidence, then begin calling individual students.
- Command one student to hold up their hands.
- Next, command them to hold up a pencil; then, the pencil of another student. Your set of related commands will build on the original one until they develop into a sentence.
- Repeat the activity as you work through all your students, giving commands and watching for quick, correct responses.
- You can also have other students give commands to their classmates and build on one verb in many creative ways.
Most ESL students, regardless of their nationality, have experienced some form of Simon Says during the course of their lives—so, let’s make it more interesting!
TPR Simon Says is exceptional for learning about different parts of the body and physical directions. Students must follow commands that evoke a physical response quickly to stay in the game.
- Once everyone has ample space to move, begin your commands. For example, “Simon says, touch your nose with your left knee.”
- Start with a few silly, easy-to-understand commands. You don’t want anyone to get eliminated until the fifth command or so, to help your students keep their confidence levels high.
- Next, you can have them act out more elaborate scenarios, like “Simon Says, go fishing!” or “Simon Says, stir the tomato sauce!”
- TPR Simon Says continues until there is one student left as the victor. Save your hardest commands for those final moments.
Experiences like giving and receiving directions are essential for ESL students to explore the English-speaking world, and the TPR driving activity will help your students master these.
It encourages your students to interact with each other and have fun while learning to navigate from point A to point B.
- Get to class early so you can redesign your classroom into a series of local streets and well-known locations. Use desks as buildings and the pathways between them as streets.
- Have your students stand in various areas of the town using commands. For example, you could tell a student to “go stand by the post office” and await further instructions.
- Next, instruct a few students to get into their imaginary cars and move around the room. For example, you could ask someone to pick up the person waiting at the post office.
- After this, have one student give directions to a particular spot while the other tries to navigate there. This promotes communication and cooperation.
Your Morning Routine
The TPR morning routine activity focuses on the essential actions we perform every morning. It’s a great way to group commands at a specific time of the day.
- To add some fun competition, break your class into two groups. Each group will select a representative to respond to each morning routine command.
- Have both representatives stand at the head of the class and give them different commands. You might ask one student to “wake up and get out of bed” while instructing the other to “put on your robe and slippers.”
- For each correct response, the group gets a point and the game continues with new student representatives for each question. (Responding too slowly means zero points!)
- The group with the most points at the end is the victor. You can also develop a reward system for winning performances to add extra learning motivation.
Your Evening Routine
Similarly to the morning routine activity, you will develop a series of commands for your students to act out regarding common evening routines that are essential to learn in English.
This activity can be used in a theater-like performance your students will enjoy.
- Designate sections of the classroom as specific areas of the home (the kitchen, bathroom and so on).
- Have each student pick from a standard deck of cards. Each card will represent a specific evening routine (like “washing dishes”), so you should make a list for reference prior to class.
- The catch: your students will not know what their card means until everyone is in front of the room. Depending on their listening and memorization skills, you might find a few students washing dishes in the bedroom.
- Overall, this is a great memory and response activity within ESL TPR. Your students will likely be excited to keep doing more of this activity.
The Teacher Walkabout
This activity focuses on the quick response time your students will need when navigating the English world abroad.
In the teacher walkabout activity, you will slowly float around the classroom and suddenly command a nearby student to respond to your command within seconds. (It’s essentially an expanded version of duck, duck, goose.)
- Have your students seated with their eyes pointed toward the front of the classroom.
- Begin your stroll around the room and pick a student by tapping on their shoulder or desk. After they complete the task, you can continue searching for your next unsuspecting TPR victim.
- You can reward each student with candy after they correctly complete the command. In the end, give everyone candy to ensure no students feel left out!
Charades has been used in teaching for decades, and it’s a perfect example of how to use the TPR method: pure, energetic, physical response in the form of student enthusiasm.
- Charades can be an exercise for the whole classroom, but separating your class into groups will help your students build teamwork skills while learning.
- Once everyone is done strategizing, ask each group for one actor. Each representative will come to the front to act out the command while their group tries to guess the answer.
- If the first group cannot figure it out, you can let another group try to get the answer themselves (but be sure to give the first group ample time to guess).
- Repeat this cycle for as long as desired, then crown the group with the most points as the victor.
TPR in Modern Language Learning
These are the main features of Total Physical Response:
Using activities based on natural, childhood learning patterns
Total Physical Response works similarly to how children learn their first language.
Dr. Asher, the founder of Total Physical Response, based this idea on the Sv-R learning stimulus-response model in behavioral psychology (where “Sv” is the verbal stimulus—your command—and “R” represents the students’ responses). It contends that children learn to speak mainly by giving and receiving verbal commands.
Another development principle to apply here is delaying speech until your students acquire listening comprehension. Listening is the foundation for other language skills, so each word’s meaning should be emphasized during any learning activity.
Utilizing brain lateralization
The brain’s left hemisphere is the main language learning center, but learning activities that also stimulate the right side—closely connected to connections, imagery and logic—can help your students acquire language in a more synthetic way.
Dr. Asher also drew from the principle in trace theory that connecting words to intense memories or actions immediately can help us memorize them.
The goal here is for your students to associate a visual image and physical response with every word they learn.
Eliminating stress in language learning
Eliminating stress should already be one of your goals as an ESL teacher, but maintaining this priority in your TPR activities is essential.
The TPR learning theory is based upon one aim, despite the number of different theories and approaches involved: to deliver memorable language lessons.
The 3 Elements of Total Physical Response Tasks
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:
Non-abstractions and abstractions
Non-abstractions are first developed by using nouns and imperative verbs.
Simple commands such as, “Stand up and touch your head!” help create detailed “cognitive maps” for your students and put them into action mode.
Abstractions should be brought into the picture after your students have mastered non-abstractions.
Commands like, “Stand up and ask your neighbor how they feel today!” allow your students to decide both how to phrase the question and how to respond.
Once their responses are nearly perfect, you can explain the deeper meaning that, for instance, “How are you?” is a polite conversation starter that shows empathy for others.
Speech acts and roleplay are also a big part of TPR! Students don’t have to remain silent—you can have them interact with each other, gather information and start conversations.
For example, you might instruct one student to ask another for the definition of a common word, like “dog.” This encourages discussion (“Do you have a dog?” or “What sound does a dog make?”) while helping build language skills for asking questions and interpreting answers.
The lexical approach to vocabulary acquisition
Dr. Asher also drew from the lexical approach to language learning, which promotes teaching language in chunks instead of isolated units.
It’s often most effective to frame vocabulary within a complete phrase or sentence. Presenting each word in isolation misses many opportunities to teach your students other terms.
For example, instead of showing a picture of an apple and saying “apple,” you can use a command with multiple nouns and verbs: “Stand up, find the apple and place it in the fruit bowl.”
TPR is exceptionally effective at developing your ESL students’ listening, response and speaking skills through fun activities and collaboration.
It’s also a great way to end the week and solidify everything your students have learned. They will gain a more practical understanding of English as they connect new words to actions they can use in a wide variety of real-world situations.
Teach them in a stress-free way that promotes excitement and confidence, and your students will always be eager to learn more!