You’ve heard it a thousand times.
“The older you get, the harder it is to learn a foreign language.”
Whether that’s strictly true is up for debate.
But what we do know is that babies can pick up language without trying, while foreign language students are stuck drilling verb conjugations and vocabulary lists.
So one important approach for language educators to consider is getting students back to that childlike state of language acquisition.
That’s where Total Physical Response comes in.
TPR is a foreign language teaching method that engages students with their target language through commands and physical action, with the goal of making language acquisition as natural as a parent talking to their child.
Of course, we can’t imitate early childhood language development exactly in the classroom. But with TPR, we can create a wide variety of simulations that use verbal and physical demonstration—like early stage communication—to teach our curricula.
So, are you ready to make foreign language learning so easy a baby could do it?
Then read on to learn more about TPR and how it can be used in a variety of classroom simulations.
Creating a Stress-free Environment for TPR Lessons
Before you get started with the simulations below, it’s important to understand the basic principles of TPR, as outlined by psychologist James Asher, who developed the teaching approach.
A core principle of TPR is that language comprehension comes before speaking. Just like infants with their parents, TPR students focus on watching the teacher’s movements and listening to their words before producing their own.
While TPR can be adapted to sing-alongs and storytelling, at its core it’s founded on the watch-and-imitate physical patterns of our earliest language acquisition, and that’s what the five simulations I’ve listed below are designed to build on.
One of the most important elements of TPR is that it seeks to replicate the stress-free environment of language acquisition that young children enjoy. No exams, no graded class presentations—while those can be useful teaching techniques in certain settings, they prevent the judgment-free, open communication that’s vital to TPR.
So remember, the simulations below are not contests. They’re intended to liberate your students from self-consciousness and stress so that they can devote their full energy to language acquisition.
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Factors to Consider When Applying TPR to Your Classroom
Almost any beginner to intermediate foreign language curriculum can be adapted to include TPR, in part because this teaching method is so useful for introducing new verbs and nouns.
As a language educator employing TPR, you’ll be speaking and demonstrating your actions (for example, “Walk to the door”) so that your students can pick up new meaning by watching and imitating you, just like children do with their parents. This is the core of what TPR’s all about.
But TPR is also useful in a broader sense, because it can be used to support classroom morale and students’ attention. These physical, energizing activities break up the routine of a traditional lesson. They also engage spatial or kinesthetic learners who might struggle with sitting still for worksheets and readings, giving them an opportunity to excel.
It’s important to remember that there are some limitations to TPR. Most obviously, this foreign language teaching technique can become repetitive quickly for adult students; we’ll address that in one of the simulations below.
However, depending on where you’re teaching, you should also be aware that these types of open, participatory activities can be disorienting to students who are used to rigid educational structures and environments. In that case, you may find it practical to introduce TPR as short, five- to ten-minute class warm-ups, until your students get more accustomed.
Actions Speak Louder: 5 TPR Simulations for Teaching Foreign Language Through Movement
1. The Architect
This is a flexible simulation that you can tailor to your students’ comprehension level. You’re the architect and your students are builders, following your directions for creating and demolishing structures. You’ll need to bring in some toy building blocks and split them up among small groups.
The simplest version of the architect simulation is a straightforward demonstrate-and-imitate TPR activity with the blocks: You’ll create a small structure, talking through your actions, and then instruct them to do the same.
For example, if you’re teaching English, your instructions could include “Put 10 blue blocks in a star shape” or “Build a wall with 25 square blocks.” Your goal is to express meaning through motion, so be ostentatious and elaborate with your own actions and feel free to point expressively or hold up fingers for numbers.
Make a short list of verbs and nouns that you want your students to walk away from this activity understanding—maybe certain colors or a range of numbers—and be sure to repeat those words frequently in different instructions.
For more advanced students, things can get a little trickier: As the architect, you can become fickle; suddenly you want the buildings destroyed, reshaped, rebuilt in a new color. You can instruct students to turn to their right or left and add or take away from their neighbors’ structures. Keep your instructions and demonstrations at a lively pace, but not so fast that students start to get lost and stressed.
2. The Treasure Hunt
The Treasure Hunt simulation adds a reward element to TPR without making it a stress-inducing contest. Your students are on the hunt for a treasure that you’ve “buried” somewhere in the classroom, and they find it by following your instructions.
To prepare for this activity, first pick your treasure. It can be anything from a bag of candy to a tissue box; the significance of this activity is the hunt itself. Decide where in your classroom you can hide it from sight. Then come up with a list of tasks for your students to accomplish before finding the treasure.
Let’s say you hide your treasure in a cabinet in the back of the classroom and you want the students to accomplish four tasks before they find it:
- The first task could be “Stand up,” to get them out of their desks.
- Next, “Walk to the window.”
- Then, “Touch the cabinet.”
- Finally, “Open the door.”
It’s crucial to mime your instructions as you give them, ideally with exaggerated motions. Your students should see the target words in action to ascribe meaning.
You’d be smart to devote only about 15 minutes max of class time to this simulation, because the preparation-to-execution ratio is pretty high. It’s great for a break activity or post-test warm-down.
3. The Taxi Driver
Understanding distances and directions is crucial for any foreign language learner who wants to immerse in their target language’s culture. However, because these are spatial concepts, they can be difficult to teach through vocabulary lists and printed homework assignments.
TPR is an effective solution because it requires vocabulary to be physically demonstrated, which the Taxi Driver simulation capitalizes on.
To prepare for this activity, you’ll need to push all the desks to the perimeter of your classroom and lay down a grid in masking tape on your floor. Then, split your students into pairs.
Here’s how it works:
- One student, the “passenger,” stands behind their partner, the “driver.”
- The passenger gives directions in the target language, telling their partner to drive forward, turn left, turn right, go ahead three blocks, etc.
Depending on how advanced your students are, you can either give the passenger written cards with directions to read out or let them make up the directions themselves.
Either way, this activity allows you to multi-task as an educator, adding reading comprehension and/or speaking skills practice over the TPR. If the driver misunderstands and moves the wrong way, you jump in and demonstrate the correct action for him or her to follow. If the passenger misspeaks, take the opportunity to work through their reading/pronunciation/grammar error.
Depending on your classroom space, class size and students’ proficiency level, you’ll have to decide how many pairs can be driving on the grid at once, with the possibility of rotating students in and out.
The Taxi Driver tends to be longer-lived than other TPR simulations. Your students will walk away with target language spatial vocabulary lodged in their muscle memory.
4. The Yogi
Because TPR is founded on the principles of early childhood language development, it can be difficult to find activities that are well-suited to adult learners. The Yogi simulation is a useful tool for this purpose, because it’s simple and straightforward but doesn’t carry associations with childhood learning.
The teacher will demonstrate and verbally describe yoga poses, for the class to then imitate on his or her command. Think of it as an adult classroom’s “Simon Says.”
To prepare for this TPR activity, you should collect a list of beginners’ yoga poses and write down how you will describe them to your class. Some poses that work well for a classroom’s tight space can be found here and here.
As an educator, you’ll appreciate how you can gauge the comprehension of an entire class at once simply by looking at whether they’re holding the correct poses or not.
This TPR simulation also provides a great opportunity to imbed basic foreign language vocabulary in your students’ memories, such as body parts and directions (left/right, up/down, etc.).
Best of all, yoga improves energy and respiration, and is accessible even for someone who’s never practiced—which means that as a teacher, it’s your ticket to a productive and smiling classroom. I’ve found that starting an hour-long class with even just five minutes of yoga can improve student morale and performance for those remaining 55 minutes.
5. The Movie Narrator
Consider this activity if you’re working with intermediate or advanced students who can handle a little bit of speaking and improv in their target language mixed with TPR.
The premise: Three or four of your students are actors in a movie that the rest of your class is watching. You’re the narrator, off to the side, directing the course of action with instructions.
Before the “movie” starts, the “audience” determines what genre they’d like to watch. You might suggest a rom com or horror for starters, as those tend to be very demonstrative, physical genres. It’s OK if students contribute ideas in their native language, because your focus here is their comprehension of what you provide in the target language.
Once the genre is established, set your students up. Make sure to keep your directions as diverse as possible to maximize vocabulary use; instead of telling your lead to “Go over there,” you could tell him or her to “Crawl under the desk” or “Run to the corner,” for example.
The movie will unfold from here: You can bring an egg timer, and every 30 seconds stop the action to call out a new direction for one or more of the “characters,” that they will then incorporate into the movie. You can tell a character to shake another’s hand, turn around, jump up and down or anything else that requires a quick physical response. You should come prepared with the actions you’re going to call out, so that you don’t run out of ideas for new actions that are appropriate for your classroom space.
Because this is a looser TPR activity for more advanced students, you can pass the role of narrator to another student. Don’t fret about sticking to the movie genre or a plot that makes sense. The whole point is to get your students interacting with the target language in a way that will embed meaning in their memories.
With these TPR simulations in your toolkit, you’ll open doors for your students that they may otherwise have struggled to access through forced memorization.
And whether you’re searching for classroom treasure, creating a movie or moving through yoga poses, you’ll be giving them an energized, low-stress learning environment.
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