Total Physical Response (TPR) is a method developed by Dr. James J. Asher, a professor of psychology at San José State University, California, USA, to aid learning foreign languages. The method relies on the assumption that when learning a second or additional language, that language is internalised through a process of codebreaking similar to first language development and that the process allows for a long period of listening and developing comprehension prior to production. Students respond to commands that require physical movement. TPR is an ESL/EAL behaviourist minded teacher's main tool.
The method morphed into TPRS thanks to Blaine Ray, a Spanish teacher who saw how well interactive movements and stories helped his students learn. Realizing the limits of TPR regarding important abstract (undemonstratable) language, Ray created the foundation of a method, called Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), which in addition to adding fun stories to Asher's methods, built off of Krashen's theories of language acquisition to help students acquire non-physical language.
TPR is based on the premise that the human brain has a biological program for acquiring any natural language on earth - including the sign language of the deaf. The process is visible when we observe how infants internalize their first language.
Asher looks to the way that children learn their native language. Communication between parents and their children combines both verbal and physical aspects. The child responds physically to the speech of their parent. The responses of the child are in turn positively reinforced by the speech of the parent. For many months the child absorbs the language without being able to speak. It is during this period that the internalisation and codebreaking occurs. After this stage the child is able to reproduce the language spontaneously. With TPR the language teacher tries to mimic this process in class.
Its use in the classroom
In the classrom the teacher and students take on roles similar to that of the parent and child respectively. Students must respond physically to the words of the teacher. The activity may be a simple game such as Simon Says or may involve more complex grammar and more detailed scenarios.
TPR can be used to practise and teach various things. It is well suited to teaching classroom language and other vocabulary connected with actions. It can be used to teach imperatives and various tenses and aspects. It is also useful for story-telling.
- It is fun and easy. Students will enjoy getting up out of their chairs and moving around.
- Simple TPR activities do not require a great deal of preparation on the part of the teacher. However, some other more complex applications might.
- It is good for kinæsthetic learners who need to be active in the class.
- It is a good tool for building vocabulary.
- It is memorable. Actions help strengthen the connexions in the brain.
- Class size need not be a problem.
- "TPR seems to work effectively for children and adults. There is no age barrier." according to Asher.
- Whilst it can be used at higher levels TPR is most useful for beginners. It is also at the higher levels where preparation becomes an issue for the teacher.
- Students are not generally given the opportunity to express their own thoughts in a creative way.
- It is easy to overuse TPR. "Any novelty, if carried on too long, will trigger adaptation." Asher writes, "No matter how exciting and productive the innovation, people will tire of it."
- The teacher may find that it is limited in terms of language scope. Certain target languages may not be suited to this method.
- It can be a challenge for shy students.