Number one for English language teachers

Teaching approaches: total physical response

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

A discussion of the Total Physical Response approach to language teaching.


Originally developed by James Asher, an American professor of psychology, in the 1960s, Total Physical Response (TPR) is based on the theory that the memory is enhanced through association with physical movement. It is also closely associated with theories of mother tongue language acquisition in very young children, where they respond physically to parental commands, such as "Pick it up" and "Put it down". TPR as an approach to teaching a second language is based, first and foremost, on listening and this is linked to physical actions which are designed to reinforce comprehension of particular basic items.

A typical TPR activity might contain instructions such as "Walk to the door", "Open the door", "Sit down" and "Give Maria your dictionary". The students are required to carry out the instructions by physically performing the activities. Given a supportive classroom environment, there is little doubt that such activities can be both motivating and fun, and it is also likely that with even a fairly limited amount of repetition basic instructions such as these could be assimilated by the learners, even if they were unable to reproduce them accurately themselves.

The above examples, however, also illustrate some of the potential weaknesses inherent in the approach. Firstly, from a purely practical point of view, it is highly unlikely that even the most skilled and inventive teacher could sustain a lesson stage involving commands and physical responses for more than a few minutes before the activity became repetitious for the learners, although the use of situational role-play could provide a range of contexts for practising a wider range of lexis. Secondly, it is fairly difficult to give instructions without using imperatives, so the language input is basically restricted to this single form. Thirdly, it is quite difficult to see how this approach could extend beyond beginner level. Fourthly, the relevance of some of the language used in TPR activities to real-world learner needs is questionable. Finally, moving from the listening and responding stage to oral production might be workable in a small group of learners but it would appear to be problematic when applied to a class of 30 students, for example.

In defence of the approach, however, it should be emphasized that it was never intended by its early proponents that it should extend beyond beginner level. (In theory it might be possible to develop it by making the instructions lexically more complex (for example, "Pick up the toothpaste and unscrew the cap"), but this does seem to be stretching the point somewhat). In addition, a course designed around TPR principles would not be expected to follow a TPR syllabus exclusively, and Asher himself suggested that TPR should be used in association with other methods and techniques. In terms of the theoretical basis of the approach, the idea of listening preceding production and learners only being required to speak when they are ready to do so closely resembles elements of Stephen Krashen’s Natural Approach.

Short TPR activities, used judiciously and integrated with other activities can be both highly motivating and linguistically purposeful. Careful choice of useful and communicative language at beginner level can make TPR activities entirely valid. Many learners respond well to kinesthetic activities and they can genuinely serve as a memory aid. A lot of classroom warmers and games are based, consciously or unconsciously, on TPR principles. As with other "fringe" methods, however, wholesale adoption of this approach, to the total exclusion of any other, would probably not be sustainable for very long.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Decent article but some comments. TPR was never intended to be a stand a lone method and I would not really call it fringe either. Its been incorporated in many methods from audio lingual to the natural approach. The US military put tons of research behind it and used it for a while at DLI. It also was incorporated into LAMP {language acquisition made piratical} book and peace corp training for comprehension and lexical use.

    It also can extend beyond the beginner level especially as you stated in a lexical sense. That is not stretching it by any means. The research is pretty solid on this when it comes to retention. Memory related to action is some of the longest lasting hands down and it does not matter what kind of learner you are.

    Many of your other comments hit the nail on the head.

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