Total Physical Response or TPR is a language teaching theory that has gained a significant fame during the last two decades. In order to define it, (Richards and Rodgers: 1986: 87) point out that “TPR is a language teaching theory built around the coordination of speech and action; it attempts to teach language through physical activity.” That is to say that it is a teaching theory whereby a learner responds to the verbal input of the teacher with body motions. So, in TPR, instructors give commands to students in the target language, and students are meant to respond with body movements and actions.
TPR was developed in 1977 by James Asher, who is a university teacher of psychology who deduced that the physical response of children towards their parents’ speech creates a positive feedback and he noted that children listen and respond with gestures before they speak. So, he saw in TPR an effective theory for learning the English language.
This theory is based on several principles. First, before starting to perform actions, students have to understand first the spoken language of their teacher. This is why TPR emphasizes the importance of listening more than speaking, especially in the early stages of learning. Second, students are meant to learn grammar and new vocabulary items through action. This is why imperatives are the main structures to communicate with students. In this way, grammar is not taught explicitly, but rather implicitly and students are expected to acquire the target language subconsciously. Third, teachers have to avoid over-correction and correct very little and not interrupt to correct mistakes. Otherwise, learners will be inhibited and won’t be encouraged to learn.
In order to put this theory into practice, there is a variety of TPR activities that cannot only be used to teach vocabulary and grammatical items, but also to teach classroom language as well as instructions. These activities include:
1. Commands: They are the combinations of known words into a sentence that is imperative. So, the teacher would use a group of commands and students are said to act them out. These commands can be like: Stand up, raise your hand, take your pen, put it back on the table, sit down…..To make these commands clear, teachers can use body language and facial expressions and through these commands, students can learn new words like hand, pen, table…etc.
2. Games: Commands can also be given in form of many games and one of them is Simon says. The latter is a game in which the teacher can take the role of “Simon” and give instructions to his/her students who are supposed to perform commands. In this game, when a student doesn’t perform a command in the correct way, s/he is out of the game. This is just one example of the games that require physical response, other include back to the board, jigsaw reading, etc.
2. Storytelling: TPR Storytelling is based on telling short stories by teachers and their students are meant to act them out. It is a tool that enables students to fix events of a story in their memories.
4. Singing: It is one of the enjoyable ways that add variety to the class. It can help students acquire new vocabulary, improve pronunciation, and above all it is a powerful way to learn language and not to forget it. It can be more useful especially if the teacher plays meaningful songs that transmit moral messages and valuable pieces of advice.
In Total Physical Response, students and teachers play different roles. On the one hand, studens play the role of listeners in the sense that they listen attentively to the verbal input of their teachers. They also act as performers since they respond physically to commands given by the teacher both individually and collectively. Therefore, learners have little influence over the content of learning; they are not encouraged to speak or to contribute in the lessons especially in the first stages of learning.
However, on the other hand, teachers play an active and direct role. In fact, the teacher is the one who determines the content of lessons, he or she direct classroom interaction as well as turn taking, and above all the teacher has the responsibility to provide the best kind of exposure to language. The teacher also is also presents new materials like realia, pictures flashcards, videos, and several activities. Last but not least, concerning feedback, the teacher is meant to follow the example of parents and provide students with a parent-like feedback, as we said earlier, through avoiding over-correction.
Total Physical Response has many benefits on the part of the learner. One of them is being characterized by simplicity since the verb forms used for commands are in simple form. Another one is long-term retention; the constant repetition makes language memorable and makes students remember almost everything they learn. Besides, TPR decreases stress and makes EFL learners come across relaxed and pleasing experiences. It also increases students’ motivation during lessons thanks to its high rate of success. More than that, TPR makes learners interested in learning English as a foreign language as it is funny and students enjoy it and it makes them full of energy and enthusiasm. This is besides the fact that it takes into account two learning styles: the auditory and the kinesthetic Learning.
This theory also has many benefits on the part of the teacher. In this respect, simple TPR activities do not require neither a great deal of preparation, nor expensive or demanding materials. It also does not need translation or L1 support. So, as long as the teacher is competent, just an easy rehearsal beforehand can help. Concerning the formative assessment of students, teachers will know immediately whether or not students understood what was taught. This can be done simply by observing their students' actions. Not only that,but teachers also report enjoying TPR activities as much as their students.
Although the use of TPR in the classroom has often been effective, it still has many disadvantages as well. This theory is, first of all, time consuming . For instance, learning a single vocabulary item would require the instructions of the teacher, the students' demonstration, and the teacher's feedback. So, involving the whole class can waste a lot of time. It is also limited in terms of scope because teachers can’t teach everything with it, they can only employ it to teach vocabulary and grammar, especially imperatives whereas students need to make a smooth transition to all other language skills. Moreover, it is not applicable for all class sizes: TPR works best with about 8 students. With more than 10 students, there will be too much noise, chaos and unfocused time.
TPR has also been criticized for focusing only on receptive skills, mainly listening, at the expense of productive skills. That is to say, the learner is not expected to expand any efforts or to express their own thoughts in a creative way. This is besides the fact that it is more useful with children, otherwise, preparation becomes an issue for teachers at higher levels. Above all, from the psychological point of view, TPR activities might be embarassing for shy students to whom it might be challenging to perform actions for the whole class.
All in all, Total Physical Response is, like all theories, most effective when used correctly in the appropriate setting. In this respect, it is important for teachers to take into consideration a set of recommendations.
• Asher, James J. (2000). Learning another language through actions (6th ed.). Los Gatos: Sky Oaks Productions.
• Freeman, D. L. 1986. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching: Oxford University Press.
• Total Physical Response. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on January 07, 2013. http://www.tpr-world.com
• Richards, J. C. and T. S. Rodgers 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. A description and analysis: Cambridge University Press (ninth printing. 1993): 87-97.