Total Physical Response

“I can’t even speak English properly, why would I pass a lesson in Dutch?” is one of the things students say when I tell them I will do a lesson in my first language Dutch. During these lessons, I use the Total Physical Response (TPR) method. This method requires me to give simple commands in Dutch and demonstrate them. Within seconds, I will command students that do not speak a word Dutch to sit down, stand up, change place and turn around in circles. These lessons often result in laughter and students overall are engaged and amazed by their own capability of understanding these commands. 

Total Physical Response (TPR) was developed by James Asher in 1982. He based the method on first language acquisition. In first language acquisition, people first respond with their body before they start speaking. In TPR, you will do the same. At first, the teacher demonstrates and the students follow (Herrell & Jordan, 2008).

When I use TPR, I mainly use gestures a lot at the start. When I tell my students to do a spin (draai een rondje), I just sign with my hands. The same goes for when I want students to change places. Once I have established the different movements, I take out the gestures. Depending on the speed in which students pick up the commands, I extend my commands. Instead of saying one thing, I will instruct my students to do a sequence of exercises or I will give two students different instructions at the same time.

Also, I start to use different words to address the same people. In Dutch, we can say “all of us” (allemaal) and “everyone” (iedereen). Most students will be a bit confused when they hear a different word, but when I support the words with my gestures again, they do understand that these words are synonyms.

The last time I used this method, I ended up asking the students yes-and-no questions. The students were familiar with the things I was asking them. Therefore, it was easy for them to answer the questions. Additionally, I had taught them the Dutch words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ so that they could answer the questions.

In my opinion, TPR method is fun to use as an introduction to a new language. It will give students some more confidence, they will pick up on some words and finally, they will move. Especially with younger students, it is important to use different methods of learning and kinetic learning is not often used in a language classroom. Additionally, students will receive feedback straight away. Once they go wrong, others are correcting them. I did receive some insecure looks, which I could easily change by giving my students a reassuring smile or a firm ‘no’ and help them with extra gestures. Eventually, all students would succeed the commands and be able to answer the simple question. Setting your students up for success does improve their engagement in the classroom.

The method can also be used when there is no mutual language between the teacher and the students. Once the students are familiar with different commands, you could ask them to repeat the word, then write it down and move on from that point.

TPR is an active way of introducing a new language. Students are often engaged and laughing throughout the exercises and as a teacher you have a lot of power. I feel students really want to do what you are saying and are very curious. Unfortunately, this method cannot often be applied in an English classroom as English is often a first language and in secondary schools, most students have already had some instruction in English, but if you teach another language, it really is a good method to start with.

Herrell, A.L. and M. Jordan (2008). “Total Physical Response: Integrating Movement Into Language Acquisition”. In Fifty Strategies For Teaching English Learners. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, pp 69-72.

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