Total Physical Response

Historical Background

The Total Physical Response method was developed by Dr. James J. Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State College. Asher had been experimenting with ways of facilitating what he called first-trial learning, or the internalization of new information by the brain upon the first exposure to that information. Asher believed that the more times learners must be exposed to new information before it is internalized, the more difficulty they will have in retaining that information. Asher was particularly interested in applying his theories to foreign language learning, partly due to his having struggled to learn Latin, Spanish, French, and German in school and his desire to find more effective methods of language learning.

After considerable experimentation, Asher discovered with the aid of a Japanese graduate student that he was quickly able to internalize Japanese by physically responding to commands in the language such as stand up, sit down, and walk. Through subsequent experimentation Asher was able to refine the technique into a comprehensive method that he called the Total Physical Response, or TPR.

Since its inception in the 1960s TPR has become widely known throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Studies conducted by Asher and others have demonstrated the method's effectiveness at improving students' listening comprehension and vocabulary retention over traditional learning methods (e.g., Asher, 1966, 1969, 1972). In addition, the positive learning outcomes of TPR seem to transfer to reading, speaking, and writing skills as well (Glisan, 1993).

Theory of Language Learning

TPR is based on the premise that human beings are biologically programmed to learn languages, and that this programming works essentially the same for adults learning a foreign languages as it does for children learning their native language. Asher claims that just as young children hear large amounts of linguistic input before they begin speaking, adolescent and adult language learners also benefit from a "silent period" to internalize the patterns and sounds of the language, and that they will eventually begin to produce utterances spontaneously. He emphasizes that students should not be forced to speak before they are ready.

Asher also claims that one-third to one-half of the linguistic input that young children hear is in the form of commands (e.g., "Don't make a fist when I'm trying to put on your coat!"). Children respond to these commands physically, activating the right hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with motor movement. The right brain is thus able to internalize the new linguistic elements immediately, without a time-consuming analysis by the left brain, which is normally associated with language use. According to Asher, "most of the grammatical structure of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learned through the skillful use of the imperative by the instructor" (1977, p. 2-4).

Asher emphasizes that because TPR taps into natural language learning processes, the stress associated with mental analysis of the target language is reduced, and learning becomes a more enjoyable experience.

Classroom Activities

Asher (1977) provides an outline of TPR lessons for beginning students. On the first day of class, the teacher motions for four students to come to the front of the class and gestures for two of them to sit on either side of him. He then says stand up, and immediately stands up, gesturing for the students to do the same. A similar procedure is used to teach the commands sit down, walk, stop, turn, and jump. When students appear to have mastered the commands, the teacher sits down and gives commands for the class to act out as a group and then individually. Other commands include touch the chair, walk to the door, and point to the table. The teacher combines these elements in new ways, gradually introducing more vocabulary words, usually three at a time.

Each subsequent lesson begins with a review of previously-learned material. New linguistic elements are then introduced in the form of commands. These include numbers (I will write the number 3 on the board. Maria, write the number 3), body parts (touch your head), shapes (draw a circle), prepositions (walk between Dolores and Jos), adverbs (walk slowly), and adjectives (point to the wet window). New verb tenses are also introduced through commands (Juan, throw your pencil on the floor; Maria, pick up the pencil that Juan threw). Later, the teacher introduces short stories by reading the story twice, calling on students to act the story out while reading it a third time, and then asking comprehension questions about the story.

Speaking is introduced gradually, beginning with questions that require one-word answers (How many eyes do you have?) or short phrases (Where is the book? Answer: Under the chair). Later, students might discuss pictures from magazines in small groups, or perform role plays such as ordering a meal in a restaurant. Asher claims that the introduction of speaking should be delayed for approximately one semester in college classes, or six months to a year in high school classes.

Reading is introduced by giving students lists of the vocabulary words and sentences they have learned. Later, students read copies of the stories the teacher has told in class. Writing activities consist of having students answer questions or write sentences based on previously-learned material.

Notes on the Video

The lesson in the video features a first-semester French class taught by Art Burnah, a teacher at Pleasant Grove High School in Pleasant Grove, Utah. The lesson introduces key vocabulary related to body parts along with verbs such as point to, touch, scratch, and tap, followed by an expansion phase (which would normally come much later in the course) in which the students themselves learn to give commands.

References and Additional Resources

Asher, J. J. (1966). The learning strategy of the Total Physical Response: A review. Modern Language Journal, 50, 79-84.

Asher, J. J. (1969). The Total Physical Response approach to second language learning. Modern Language Journal, 53, 3-17.

Asher, J. J. (1972). Children's first language as a model for second language learning. Modern Language Journal, 56, 133-139.

Asher, J. (1977). Learning another language through actions: The complete teacher's guide book. Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions. (6th ed. 2000)

Asher, J. J. (n.d.) What is TPR? Retrieved May 10, 2006 from http://www.tpr-world.com/what.html

Asher, J. J., Kusudo, J., & de la Torre, R. (1974). Learning a second language through commands. Modern Language Journal, 58, 24-32.

Garcia, R. (1996). Instructor's notebook: How to apply TPR for best results (4th ed.). Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions.

Glisan, E. W. (1993). Total Physical Response: A technique for teaching all skills in Spanish. In J. W. Oller, Jr. (Ed.), Methods that work: Ideas for literacy and language teachers (2nd ed., pp. 30-39). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.