Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response: ESL Teaching Methods

Total Physical Response, or TPR, is a kinesthetic learning methodology and it is the cornerstone of online English teaching for very young beginner students. Total Physical Response is an especially helpful tool to use while teaching English online. The goal is to tie movement to certain sounds, words, or spelling patterns.

My daugher doing TPR with her online teacher: she is learning "monkey" and tying the actions to the word

During TPR, kids listen and do movements along with the teacher. The children repeat and gesture and mime and learn the meaning of the words by linking the movements to the words. This technique is excellent because it keeps kids moving and eliminates boredom.

Scroll down this post for some wonderful, engaging TPR examples below.

History of Total Physical Response: James J. Asher, Ph.D.

In 1966, James J. Asher developed Total Physical Response (TPR) wherein the teacher models both words and actions together and students repeat. Asher argued that words and actions naturally go together and by joining them through experience, students will understand the language more completely.

TPR and the Silent Period

James J. Asher, Ph.D. believed that there is a silent period wherein learners must be able to process and comprehend their acquisition of a new language without reproducing it orally.

This is extremely important to teaching English to young learners. Though we usually want to encourage student output at 70% (student) to 30% (teacher)- it is OK to let some early students just mimic with TPR and listen. They are absorbing and learning. It is important to explain this to parents, too, so they have appropriate expectations. Parents must understand that their child is learning English even if they don’t seem to speak it.

Why Does Total Physical Response Work?

Researchers place TPR within the “Natural Approach” of language teaching. This means that the method tries to facilitate a low affective filter in order to encourage a progressive development from language comprehension to language production.

This is because TPR tries to mimic the way I child might learn their native language. Children grow up absorbing the ‘language-body conversations’ that they have with their parents. While growing up, children often receive instructions from parents, such as “smile at daddy” or “give me the ball” and expect the child to respond with physical action. The words are tied to actions in the child’s mind before the child speaks. The child absorbs this comprehensible input until has decoded enough and then reproduces the language themselves. The goal in TPR is, similarly, to tie language to movement.

TPR is audio-visual immersive learning

Also, some researchers believe that children learn better when they have full sensory immersion: audio-visual immersive learning, for example, is a teaching technique that has been normalized and standards in our classrooms: we use flashcards and images and songs and visual backgrounds while teaching vocabulary words while teaching online, for example.

What is the ideal student for Total Physical Response?

TPR works great for very young children because early elementary school-aged children are not developmentally prepared to sustain attention for long periods while staying still in their seats. Using kinesthetic learning techniques is age-appropriate for young kids. Young learners enjoy moving around and love to respond with whole-body movement because it gets them up and moving.

How to Use Total Physical Response in Your Online Class

There are some great examples of TPR online, in videos such as the many Nancy Taylor videos, a VIPKID teacher who has many online resources for prospective online ESL teachers.

Here is my daughter learning to read the word “monkey” and doing Total Physical Response with her teacher.

Here is my daughter learning "monkey" and doing Total Physical Response with her teacher.

There are also many phonic sounds and hand gestures that match them in TPR. Remember, the goal of TPR is not just to act out animals and been entertaining. The goal is to tie movement to certain sounds, words, or spelling patterns.

Synthetic Phonics: Using TPR to tie phonics to motions

Synthetic phonics is a method to help students learn to read. While teaching Synthetic Phonics, the teacher breaks up the words into phonemes (the smallest units of sound). This method helps the student make connections between letters (graphemes, or letter symbols) and the sounds of spoken language. You can use TPR to tie phonics to motions while utilizing the Synthetic Phonics method.

Bottom Line: During TPR, the teacher leads students to link movements to sounds. This technique is great for online teaching because it solidifies knowledge while also engaging young children who may struggle to stay still for a long time online.

Here are some related posts on teaching techniques to bring into your ESL classroom.

All about Phonics

Praise Students in an Online Class *Creatively!*

ESL Scaffolding

English as a Second Language: Teaching Theorists

Related Keywords: Total Physical Response (TPR), Young Learners English Language Teaching Methods, Teaching Young FL Learners, whole-body movements, The Natural Approach, kinesthetic


*Note that the above article states that KWM is more effective than TPR in teaching new vocabulary words in a foreign language to early elementary school children.

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Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.