Total Physical Response


The method was developed by James Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, California in the 1960s. The Total Physical Response Method (TPR) incorporates theories of developmental psychology, humanistic pedagogy, as well the dramatic or theatrical nature of language learning. The main idea behind TPR is based upon the principle of establishing psychomotor associations to facilitate language learning. The teacher presents the language in the form of commands which are demonstrated and modeled by the teacher and fulfilled by the students, individually and/or in groups. The meaning is made clear through demonstration. The emphasis is on developing comprehension skills before the learner is required to produce in the target language. Though the language is presented and taught in the form of imperatives, Asher claims that most of the grammatical structures of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learned from the skillful use of the imperative by the instructor.

The idea of employing the imperative drill in language teaching and developing comprehension skills before production is not new and can be traced back to 1925 to the teaching procedures proposed by Harold and Dorothy Palmer in their textbook of English 'English Through Action', a comprehensive collection of oral drills and exercises for the classroom. Palmer used the term incubation period, which is a necessary prerequisite for the learner to absorb and cognize the language in all its aspects. Therefore he suggested that language teaching should be based on the ‘natural basis,’ and active production (speaking and writing) should never be encouraged or expected until the pupil has had many opportunities of cognizing the language passively (through listening and reading).

TPR is most effective in the early stages of language learning and Asher himself has stressed TPR should be used in association with other methods and techniques. And indeed TPR represents a useful set of techniques which are compatible with other approaches to teaching.


Theory of language: The approach is based upon structuralist or grammar-based views of language. The verb in the imperative is considered to be the central linguistic motif around which language use and learning are organized. The commands employed in the classroom are used to teach anything beginning with focusing on prepositions to the conditional and subjunctive moods (e.g., Henry would you prefer to serve a cold drink to Molly, or would you rather have Eugene kick you in the leg?). Since Asher considers second language learning as a parallel process to child language acquisition, the language contents are based on concrete nouns and imperative verbs, i.e. nonabstractions, the immediate surrounding in the classroom. As for teaching abstractions, they should be delayed until students have internalized a detailed cognitive map of the target language. Once students have internalized the language code, abstractions can be introduced and explained in the target language. Though the syllabus of TPR is structure-based and grammar-focused, the emphasis is on meaning rather than on form. Language is presented in chunks so that it would be internalized as wholes rather than as single lexical items. In the early stages teachers similarly to parents should refrain from too much correction in order not to inhibit learners.

Theory of learning: TPR takes its grounding in behavioral psychology. Asher sees a stimulus-response view as providing the learning theory underlying language teaching pedagogy. To reinforce memorization TPR combines motor activity (fulfilling the commands after the teacher) and verbal rehearsal (listening to the teacher's model and speaking out when one is ready to produce). Such combination can be labeled as an action-based drill in the imperative form. To justify development of listening comprehension before expecting any production from the student Asher uses the facts from the process of first language acquisition when children respond physically to spoken language in the form of parental commands. Only after a long silent period (from several months to two or three years) the child's speech-production mechanism begins to function. Asher also believes that second language teaching should be directed to the right brain hemisphere which is responsible for motor activities, while the left hemisphere (responsible for verbal processing) watches and learns. To sum up this theory in one sentence, TPR is based on recreating the first language learning process in the second language classroom, because the human brain and nervous system are biologically programmed to acquire language in a particular mode. The sequence is developing listening comprehension before production skills and the mode is synchronizing language with body movements.


The general objectives of TPR are to teach oral proficiency at a beginning level. Another sub-goal of the method is to have students enjoy their experience in learning a foreign language, to reduce the stress that people feel when studying foreign languages and thereby encourage them to persist in their study beyond a beginning level of proficiency.


1) Stimulating memory with psychomotor associations: Language in the form of the teacher's commands is synchronized with body movements. According to Asher, this is the way to recreate the process by which children learn their first language. Beginning foreign language instruction should address the right hemisphere of the brain, the part which controls nonverbal behavior.

2) Comprehension before production: Students are not required to produce in the second language until they themselves decide that they are ready. Therefore students are allowed a silent period; an often lengthy period during which learners do not try to speak but they internalize the language by listening and comprehending it. Input (the new language material) is made comprehensible through listening and watching the teacher's modeling of commands and later fulfilling these commands.

3) Lowering the student's anxiety and stress reduction: This is achieved through the following: (1) students are not required to produce in the new language before they feel ready, (2) the teacher's commands are often zany and humorous in order to make language learning as enjoyable as possible, (3) students first perform the commands together with the teacher and in groups, (4) early error correction is very unobtrusive and mistakes are allowed in the classroom at the beginning period.

4) Inductive teaching of grammar: The target language is presented in chunks and the focus is on meaning rather than on form.

5) Unobtrusive error correction in the early stages: Asher believes that it is more important to let the students just talk in order to lower their anxiety about making mistakes. Once their confidence in speaking is high they can be fine tuned to produce the subtleties of speech that approximate the native speaker. Moreover, Asher states that the emphasis on error-free production and correct form is risky and if done so most children and adults will give up before reaching even the intermediate level.

6) Selection of grammatical features and vocabulary items from the immediate classroom surroundings: These are the imperatives in the first place and concrete nouns. With imagination, almost any aspect of the linguistic code for the target language could be communicated using commands. E.g., the future and present tenses can be embedded into a command as, "When Luke walks to the window, Marie will write Luke's name on the blackboard!"; Abstract nouns are presented at the later stages once the students are ready to decode the grammatical structure of a language.


The TPR syllabus is sentence-based with grammatical and lexical criteria being primary in selecting teaching items. Grammar structures and vocabulary are selected according to their frequency of need or use in the classroom (not in target language situations) and the ease with which they can be learned. Advocating the use of the imperative, Asher states that it should be used in combination with many other techniques. A TPR course begins with about ten to twenty hours of training in listening comprehension. Only after it the students are invited (but not pressured!) to reverse roles with the teacher and speak out the commands in the target language.

TPR lessons are structured in the following way:

a) Demonstration: the students sit in a semicircle around the teacher, they listen carefully to his/her commands and do exactly what the teacher does. The students are encouraged to respond without hesitation and to make a distinct, robust response with their bodies. The first routine could be "Stand up! Walk! Stop! Turn! Sit down!"

b) The routine is repeated for three or four times until individual students indicate that they are ready to try it alone without the instructor as a model. Each repetition of a routine is never an exact duplication of the previously done sequence.

c) The instructor recombines the previously learned material to form novel commands. When some of the students are ready to produce in the target language, they give commands to the teacher and the other students.

Teacher and learner roles

The teacher plays an active and direct role in TPR. He/she decides what to teach, who models and presents the new materials, and who selects supporting materials for classroom use. The teacher usually initiates the interaction, even when learners interact with each other. According to Asher, the instructor is the director of a stage play in which the students are the actors.

At first learners are listeners and performers of the teacher's commands. When they are ready to speak there is a role reversal and students themselves speak out commands. Yet, they have little influence over the learning process: the content is predetermined by the teacher.


1)  Using commands in action sequences: The use of commands is the major teaching technique of TPR (Larsen-Freeman, 1986). The teacher models the commands and performs the corresponding actions to make the meaning clear. Students fulfill the commands (action-based drills) with the teacher, individually and in groups. When they begin to speak they direct commands to the teacher and to each other.

Commands are presented in a sequence, but as Asher suggests there should be no exact repetition of the same sequence and the teacher should each time vary the routine to avoid memorization of a fixed sequence of behavior. Commands should be funny and humorous to make the learning process enjoyable. E.g., "Rosemary, dance with Samuel, and stick your tongue out at Hilda. Hilda, run to Rosemary, hit her on the arm, pull her to her chair and you dance with Samuel!" The teacher should also plan sequences of commands in advance to keep the pace of the lesson lively.

Commands are used, as Asher claims, to communicate all grammar features and hundreds of vocabulary. Commands can be subdivided into the following groups:

a) Moving whole body or parts of body: Stand, walk, sit, jump, run, etc.; Touch your feet, head, shoulders, etc.

b) Moving things (manipulatives): Put the book under the chair; Point to the purple paper; Pick up the eraser and put it on your feet; Set the clock to 2:00.

c) Moving abstractions/pictures: Put the picture of the cookie on the table; Put the picture of the principal in the picture of the office; Give the card labeled 'Sunday' to Juan; Pick up the card labeled 'Monday' and put it next to the card labeled 'Thursday'.

d) Action sequences (series of commands or operations): Action sequences are based on numerous everyday activities, like writing a letter, cleaning the house, eating breakfast, etc, that are broken down into separate commands, e.g. Eating Grapes:

-- Look at the grapes.
-- Turn on the water. 
-- Put the grapes under the water. 
-- Wash the grapes.
-- Don't use soap.
-- Shake the grapes dry.
-- Pick a grape.
-- Give it to a friend.
-- Pick another grape.
-- Chew it.
-- Chew it some more.
-- Swallow it.

2)  Role reversal: When students are ready to speak, they command their teacher and classmates to perform some actions. 
3) Conversational dialogues and role plays: These are delayed until after about 120 hours of instruction, when students achieve an advanced internalization of the target language. Role plays center on everyday situations, such as at the restaurant, supermarket, or petrol station. 
4)  Slide presentations: These are used to provide a visual center for teacher narration, which is followed by commands, and questions to students, such as, "Which person in the picture is the salesperson?" 
5)  Compiling language experience stories: A language experience story is a group-authored story written about a shared experience. Students participate in an experience such as a cooking activity, and then retell or dictate the story to the teacher who writes it down on the blackboard. The students read the story and act out the written sentences.

Questions to Ponder

Do you use any of the aforementioned techniques in your teaching? Would you want to adapt any?

Do you believe it is useful to combine listening to the language and acting it out to reinforce recall and memorization?

Do you grant your students the right to make mistakes at the beginning of the course or are you afraid that if allowed to do so the students will memorize something wrong and you will have to re-teach it?

Have you ever witnessed «the silent period» in any of your students (a student who is dead silent in the beginning of the course but who becomes a real chatter-box by the middle of it?

Does it make any sense to delay the teaching of speaking? Would you agree that the teacher should wait until the students feel ready to produce in the target language?

What grammar structures besides the imperative would be most rational to teach using TPR?

You will find a few lessons based on the TPR method in the textbook 'The Children's Response' by Caroline Linse. Try them out on your students.

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