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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why and How I Use Total Physical Response (TPR)

When I was at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock working on my B.A. in the early 1980s, I was invited by one of my profs to travel to Santa Cruz, Bolivia as part of a Partners of the Americas exchange. Dr. Jones was going down there to teach Bolivian ESL instructors how to use Total Physical Response, a language teaching method developed in the early 1970s by James Asher. I was to assist him in facilitating the workshop. Naturally, I first had to learn how to use TPR! This was decades before I would become an ESL teacher, but I was often chosen by the faculty to assist with such projects due to my reputation as a keen polyglot.

There are many good resources on the net for learning about TPR, such as Asher's own site--TPR World. You can find other websites about it and watch tutorials on YouTube.

And I will share a brief summary of the (perhaps unorthodox) version of TPR that Dr. Jones taught me.

Start with some basic classroom commands, such as:
  • stand up
  • come to the board
  • pick up the chalk/marker
  • write your name
  • put down the chalk/marker
  • return to your seat
  • sit down
Ideally, you need a model to whom you can initially give each command so that students may copy the action of the model. This is one reason Dr. Jones needed two people for his workshop. If you don't have an assistant or strong student from another class, then you have to use yourself as the one both giving and receiving the commands.
T: "Stand up." [model stands up.]
T: "Sit down." [model sits back down.]
T: [addressing the class] "Stand up."  [Ss stand up.]
T: [addressing the class] "Sit down."  [Ss sit back down.]
Now then, there are two main considerations as I see it:

First of all, you should be careful to build the bank of commands very slowly, only adding a new one when all students are executing the existing ones flawlessly. Easy does it. Confident students enjoy the lesson. Nervous students don't.

Secondly, don't reward guessing. Rather, structure the order of commands so that students must truly listen and understand the utterances. To achieve this aim, you have to keep the learners on their toes. Make the order of commands unpredictable both by mixing them up AND by throwing in some random crazy commands, such as:
  • jump up and down
  • turn around
  • touch your nose
If I'm using TPR with my literacy learners to teach some new vocabulary, it may go something like this:
Mahmed, give the eraser to Fatima. Fatima, give the eraser back to Mahmed. Mahmed, put the eraser on your head. Give the eraser to Susan. Susan, put the eraser under your book. Thank you. Pick up the pencil. Give the pencil to Sarah. Give the eraser to Mahmed. Sarah, touch your nose. Please stand up. Jump up and down. Give the pencil to Juan. Sit down. Thank you. Juan, ...
And so on.

It's a LOT of fun, and takes the pressure off the students to speak. I use it when introducing new concrete vocabulary, such as clothing, school supplies, money, etc., and when we have a new student who is starting from zero, unable even to answer the simplest of questions or spell her name. After ten minutes of TPR, the new student is participating just as successfully as higher level students around her, which helps her relax and gives her a boost of confidence. I agree with Asher's assertion that language-body conversations are a 'stress-free tool.'

So the short answer to why I use TPR is because I know of it. Because I was in the right place at the right time 30 years ago, I have an extra tool in my TESL tool box. I have continued to use it because it is a great way to get up and running with very low level literacy learners who are starting from scratch, and--best of all--because the learners enjoy it.

Beyond the scope of this little blog post are the phases of TPR in which learners begin to speak and write. You can research those on your own if you're interested.

I hope like this little peek into my use of TPR in the ESL and ESL Literacy classrooms and will leave a comment so I'll know you were here.

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