Total Physical Response: Learning through Action!

by Valentina Gonzalez


We’ve all been there: we teach a lesson and then assess students only to find that the students didn’t understand it. We are left with questions like What happened? How did we fail them? What went wrong?

We all want to make learning memorable. We want our students to grasp and acquire newly learned information, concepts, words, and skills. However, if what happens in class does not give them the opportunity to internalize their learning, comprehension may not be achieved.

In the 1960s, Dr. James Asher introduced a language learning method called Total Physical Response, or TPR. Dr. Asher’s approach was based on the theory that people acquire language first through listening, which he contended was the skill that had the highest positive transfer to other language domains such as speaking, reading, and writing. It resembles how first languages are learned. Think about us as babies, for instance. We spend the early part of our lives merely taking in language. We observe gestures and body language and we mimic those. As we grow older and begin to comprehend more, we become capable of following commands. Once enough comprehension is achieved, we speak words. Then words become phrases and move to sentences. In a 1969 article for The Modern Language Journal, Dr. Asher states that “even as speaking develops, listening comprehension is always further advanced.”

TPR focuses on understanding and connects language with movement, empowering students to stay engaged and active in learning while receiving comprehensible input. An added benefit to its call for participation in a classroom of roughly 22 students is that it can prevent students from becoming off task. This approach was developed to provide copious amounts of comprehensible input to students; of course, we all want our kids engaged, participating, and actively learning. When we plan lessons that incorporate the TPR method, we become proactive in our approach to helping students learn and stay engaged instead of being reactive to students’ needs. In addition, students are no longer passive recipients in the classroom.


In its original form, TPR lessons were designed as drills in which the teacher gives commands and students follow. The teacher delivers all output (speaking) while students listen and act. An example drill might sound like, “Walk. Stop. Turn around. Walk,” etc. The teacher models movements for each command, and students participate in the actions. Once students have mastered the set, the teacher adds more, such as, “Walk slowly. Stop. Turn slowly,” etc. As you might imagine, a lesson like that may fit well for students at beginner levels of English proficiency but not those students at advanced levels.


TPR sequence:

Step 1. Students observe and listen as the teacher speaks and uses movements. The teacher may begin with one word when working with students at beginning levels of English proficiency.

Step 2. Students begin to join in the movements and follow commands that the teacher is giving. The teacher uses repetition to support students with comprehension and recall. As students become more comfortable, the teacher adds new words and movements.

Step 3. When students are ready, they will begin to add words to their movements. The teacher moves at the pace of the students, being careful not to overwhelm them with too many new words. The goal is that students are successful.

What TPR is:

What TPR is Not:

  • Incorporating motion with learning language
  • An alternative to translation
  • Student centered
  • Versatile (used in any content areas/grade level)
  • A list of vocabulary words to memorize
  • A test at the end of the week
  • Teacher centered
  • Just for some content areas and grade levels


Extending TPR

Total Physical Response has been extended and adapted in various ways throughout classrooms since Dr. Asher first introduced it. Teachers have modified it to fit their students’ needs. Students at early levels of English proficiency will have different linguistic needs than those who are further along. It is adaptable to match the needs of your class.

Some teachers have had success by connecting whole sentences with movements. For instance, the class works together to assign movements to multiple words. Then they create sentences and movements for the words and practice them several times before they have fun playing a Charades-like game with them. One student stands at the front of the room and acts out the movements, and the rest of the class tries to guess the  word or sentence the student is demonstrating. Fun while learning! Win, win!


Classroom Scenario

During a science class, the students were learning about life cycles. The teacher displayed this visual for the life cycle of a frog.

Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 11.30.15 AM

She led the class in acting out the important concepts and critical vocabulary (bolded below) they needed to know and understand, while also labeling the visual. Here’s how it went:

“All animals (teacher held out arms) go through a life cycle (teacher pointed one finger in a round circular motion). The frog (teacher cupped one hand into the other as if holding a bouncing frog) goes through a life cycle (teacher pointed one finger in a round circular motion). The first (teacher held up one finger) phase (teacher made a step ladder motion with her hand) in the life cycle (teacher pointed one finger in a round circular motion) of the frog (teacher cupped one hand into the other as if holding a bouncing frog) is the egg (teacher made a small egg-like shape with her hands).”

The teacher continues this way until she completes the life cycle.

As the teacher continues with this verbal, physical, and visual telling of the content for the first time, students simply listen and watch. The subsequent times, students stand and are encouraged to participate in the movements as the teacher retells the same content. The teacher moves at the students’ pace. As repetition is needed, sentences are repeated. When students are ready to add more, the teacher continues to build on the lesson. Finally, when students have had ample practice, they share with a partner, retelling the life cycle of the frog.

We can harness the power of learning through action!

Besides being fun for students, there are many benefits of learning through action:

  • Enhances the learning process
  • Introduces concepts concretely
  • Increases comprehensibilibilty
  • Requires little productive language
  • Accelerates listening comprehension
  • Supports English learners, students with learning disabilities, auditory learners, visual learners, kinesthetic learners, social learners, etc.
  • Lowers the risk for students to interact
  • 100 percent engagement
  • Total participation
  • Increases recall of information

This whole-brain approach to learning is easy, yet super effective. It’s not necessary to create a movement for every word, but it works best with some of the most challenging, critical vocabulary words. The added bonus is that students can gain confidence in their comprehension, and that can transfer into speaking, reading, and writing.


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