TPR in the Online Classroom!

What comes to mind when you hear the abbreviation “TPR?” Maybe you’ve heard that abbreviation before if you’re a lawyer (Termination of Parental Rights) or a businessperson (Third Party Recruiter)…but what does it mean in the world online language teaching?

“TPR” stands for Total Physical Response. Translation: getting your students moving so that they can understand a new language. As their teacher, you’re engaging the “kinesthetic” side of them that leaves many students wiggling in their seats. Back when I was in undergrad (studying language acquisition), we talked about TPR a lot. It’s the “saving grace” for restless little learners everywhere.

Total Physical Response

So where did TPR originate, anyway?

Great question! In the 1960s, psychology professor James Asher published several theories about language learning. He essentially applied his findings about first-language learning (after studying how children learn from their parents) to second-language learning. Asher received federal funding for 20 years to investigate his theories. Long story short, Asher discovered that it is primarily through listening and responding physically that language learning most naturally occurs (1).  

Ok, then what does TPR look like in a classroom? In a traditional classroom, a language teacher might use TPR by teaching a phrase to a group of students, such as “I touch my head” (while cupping her head).

Then, she’ll gradually tell the students, “Touch YOUR head,” to which they copy her gesture. 

Total Physical Response

There is some repetition here as the students start to repeat the phrase, but it’s more playful than monotonous in nature. The teacher then “takes off the training wheels” until the students can not only follow her instruction without seeing the gesture, but they can also say the phrase with ease. They’ve made the mind-body connection and along the way, they’ve also passively absorbed a new grammatical structure…and they’ve released some of that pent-up energy!

“That sounds great,” you may be thinking to yourself, “but I teach online…so the camera frames us in such a way that I can’t exactly expect my student to do cartwheels with me.” I understand your concern…truly!

Yes, your space is more limited. Yes, your time is limited. But in many ways, these challenges are advantageous. We simply need to get creative with how we use TPR. Rather than full-body engagement, we must focus on the top half of the body: primarily our arms, head, and shoulders. To keep our student interested, we have the advantage of easily (with a simple shift forward) getting closer to our student.

Let’s break down TPR into three different types all of which require a little practice until TPR comes naturally to you.

Mouth Point & Ear Cup

Essentially, if we want to model a sentence for our students, we point under our mouth (Mouth Point) as if to say, “This is my microphone and I’m going to expect you to repeat this sentence.” Then we cup our ear (Ear Cup) essentially saying, “Ok, student, it’s your turn to try now!”

Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response

Commands and Corrections

We can show that we want our student to engage with the screen in some way by the TPR we show. For example, we can use TPR to show circling or drawing a line. We can also encourage our student to “repeat” a phrase or word by showing a “rolling” motion with our arms:

Draw a line

Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response

Circle

Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response

Repeat

Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response

Vocabulary

This is probably the most fun way to engage your student through TPR. When introducing a new vocabulary word, think of a way you can engage your student’s kinesthetic and visual side. It’s even better if you can get the syllables to match the number of movements you make. For example, check out the TPR below:

“baseball”

Total Physical Response

base

Total Physical Response

ball

“elephant”

Total Physical Response

e

Total Physical Response

le

Total Physical Response

phant

And, of course, the most important goal of TPR is to get our language-learning student to make a mind-body connection…so do your best to get your student moving with you!

Two important tips for keeping your student engaged:

Move Closer

Engage
Engage

The close-up, of course! Getting up close is not only engaging…it also helps our students see our mouth movements better for correct pronunciation.

Make Eye Contact

Which of these three pictures do you think makes my student feel like I’m truly listening (this is the “Ear Cup” again)?:

Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response

Well, when we actively listen to people in-person, it’s polite to look at the person’s eyes…and the closest we can get to doing so over a webcam is by looking directly at the camera. Let’s make sure we nod, too!

Total Physical Response

Now that you’ve got some practical ways to engage your student through TPR…let’s get started! Oh, and be sure to congratulate your student for a job well done!

1) Byram, Michael, ed. (2000). “Total Physical Response”.Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge. pp. 631–633

2020-01-17T01:53:57+00:00