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.
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.