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Total Physical Response – Family Language Solutions

Total Physical Response

Get your move on!

Perhaps one of the best methodologies I have encountered for language learning is Total Physical Response, or TPR.  As the name suggests, it really gets you up and moving!  TPR is a method of language learning that began developing in the late 1950s as a way to both decrease stress in language learning and increase people’s comprehension and language retention.  It relies heavily on physical action and interaction between language learners, teachers and the environment, and much less on traditional, book oriented, translation focused learning.  I have used TPR both in teaching English as a foreign language, and in my family’s language learning.  In fact, the curriculum I am currently working to produce relies very heavily on this methodology, so I guess you could say I’m hooked on it!  Here are the things that I love about TPR:

It is fun.

By it’s very nature, TPR turns language learning into a game.  The person teaching and the person learning are engaged in a back and forth of speaking, listening and intuitive activities that work together to both create and cement understating of the language.  For example, in a typical beginners session with my English students, I would go to the front of a classroom with a chair and sit down.  Then I would say “Stand up,” and I would stand up, followed by “Sit down,” and I would sit down.  I would encourage the students to join me in this activity until, after a few repetitions, I could simply say the command and they knew what to do.  This very quickly morphs into activities like “Throw the ball to Max. Max caught the ball.  Max, throw the ball to Irina. Irina caught the ball…”  As language skills increase, so do the number of fun activities.

It is natural.

This is how children learn language.  Mom and dad don’t just hand little Jr. a Dummies Guide to the English Language and tap their foot, expecting results. Parents patiently repeat things to their child, not demanding that they speak immediately, but giving them time to understand the language before they must produce it.  We say things like “Look at the dog!  The boy is walking the dog,” or “There’s a red car! Look, there’s a blue car!” or “No, put that down! I said put that down!  What are you doing? I said put that down! Down! PUT IT DOWN NOW!” There is a lot of repetition and making use of actual objects in the environment around us. Likewise, TPR makes use of real life objects and situations, with lots of actions and repetition.

It is something that can engage both adult and child learners alike.

Now, I know I just said that this is how children learn, but I also want to say that in all reality, adults are still wired to learn this way.  Think about is this way.  Our minds work better when our whole body is involved.  Let’s say you had something broken on your car and you needed to fix it, but had no idea how.  Would you rather read about it and then go fix it, or would you rather have someone under the car with you who knew what they were doing to guide you as you got your hands dirty doing it.

TPR is getting your hands dirty with language while a coach guides you.  It keeps language as something social and connected to our human reality instead of turning it into an abstract puzzle. It involves all of our senses and engages more of our brain.  The methodology also lends to people of all ages studying together, since, as I will discuss below, it is built on interaction and not on studying theory.  The fact that it engages so many senses can keep even the most leery language learners engaged, though I will give a caveat.  I have noticed that if an adult isn’t willing to humble himself or herself to this “childlike” approach and instead tries to keep language learning as something “grownup” and serious and academic, their attitude alone will hinder them from experiencing TPR’s benefits.

You don’t have to beat your head on grammar.

There are two reasons for this.  One, you are learning the language in whole sentences and phrases, not simply one word at a time. Thus the words are always in context and following grammatical constructions.  Two, you are learning these phrases and sentences in the context of life.  You have a concrete framework of objects and events to link the sentences to, not an abstract framework of linguistic descriptions.

It actually works.

After using TPR to teach English as a foreign language, I can say without a doubt that my students remembered what they learned through our TPR sessions better than when I gave them lists of vocabulary or sentences to translate.  I can also point to my children’s language learning experience.  We tried various methods ourselves and made little progress in teaching them Russian.  But when we got a Ukrainian friend of ours (who happened to be a professional clown) to come and play with our kids while using these principles, their Russian speaking skills took off like a rocket.  One Russian friend even asked if we were speaking any English with our oldest daughter because she was speaking so fluently within a year.

I firmly believe that if you incorporate these principles into your family’s language learning, you will see improvement both in their comprehension and speaking, as well as their attitude towards studying.

Recommended resources.

Here are several of the books that we personally own, have used and recommend for learning about TPR.  While much of their content was written with classroom teachers in mind, a lot of it can be adapted to an at-home teaching setting.

Learning Another Language Through Actions by James J. Asher walks you through the history of TPR in it’s development during the 20th Century and gives a practical guide to its use for teaching both adults and children a new language.

Total Physical Fun by Jo Ann Olliphant shares dozens of TPR activities that can be used to incorporate fun and play into language learning.

TPR Is More Than Commands – At All Levels by Contee Seely & Elizabeth Kuizenga Romijn is a short, practical guide to using TPR principles in more intermediate and advanced level language learning.  It debunks the common notion that TPR is limited to simple commands and beginners level language.

Fluency Through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray & Contee Seely expands on some of the principles in TPR Is More Than Commands and demonstrates how storytelling with TPR principles can be used to develop fluency in a foreign language. It includes practical tips on how to use storytelling to teach language, lesson planning, teachings skills, and a variety of other useful subjects.


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About the Author: David

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