Total Physical Response


Total Physical Response

Approaches to the Teaching of World Languages

For each approach, answer the following questions:

What is the background for this approach?

Total Physical Response is a language teaching method which is based on the assumption that the coordination of speech and action will boost language learning. It was developed by James Asher in the 70s. He drew from a variety of areas,  including psychology, learning theory and humanistic pedagogy. It is called a “Natural Method”

What underlying theories structure this approach?

From developmental Psychology Asher draws the parallel, he contends exists,  between first language acquisition and 2nd language learning. Children get language through a series of commands from their parents to which they react physically. It’s only later that they can produce verbal responses . Asher contends that humans are endowed with a sort of bio program which follows this process of language learning and that, when teaching a 2nd language, we must follow the same process so that learning can be successful.

What is the role of the teacher in this approach?

The role of the teacher is central. The teacher chooses the appropriate commands to introduce vocabulary and structure and also provides the model. However, once the teacher has taught a lesson and the students have mastered it to a certain degree they can then act as teachers with their peers by giving commands to other students.

What is the role of the student in this approach?

The learner is a listener and a performer responding to commands individually or collectively. In a new lesson the role of the student can be described as more of a passive listener and mimics the motions of the teacher. But as the students begin to become more familiar with the commands they can then switch to the role of speaking and issuing commands to other students. The more they learn the greater their confidence and ability to use the new words in speech.

What does a typical class period look like? What strategies are commonly used?

Activities in the TPR method rely on action based drills in the imperative form. In fact the imperative drills are introduced to elicit physical/motor activity on the part of the learners. The use of dialogs is delayed. Typical classroom activities include: Command drills, Role plays on everyday situations (at the restaurant, at the movies …) Slide presentations to provide a visual center for teacher’s narration, which is followed by commands or questions, and reading and writing can also be introduced to further consolidate grammar and vocabulary and as follow ups.

What seems unique to this approach?

The coordination of speech and action facilitates language learning.Grammar is taught inductively.Speaking is delayed until comprehension skills are established. Effective language learning takes place in low stress environment.

What really separates it from the others?

The stimulus in the TPR method is verbal and the response is physical. In this respect TPR has many similarities to the Direct Method but in all other respects this is a very new and different approach. The other big diffferentiation is the focus on low stress and movement . Dr. Asher felt that achieving a low stress environment and tapping into the right brain in addition to older methods which focused solely on left brain learning.


Notes on Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response is a language teaching method which is based on the assumption that the coordination of speech and action will boost language learning. It was developed by James Asher in the 70s. He drew from a variety of areas,  including psychology, learning theory and humanistic pedagogy.

According to the trace theory of memory in psychology, the more often and intensively a memory is traced, the stronger the memory association will be and the more likely it will be recalled. The retracing can be verbal through repetition and/or in association with motor activity. This clearly reminds us of of the behavioristic psychology which holds a Stimulus-Response model of learning. The stimulus in the TPR method is verbal  and the response is physical. In this respect TPR has many similarities to the Direct Method.

From developmental Psychology Asher draws the parallel, he contends exists,  between first language acquisition and 2nd language learning. Children get language through a series of commands from their parents to which they react physically. It’s only later that they can produce verbal responses ( cf  Jean Piaget works). Asher contends that humans are endowed with a sort of bio program which follows this process of language learning and that, when teaching a 2nd language, we must follow the same process so that learning can be successful. Asher in this respect adheres to a naturalistic method of language learning (cf Krashen’s Natural Approach). Language learning must focus on comprehension and the teaching of speaking must be delayed until comprehension skills are established. Asher also thinks that the skills acquired through listening transfer to other skills and that meaning precedes form.

Asher’s method relies on three assumptions about language. First Asher thinks that a lot of the grammatical structures of language and many vocabulary items can be learned from the skillful use of the imperative form. In his view, verbs in the imperative are primordial forms upon which language learning can be organized. Command drills can be a vehicle to the internalization of a lot of language structures and vocabulary. Another TPR assumption about language is the one that distinguishes between abstractions and non-abstractions. According to Asher, abstractions are not necessary to teach language to beginners. On the other hand, non-abstractions can help build a detailed cognitive map and grammatical structure of language. The third assumption about language states that language can be internalized not only as single items but also as wholes or chunks. This is an idea that will be later developed by Michael Lewis (1993) in his Lexical Approach.

Relying on humanistic pedagogy, TPR also stresses the importance of a stress free environment. In fact,  second language learning often causes a lot of stress and anxiety. However, if teachers focus on meaning transferred into physical activity rather than on abstract language forms students are freed from stress and anxiety.

Features of TPR

In a nutshell, here are the most salient features of the TPR:

The coordination of speech and action facilitates language learning.
Grammar is taught inductively.
Meaning is more important than form.
Speaking is delayed until comprehension skills are established.
Effective language learning takes place in low stress environment.
The role of the teacher is central. S/he chooses the appropriate commands to introduce vocabulary and structure.
The learner is a listener and a performer responding to commands individually or collectively.
Learning is maximized in a stress free environment.

TPR Activities

Activities in the TPR method rely on action based drills in the imperative form. In fact the imperative drills are introduced to elicit physical/motor activity on the part of the learners. The use of dialogs is delayed. Typical classroom activities include:

Command drills
Role plays on everyday situations (at the restaurant, at the movies …)
Slide presentations to provide a visual center for teacher’s narration, which is followed by commands or questions.
Reading and writing can also be introduced to further consolidate grammar and vocabulary and as follow ups.

Criticism

Asher doesn’t really give a detailed account of his distinction between abstractions and non-abstraction. For example, as Richards and Rodgers (1986: 88)  state, are tense, aspect and so forth abstractions, and if so, what sort of detailed cognitive map could be constructed without them?
TPR deals with only the beginning stages of language learning
TPR syllabus and the utterance and the sentences within it are questionable as far as their communicative relevance  is concerned
Advantages

When used in association with other methods and techniques, TPR can yield tremendous results.
For many teachers TPR represents a useful set of techniques and is compatible with other approaches to language teaching. The focus on comprehension is another appealing feature of TPR. The method is compatible with new approaches to language learning as it stresses the importance to meaning rather than form. Learning highly benefits from TPR’s emphasis on stress reduction.