Formerly CBTT, Inc.
update for the Total Physical Response
known world-wide as TPR
by James J. Asher, Ph.D.
Thank you to Dr. Asher for allowing
us to reprint his article here!
WHAT IS TPR?
IT'S ALL IN THE WAY WE LEARN...
TPR is based on the premise that the human
brain has a biological program for acquiring any natural language
on earth - including the sign language of the deaf. The process
is visible when we observe how infants internalize their first language.
The secret is a unique "conversation"
between the parent and infant. For example, the first conversation
is a parent saying, "Look at daddy. Look at daddy." The
infant's face turns in the direction of the voice and daddy exclaims,
"She's looking at me! She's looking at me!" Dr. Asher
calls this "a language-body conversation" because the
parent speaks and the infant answers with a physical response such
as looking, smiling, laughing, turning, walking, reaching, grasping,
holding, sitting, running, and so forth.
Notice that these "conversations"
continue for many many months before the child utters anything more
intelligible than "mommy" or "daddy." Although
the infant is not yet speaking, the child is imprinting a linguistic
map of how the language works. Silently, the child is internalizing
the patterns and sounds of the target language.
When the child has decoded enough of the
target language, speaking appears spontaneously. The infant's speech
will not be perfect, but gradually, the child's utterances will
approximate more and more that of a native speaker.
Children and adults experience the thrill
of immediate understanding when you apply this powerful concept
in your classroom.
Here is what we now know:
1. The dropout rate of second language students
in a traditional program can be as high as 95%. Studies at the University
of Texas and elsewhere show that this stunning attrition can be
reversed when TPR is a central feature of the language program.
The reason that TPR dramatically reduces attrition is this: TPR
is a confidence-builder. Students of all ages including adults experience
instant success in understanding an alien language. They remark:
"Hey, this isn't so bad! I understand what she is saying. I
didn't know I could do this. I feel great!"
2. TPR is aptitude-free. Academic aptitude
is a negligible factor when TPR is applied by a skilled and talented
teacher. In a traditional language program, principals screen "low"
academic students from foreign language classes under the assumption
that, "They simply can't do it!" Everyone is surprised
when disadvantaged children who experience difficulty in class after
class in a traditional school, enjoy success in a TPR class. These
students experience the exhilaration of being competitive with the
all "A" students.
3. Contrary to the widely-held belief that
children have a linguistic advantage over adults, studies with Spanish,
Russian, and Japanese show that when adults play the game of learning
another language on a "level playing field" with children,
adults consistently outperform children, except for pronunciation.
TPR provides that "level playing field." In a traditional
class, adults endure the handicap of sitting in rows of chairs while
an instructor performs and performs and performs. In a TPR class,
the students perform and perform and perform while the instructor
is the director of the play. Note that this is exactly how children
acquire another language so quickly while living in a foreign country.
Children are silent but respond to directions from caretakers and
other children. Children act in response to hundreds of directions
uttered in the alien language such as "Come here." "Put
on your coat." "Throw me the ball." "Walk faster."
etc. This is a linguistic luxury that their parents living in the
same country do not experience.
4. Studies with Spanish, French, German,
Japanese, and Russian demonstrate that TPR is "brain compatible,"
meaning there is short and long-term retention that is striking
and statistically significant across studies. Retention with TPR
is analogous to riding a bicycle. Even if years have elapsed since
acquiring the skill, after a few warm up trials, proficiency returns.
5. TPR seems to work effectively for children
and adults. There is no age barrier. The only caveat is that if
the language training starts after puberty, the probability is almost
certain that one will have at least some accent in speaking the
second language, no matter how many years one lives in the foreign
6. TPR seems to work for most languages including
the sign language of the deaf and the language of mathematics. Math
education is even more challenging than foreign language education
because, in the USA, we spend more on remedial mathematics than
all other forms of math education combined. Traditional programs
in both math and foreign languages share a common flaw, in my judgment.
Both specialties play to half the brain and usually it is the wrong
half. (For more on this intriguing phenomenon, see my book, The
Super School of the 21st Century.)( See Order Form)
7. TPR can be the major focus of a language
program or an extremely effective supplement.
BENEFITS OF TPR
1. Instant understanding of the target language,
regardless of academic aptitude
2. High Speed Long-term retention
Is TPR a method, an approach or a tool?
A student asked this question on my e-mail.
I don't think that it matters how you classify TPR. My answer, however,
is that TPR is a powerful right-brain tool at all levels of second
language instruction. The tool works best in the hands of a skilled
and talented instructor. I think that colleges and universities
have been frankly negligent in not training future language teachers
to be highly proficient in the handling of this powerful tool. A
cursory mention of TPR in a laundry list of methods and approaches
is not enough to build skill in the application of TPR. It needs
a special course along with hands-on experience monitored by a senior
instructor who is also skilled in the intricate applications of
Why have college and university teacher trainers
underestimated the value of TPR?
I am speculating but I believe it works like
this: Professors, especially in public colleges and universities,
are not concerned with enrollments. The smaller the class size,
the less one's workload. Compensation is not tied to class size.
The motivation is for fewer students, not more. Therefore, there
is little interest in a powerful tool that will attract and retain
hundreds of students in the language program.
When does TPR not work?
This is a fair question. Here is the answer:
Any novelty, if carried on too long, will trigger adaptation. No
matter how exciting and productive the innovation, people will tire
of it. They no longer respond. It is important to neutralize adaptation
by switching continually from one activity to another. TPR is magical
to jump start people of all ages into the target language. Instructors
are perceived by their students as "miracle workers."
This is a heady experience for any instructor. The tendency then
is to imagine that TPR is a panacea to solve all problems. The instructor
continues day after day, until the students are exhausted and mutiny
with, "Please, not another direction. Can't we do something
else." At this point the instructor concludes, "Hey, this
TPR is only good at the beginning." Of course, this is an illusion.
The tool can be used at all levels to help students internalize
new vocabulary and grammatical features. But, this requires a conservative
application of this powerful tool. Sure, use it in the beginning
to catapult students into the target language, then withdraw the
technique and save it for future use downstream in training. This
is the skillful use of TPR. How to do this successfully is not obvious
to most instructors.
(For ideas on switching activities, see Ramiro
Garcia's Instructor's Notebook: How to Apply TPR for Best Results.)
See order form)
How does TPR compare to other methods in
terms of results?
I find little, if any, hard data to support
other "methods." For comparison, TPR has many, many published
studies with hard data to support the concept. (For specific citations,
see my book, Learning another Language Through Actions.) (See order
form.) This does not mean that other approaches, methods, or tools
are without value. Quite the contrary. The techniques in ALM, for
example, such as dialog memorization, listen and repeat after me,
and patterned drills are valuable, in my judgment, but NOT in the
beginning stages of language acquisition. Once beginning students
have internalized the phonology, morphology and syntax of the alien
language through TPR, then they are ready to switch to left-brain
ALM activities that you find in traditional textbooks. They are
prepared to zoom into the material with gusto because all the elements
are familiar. They are comfortable with the new language. They feel
confident. They are ready. I recommend that the instructor yo-yo
back and forth from the right brain of TPR to the left brain of
ALM. Anything new is first internalized through the body with TPR,
then switch to the other side of the brain for verbal exercises
of speaking, reading, and writing.
How can I use TPR as a beginner working with
I recommend that the beginner become a TPR
expert and then guide the tutor lesson by lesson. Start with, Learning
Another Language Through Actions and Instructor's Notebook by Garcia
(See order form). (Note from Berty Segal Cook ....My books Teaching
English ( or Spanish, French, German, Japanese, or Russian) Through
Action have been highly successful for teachers with Beginning and
Early Intermediate students/learners. It contains 102 TPR lesson
plans and is widely used by both elementary and secondary teachers
across the United States, and in 18 other countries.
). Even if the beginner is enrolled in a traditional course, TPR
is your best friend. Ask your tutor to comb the textbook for all
nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc that can be handled with
TPR. Then TPR the vocabulary that the beginner will encounter in
the next chapter of the textbook. Do this before the student looks
at the chapter. This will transform the scary alien creatures in
the chapter into warm, familiar friends.
Can I use TPR as a non-beginner? If so, how?
Sure. Use TPR to internalize any new vocabulary
item or grammatical feature in the target language.
Dr. Asher's TPR internet site: http://www.tpr-world.com/