Formerly CBTT, Inc.

Year 2001 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!



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 country.

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.


1. Instant understanding of the target language, regardless of academic aptitude

2. High Speed Long-term retention

3. Stress-free

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 TPR.

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 a tutor?

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.

Visit Dr. Asher's TPR internet site:

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