Total Physical Response

From Teflpedia

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a methodology for teaching language by involving students in physical activity. The method was developed by James Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, whose first publication on this topic appeared in 1965 (Knight, 2001, p.154).


The first goal of a teacher using TPR is to help the students develop listening fluency (Asher: 1969, p. 5). The other language skills, speaking and writing, are supposed to be learned in a later stage as Asher believes that the ability to understand a language by listening to it would later have a positive effect on building the other skills (Asher, 1969, p. 5).

In TPR, students learn by reacting to commands given either by the teacher or their fellow students. Therefore, students learn only by hearing sentences in which the imperative is used. The imperative is so prominent as Asher regards language as "grammar-based" with the verb - especially the verb used in the imperative - being the "central motif" (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 73). Asher in fact believes that "[m]ost of the grammatical structure of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learned from the skilful use of the imperative by the instructor" (Asher, 1977, p.4).

Underlying premises[edit]

Childlike acquisition of language[edit]

One of the assumptions behind TPR is that "the human brain has a biological program for acquiring any natural language on earth - including the sign language of the deaf" (Asher, n.d.a). Asher therefore believes that, similar to children picking up their native language, foreign language students should not "learn" but "acquire" the target language. TPR aims for an unconscious process of language acquisition in the same manner that children learn their first language without any conscious effort. In consequence no attention is paid to form or rule learning.

Another aspect of child-like acquisition of language is that children respond physically to their parents’ speech and are able to "obey" long before being able to produce their first words and sentences (Asher, 1969, p.4). In the same way TPR initially focuses only on the development of listening comprehension before starting with the production of speech. Classroom activities consist of physical responses to commands given by the teacher.

Using what Asher calls "artificial categories" - phonology, vocabulary, grammar and semantics - to help students understand a language is only useful in Asher's eyes in order to "'polish' the target language for advanced students who are already fluent, but not for beginners or even intermediate students" (Asher, n.d.b)

Interaction of right and left brain hemisphere[edit]

One of the foundations of TPR is an uncommon assumption about how language is learned on a neurological level. While most second language learning methods are only directed at the left brain hemisphere, Asher believes that both hemispheres need to play a role when a learner acquires language (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 75). Asher assumes that, parallel to a child learning its mother tongue, the learner should first undergo motor movements, which are controlled by the right brain hemisphere. Then the left brain hemisphere is supposed to process these information and go on to "produce language and to initiate other, more abstract language processes" (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 75). Thus, the movement of the students acting according to the commands of the teacher are supposed to prepare them for processing the language.

Stress-free environment[edit]

TPR claims to make use of on Krashen's 'Affective filter hypothesis'. The 'Affective Filter' is a “metaphorical barrier that prevents learners from acquiring language even when appropriate input is available” (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p. 37). In a language class setting, this means that although an individual might be receiving appropriate input, he might be prevented from learning due to his emotional state, needs etc. When a learner is for example anxious, tired or hungry he will not be able to absorb input as complete as learners who are relaxed and not distracted by any kind of needs or emotions.

Asher sees TPR as a stress-free way of learning where the student is “liberated from self-conscious and stressful situations” (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 75). The student is supposed to learn the second language in such a carefree way as a child encountering its mother tongue.

Connected theories[edit]

TPR is based on behaviourism, a theory developed by B.F. Skinner. This theory sees learning merely as a result of imitation, practice, reinforcement and habit formation (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.34). According to behaviourism, an individual will show a certain behaviour due to imitation. If he then receives enough positive feedback, this person will continue to show this kind of behaviour and eventually this action will develop into a habit (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p. 10). In the same way, according to behaviourism, in order to learn a foreign language, a language student only needs to imitate the language he/she hears from the teacher and react to his feedback. Language development is seen as a result of habit formation (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.34). This view of language learning becomes apparent in TPR with regards to its focus on performance by the teacher and imitation by the students.

Apart from behaviourism, TPR can also be connected to the 'trace theory' in psychology which claims that "the more often or the more intensively a memory connection is traced, the stronger the memory association will be and the more likely it will be recalled" (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.73).

Role of teacher and student[edit]

The teacher’s role in TPR is to select the teaching material and plan the tasks the students are going to do (Knight, 2001, p. 154). His main role in the classroom is to give commands to the students. The teacher might for example tell the students: “Stand up!”, “Sit down!”, “Take your pencil!” etc. The instructor also serves as a model and gives feedback to the students. The feedback he/she gives is likened to the feedback children receive from their parents. The teacher is to gradually increase the amount of correction given to the learner as he progresses in his knowledge of the target language just as parents will tolerate less mistakes as a child gets older (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p.76). The learner's part is to listen and to respond physically to the commands. When the students have sufficient listening fluency and feel ready for it, they can begin to speak as well. In this later stage, TPR uses role plays and dialogues in which the students act out real life situations (Richards & Rogers 2001, p. 76).


TPR makes frequent use of realia. As the lessons become more complex, the teacher might also use material like pictures, slides or word charts (Richards & Rogers 2001, p. 77). However, there are also special TPR kits for sentences that include objects/scenery not available in the classroom.


Asher himself points out that TPR should be used in combination with other techniques and methods (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 79). Many teachers nowadays like to do this and TPR usually does not show any apparent conflict with other approaches (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 79). An example for including an element of TPR in a lesson is to include the game 'Simon says' in which the teacher gives the students commands starting with the phrase 'Simon says'. The students then have to do what the teacher said. Whenever he/she leaves out the phrase, the command, however, is considered as not valid. Any student that reacts and performs the action in spite of this is out of the game.


Although Asher stresses that his method “if applied with skill, will enable everyone, children, teens and adults, to enjoy instant understanding” (n.d.b), in reality TPR is “rarely used beyond beginner level” (Knight, 2001, p.154). Presumably this is because there is a limit to how much students can learn from being told to stand up and sit down.

In theory TPR is intended to create an atmosphere in which the students can learn without feeling self-conscious or being nervous. However, putting adult or teenage language students in a position in which they have to perform meaningless actions and obey commands like “[Put] the soap in Ramiro's ear ”, “[P]ut the towel on your head and laugh” or “Sit down quickly and laugh” (Asher, 1977, p. 61) is unlikely to create a suitable learning environment for them.

TPR is also very teacher-centred (Knight, 2001, p. 154). Although it might in consequence reduce the stress for the learners (Knight, 2001, p. 154), it puts them in a very passive role in which they cannot make their own choices or develop creativity.

Another reason for questioning the effectiveness of the method is that TPR entirely excludes any focus on grammar or students' output (Cameron, 2001, p. 107).



  • Asher, J.J. (1969). The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning. The Modern Language Journal, 53, 3-17.
  • Asher, J.J. (1977). Learning Another Language through Actions. The Complete Teacher's Guide Book (6th ed.). Los Gatos: Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.
  • Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Knight, P. (2001) The Development of EFL Methodology. In Candlin, C. N. and Mercer, N. (Ed.), English Language Teaching in its Social Context. A Reader (pp. 160-173). London / New York: Routledge.
  • Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2006). How languages are Learned (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

  • Richards, J. C. and Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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