Teaching ESL Online and TPR (Total Physical Response)


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Total Physical Response (TPR) was founded by James Asher who studied psychology at San Jose State University. The teaching method is based on the coordination of language and physical movement. Doctor Asher discovered TPR by witnessing interactions between children and parents throughout young adolescence. Generally, there is a significant amount of speech executed by parents that are followed by a physical response from the child. Asher was then able to make 3 assumptions about adolescent learning:

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  1. Language is learned primarily through listening.
  2. Language must engage the right side of the brain. This side of the brain deals with intuition and creativity.
  3. Learning a language must not include any stressors (Read the Tiger Mom article on how to diffuse unintended stressful situations created by parents)

This is to date the most effective teaching method for young children as it delivers both an exciting and influential learning environment for the student. According to TPR theory, comprehension and listening come first in terms of interpreting a new language for young students. The left side of the brain is generally more logical and sometimes teachers who perform a lot of speaking drills overload that hemisphere and deem to be ineffective. That is why Asher makes it mandatory to bypass the left rational side and dive straight into actions/performances that will later be reinforced by the left hemisphere specifically in the Broca’s area. To check out the actual TPR experiments performed by Dr. Asher and its revolution on the elementary education system check out www.tpr-world.com.

Furthermore, online ESL teachers should simplify the complex sentences while speaking slowly into a digestible format for the aspiring student. The more TPR used the better for every aspect and intricacy of the sentence. Since children have no concept or vernacular within the confines of another language TPR is a conducive way to teach. The main objective is to connect emotions with the word’s meaning. TPR should be applied as much as possible during teaching as it makes the lessons more exciting and engaging. If the children do not understand, the teacher can show them through body language first without any sort of additional stimulus. A lot of being a teacher for young learners is how well you can use theatrics – Think of yourself as an actor in the classroom putting on a performance for the child. Hint* If you think that you are overdoing it in terms of energy and enthusiasm – you aren’t! Be exciting and spontaneous with your TPR – The more interesting and vivid your acting is the better chance your students will internalize the material.

TPR can also implement various sounds to aid in the effectiveness of the teaching tactics. For example, teachers can use cat “meows” to symbolizes the behavior of felines.  It is equally important to be animated and energetic to peak the student’s interest in the lesson materials and engage them properly. Body language can be a contagious factor – Utilize different props to create a conducive environment for TPR.

An example of a TPR motion would be for students to “repeat” –

  1. Point to your mouth and speak slowly
  2. Cuff your ear to indicate that you would like them to repeat
  3. If they don’t understand this gesture – Use your free hand in an open “come here” motion while cuffing your ear.

They will then make these connections within the movements you make to transmute to their own language and understanding.

Children have a huge capacity to learn languages within a short period of time. The reason they are able to adapt so quickly is due to the neuroplasticity at a young age that is much more malleable to external stimuli –Thus this is the perfect age to learn a new language.

Pushing your comfort zone is a must with TPR as it is a foreign world to ESL instructors who teach older ages. I was very uncomfortable with this in the beginning as I thought it would dissuade the parents and young children. Fortunately, TPR had the opposite effect and it is a MUST for every one of my classes!

To find out more about TPR – Read James Asher’s Official Book: Learning Another Language Through Actions.

Check out some great online teaching companies here:


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Happy Teaching!

Teacher Daniel 🙂

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