Dr. James J. Asher, a professor of psychology and former associate dean at San Jose State University, has degrees in psychology from the University of New Mexico and the University of Houston with postdoctoral training at the University of Washington (Linguistics), Standford University (Research in Educational Psychology), and the Defense Language Institute West Coast (Arabic). His research into language acquisition has been funded by grants from the Office of Education, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Defense, and the State of California.
He has written more than a hundred articles which appeared in publications such as Child Development, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Psychological Reports, The Journal of Special Education, The Modern Language Journal, The International Review of Applied Linguistics, The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, and Psychology Today.
In the past 25 years, Dr. Asher has been invited to demonstrate his stress-free “total physical response” approach at several hundred elementary, high schools and universities, including the University of California, Standford University, the University of Texas, New York University, the University of Hawaii, the University of Alaska, and Cambridge University in England. His classic video demonstrations of TPR with children and adults have been seen by thousands of people around the world.
– from the back cover of James J. Asher, Learning Another Language Through Actions
“Dr. James J. Asher is a Professor of Psychology at San Jose State University in San Jose, California and the founder of TPR (Total Physical Response).”
TPR (and TPRS) is built on the theory and research of many language acquisition specialists and continues to develop according to the findings of classroom experimentation and new brain research. Three key players in the development of this method are worth exploring in more depth. The following summaries by Elizabeth Skelton, in her book Putting It Together: TPRS as a Sheltering Strategy for ESL provide a more in-depth understanding of the theories of James Asher, Stephen Krashen, and Blaine Ray.
James Asher´s research on second language acquisition in the 1960s provided the rationale for the well-known Total Physical Response Method, which has been used effectively in language classrooms for over 40 years (Asher, 2000). The TPR method asks language learners to respond physically to commands in the target language, which are first modeled by the instructor. Once students have acquired the vocabulary necessary to understand a series of commands, the instructor delays modeling the command. Soon, the instructor can completely remove the model of the command and simply ask students to perform on their own. Adding novel commands, or recombing vocabulary in a new way, is another way TPR builds comprehension. From here, as they say, the sky is the limit. Amazing results have been accomplished by experienced teachers who are able to bring the student right up to the intermediate level.
Here is an example of this TPR process. The teacher says, “Stand up” while standing up. The students simply stand up with the teacher. They do not have to repeat the command or respond verbally. Next the teacher says, “Sit down” while sitting down. The students respond by sitting down. Now the teacher may add another element by saying, “Touch the table” while touching the table. After modeling and practicing these three elements several times in a variety of orders, the teacher may now give the command, but delay the modeling. If the students respond accurately and quickly, the teacher can give the command without modeling at all. Finally, the students are ready to perform a novel command such as “Sit on the table.” They have acquired the word sit and table, but they have not yet heard “Sit on the table.” If the students hesitate to respond, the teacher simply models the action. This process continues throughout the lesson as new vocabulary and structures are added and novel commands challenge students to demonstrate complete comprehension.
TPR is built on four main principles. First, comprehension precedes production. As language learners, our ability to comprehend a message greatly exceeds out ability to produce that same message. Many times English Language Learners seem able to follow classroom procedures and participate in classroom projects, but are reluctant to speak or respond verbally. Asher´s research in second language acquisition illustrates this phenomenon, which we now accept as a normal developmental phase.
Because students need time to acquire aural skills, TPR allows for a receptive “silent period.” This “silent period” is the second principle of TPR. When students are listening and responding to the new language, they may only respond with full-body actions, nods, gestures, pointing, and “yes” or “no.” Allowing this silent period is critical for successful language learning. According to Asher´s research, forced production may actually retard language acquisition. TPR enables teachers to assess comprehension without requiring verbal output from beginning level students.
TPR is also built on a key principle from first language acquisition. Asher noted that babies and toddlers mainly acquire their first language by responding to commands from their caregivers. Parents all over the world give their children “commands” or speak in the imperative mode expecting their children to respond physically, not necessarily respond verbally. When a parent or caregiver says, “Come here and show me your toy,” they expect the young child to walk over with the toy. If the child doesn´t respond, the parent may repeat the command and give a gesture or model of what they want. This type of communication style is reflected throughout the day with babies and toddlers including such common commands as, “Raise your arms so I can take your shirt off.” “Let´s sit down and read a book,” and “Go get your shoes.” First language learners often listen and respond physically to this kind of language for 18 months to three years before they begin speaking. Second language learners can move through this silent period faster, but Asher´s research demonstrates the importance of using the imperative mode at beginning stages of language acquisition for second language learners, too.
The “motor skills hypothesis” is another key principle of the TPR method. Asher hypothesized that there is “memory in movement” claiming that what we learn with our bodies will be remembered longer. He noticed that once you learn to ride a bike, you do not need to relearn the process every time you get on a bike, even if you haven´t ridden in years. The memory of the skill is stored in the body in “muscle memory.” Asher hypothesized that language learned with the body could also be stored in long term memory. Students who experience language learning with their entire bodies can acquire vocabulary and concepts faster and retain them longer.
– from Elizabeth Skelton, Putting It Together
Click here to continue reading the summary on Dr. Stephen Krashen and his contributions to the methodology.
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).
Childlike acquisition of language
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
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.
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.
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
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
- Richards, J. C. and Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.