What is TPR

ALO7 tutor using TPR to teach the word ‘nose’

When I was a university student studying to be a middle school math teacher, I learned all kinds of handy techniques for teaching complicated math concepts. And, I also learned how to create a dynamic classroom. Twenty years later, I began my adventure in online ESL teaching with ALO7 and my extraordinary Chinese students. I thought the complicated part would be dealing with technology and the distance between my students and me. Instead, I found that it was more intimidating to learn and change my methodology, not the technology. The main change for me was to learn to use TPR, which stands for Total Physical Response.

What is TPR?

According to The Teacher Toolkit, “Total Physical Response (TPR) is a method of teaching language or vocabulary concepts by using physical movement to react to verbal input. The process mimics the way that infants learn their first language, and it reduces student inhibitions and lowers stress. The purpose of TPR is to create a brain link between speech and action to boost language and vocabulary learning.”¹

TPR was developed by Dr. James Asher, of San Jose State University, in the late 1960’s. It is based on the theory that infants don’t learn language by memorizing lists, so why should adults who are learning a second language? Babies learn languages as they watch the physical responses to their words. If they say “mama” and mama gets excited, smiles and exclaims, “She’s looking at me! She’s saying my name!”, the baby sees the reaction, and her brain connects the word with the actions.

As a person is learning a second language, their brain will continue to work the same way and connect visuals with the language skills. Dr. Asher believes that TPR engages both hemispheres of the brain, which is useful for language learning. He also believes that TPR helps a student to learn with less stress, in a more fun and engaging manner without the burden of memorization.

How to use TPR in the online ESL classroom

Once we understand the answer to the question ‘What is TPR?,” the next question for us as online educators is “How do we apply this to teaching English through the internet?” Here are some ideas to get your TPR creativity flowing:

  • Simon Says is a great way to have our students learn body parts and actions. Use the imperative tense and tell your students to “Touch your head!” or “Jump!” The actions along with listening to the words will create a connection between the auditory and kinesthetic learning.
  • Guessing games are another fun and engaging way of learning through our online portals. First, I send each student a word to act out in their personal chat box. Next, the students take turns acting while the others guess the secret word. These words can be anything from verbs like crying or laughing to nouns like lion or bird. The kids are most creative, and we all end up laughing quite a bit.
  • Movement songs are also fun and engaging for younger students. I still remember the actions from “I’m a Little Teapot” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and I was probably two when I learned them! The students are acting out vocabulary words, learning language structures and having fun all at the same time. Meanwhile, their brains are making connections that we don’t fully understand but will help them to retain new words. And, the addition of music while teaching helps to form even more of these types of connections.
  • Show and Tell can also be used as a TPR method in your online classroom. Grab a book, open the book, close the book, read the book. Have the students do the same. So many of their senses are involved in this process, and they are engaging their physical bodies as well as their intellectual capacities.
  • The ALO7 Giphy Catalog is a great resource for gleaning ideas for actions you can use to model words and concepts. Many ALO7 tutors contributed video snippets of their best moves to make this compilation a success. Here is a sample from the collection:

Swing Total Physical Response GIF by ALO7.com - Find & Share on GIPHY

Have fun and feel free to use TPR in your online ESL classroom, knowing that you are creating a stress-free learning environment for students. At the same time, you are helping them to understand English in a practical way as they connect their memory with real-life actions.

1 “Total Physical Response (TPR).” The-teacher-toolkit. Accessed November 19, 2018. http://www.theteachertoolkit.com/index.php/tool/total-physical-response-tpr.

Jan Millsaps has been an advocate for the improvement of education models in Latin America for the last fifteen years. She is making a difference one classroom at a time. Jan became an online tutor with ALO7 in late summer of 2017 to help pay off medical bills and to provide for future retirement, if there ever will be such a thing in her life.

Jan has a B.S. in Education, concentrating in Reading (K-12) and Math (6-9). However, she has taught every subject and grade level throughout her 25-year career. The last fifteen years have been dedicated to teaching ESL the majority of the time. She also continues to teach math and reading.

Jan believes education is the key to societal development and works hard to make a difference in the lives of her students both online and offline. She is passionate that her students reach their full potential and become world changers.


  • James Devine says:

    Wonderful article, Jan! Very interesting to learn the history of TPR! You’re absolutely right when you explain that TPR relieves the stress and anxieties of learning a new language, from the students’ perspective. It is an engaging exercise that allows room for fun all while creating, as you say, a “stress-freelearning environment.” Thanks for the insightful read!

  • Lela Chavers says:

    Great advice, Jan! I love the list of ways to incorporate TPR in the classroom! I have definitely found that using as much TPR as possible helps my students to understand and recall what we are learning in class.

  • Brandi Graham says:

    Great article! To be honest when I first began this journey using TPR felt awkward, and uncomfortable- and maybe even down right silly. Now I can’t imagine teaching a beginner’s class without it. You really can see the connections the children make to movement, and language. Great game suggestions, I plan on trying some of those!

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