Elemental Linguistics

The Essential Elements of Linguistics

A waitress brought a man a cup of coffee and a donut. The man looked at the donut and said, “Why is my donut... 6 – Language Learning with Action

A waitress brought a man a cup of coffee and a donut. The man looked at the donut and said, “Why is my donut smashed?” The waitress said, You told me, ‘Bring me a cup of coffee. Get me a donut. And step on it!”

In this joke, the waitress is playing with the meaning of the words “step on it.” This phrase can mean, “step on the donut with your foot.” And it can mean, “hurry up!” Of course, the man just meant, “hurry up,” but many jokes play with the double meanings of words like this.

Let’s look at the man’s use of language. He used commands: “bring me,” “get me,” and “step on it.” These commands are called imperatives, and we use them every day. In one language teaching method, commands are key. The method is called Total Physical Response (TPR), and it was developed by the linguist James Asher (1969).

The Principles of TPR
In basic terms, TPR gets learners to connect speech and action. Teachers give learners commands, and learners respond with actions. Asher believes that children acquire language with instinct. With this instinct, listening comes first. Children listen first because they need to respond to the spoken commands of parents. After they build a foundation through listening, they begin speaking.

In this way, Asher sees first and second language acquisition as similar. For Asher, TPR uses the right brain of learners and traditional language teaching approaches use the left brain. In over simple terms, the left brain likes analysis and logic. The right brain likes intuition and movement. And Asher believes that physical movement works as a right brain activity.

For example, a boy follows the commands of his parents. “Johnny pick up the ball. Throw the ball to daddy! Now catch the ball! Good catch.” For Asher, As Johnny responds to these commands, his left brain watches his right brain. And over time, the left brain learns language and the ability to speak. That is, by listening first, Johnny gets the skill of listening comprehension. After this, speech comes naturally. Of course, in reality, brains work in a much more complicated way.

TPR stands as a comprehension approach. Learners do not need to speak at first, and Asher claims that this lowers stress; that is, it lowers the affective filter. Students enjoy TPR like a game. The teacher makes it fun. The classroom has a positive feeling, and Asher believes that this promotes acquisition. With TPR, teachers mostly use imperative commands. Asher believes that imperatives give all the grammar students need.

The Procedures of TPR
Teachers can practice and become experts in different teaching methods. This takes a lot of time and effort. However, for TPR teachers can start simple and learn to use the basics rather quickly. We can follow these simple steps.

With Step One, with her prepared script, the teacher says the commands and the students respond. At first, the teacher can ask a few students to respond, then a few others, then the whole class. With Step Two, the teacher asks questions, and the students answer with gestures. For example, the teacher says, “Where is the ball?” And the students point to the ball. With Step Three, the teacher gives a copy of the script to students. The students speak the script, and the students (and teacher) respond. With Step Four, the teacher writes new words on the board in sentences. The teacher speaks and acts out the sentences. And the students copy the sentences from the board.

Problems with TPR
TPR may sound like an easy teaching method, but teachers find some parts of it difficult. First, when using commands, the teacher needs a clearly prepared script. Teachers can prepare a few scripts with relative ease, but they may find it hard to prepare a large number of scripts for a whole term. Moreover, they may find it hard to find ready-made scripts. The book  “Live Action English” has been a popular TPR book. It presents a number of great scripts, but it is not that easy to use. To use the book successfully, teachers will need to prepare a lot of objects and realia to go with the scripts.

In addition, some students may feel that TPR lessons are not serious enough. Teachers may need to explain the reasons why TPR works and why it is a good way to learn. (See more below.) Moreover, Asher claims that students can learn most grammar structures with TPR. But that seems unrealistic simply because teachers will not use most grammar structures when doing TPR. Therefore, we cannot use TPR alone to help students reach advanced linguistic levels.

In spite of these problems, teachers can easily use TPR in short lessons, especially in beginning and intermediate classes. Ideally, teachers would prepare a set of TPR scripts. They could use these scripts in mini-lessons over the course of a school term. This would allow students to do spaced repetition and interleaving of the material. With TPR, students connect language to action. Thus, they seem to experience the language in a richer and fuller way than with paper-based study. And with movement and action, students will probably be more relaxed, delighted, and awake than with traditional lessons.


  1. In many classes, teachers ask students to speak on the first day. But with TPR, teachers delay speaking. What is good, and what is bad about delaying speaking practice?
  2. Would you like to use TPR in your classes? Why or why not?

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock is a professor of English linguistics in the Faculty of Economics at Senshu University.