The magic of TPR

Total Physical Response (known as TPR in the biz) is pure magic!! I know of no easier, faster, or more fun way to get a lot of language into my little darlings’ brains for the long haul. And on top of that,  it’s a great way to release their wiggles out and get them focused. And if your little darlings are anything like my little darlings, they need both: to release their wiggles and focus their attention!

TPR method created by Dr. Asher where each vocabulary word or target structure (phrase of several words) has an assigned motion and as the teacher says the word/structure, the students demonstrate their comprehension by responding physically. Wanna know more?! Read on, dear reader!

TPR Step by step:

  • Teacher introduces a new word/ phrase by writing it on the board with it’s English translation. Almost always it’s introduced in the 3rd person singular (at least in Spanish…not sure about other languages!! We do it that way in Spanish to give our little darlings lots of exposure to those pesky stem changing verbs!) Then the teacher introduces the motion to accompany the word or structure. (Sometimes I ask the class to help me think of a motion, other times I just make it up and show it to them. Some Rock Star teachers use the ASL motion for each vocab word, which I think is SO COOL, because students getting two languages for the price of one…but I’m not there yet!)
  • Teacher says the word and students do the motion. Teacher says the word and changes it slightly… Maybe the word is “goes” and the teacher tells them “goes fast”, “goes slowly”, “goes dancing” or whatever.
  • Teacher introduces another word/structure, and then goes back and forth between both words as students motion their little hearts out.
  • Teacher adds another word/structure and then proceeds to mix and mingle the new structures with ones they’ve already acquired previously.
  • As the teacher says a word, she gestures with the new ones to help everyone catch up, but slowly holds back, waiting for the class to gesture first, before showing the gesture.  The teacher is watching for immediate responses (indicating they’re getting pretty good at that word/structure) or hesitation, which means they need a whole lot more repetition.
  • In classical TPR words/structures were introduced in groups of 3. I generally do 3-6 words at a time, because I’ve got a long block period!
  • Then there’s a “quiz” (which admin LOVE, by the way!)…after the teacher feels pretty confident that the students have the new words down, she tells everyone to close their eyes and students respond with the motion. The teacher is scanning the room, but mostly watching her “Pace Students” (formerly known as barometer students- those are the kiddos who need a bit more time to catch on.) Once the teacher sees that  they’ve got it, it’s a good indicator that the class has internalized the new structures and is ready to move on.
  • Then we use those new words in a story, or in a reading, or a movie talk or whatever…here’s a video of me teaching the words that will be important in the Papel, roca, tijera Movie Talk that we’ll do the following class.

Wanna see it?


A few tips if you’re just getting started:

  • Participation can’t be optional (ever, really, but especially for TPR to do it’s magic!) Early on in the video above, I say, “Show me va…I need to see everyone…show me va, por favor“. When I see kiddos who are taking a break and not motioning, I make a general statement to the class like “I don’t see everyone motioning” or “Join the party!” or “Let’s try that one again with everyone this time!” Almost always that’s enough to pull them in. If it’s not, my next step is to move near them and give them a big old smile and  keep teaching, hopeful that they’ll join in the fun. If I have kiddos who just flat out refuses, I’ll drop it for the moment but speak to them afterwards class. Remember, you will never win a power struggle with a teenager, so don’t set yourself up to fail in front of your whole class! Been there, done that, never again!
  • Tips from Jason: This summer at iFLT, I observed Jason Fritz, genius of TPR, TPRS and all things CI in general, and I was reminded of a few important things:
    • The teacher has to stop gesturing at some point! If the teacher keeps gesturing as she’s asking students to gesture,  it’s just a game of copy cat and you don’t know if they’re acquiring anything!
    • After kiddos get good at their new motions, he makes it more novel by giving commands to different groups. In his classes, he has students who are assigned to different countries, so he’ll say things like “Panama dances” “Argentina eats” “Panama cries” “Mexico dances”…. it’s pretty cool to watch…he’s like this master conductor and all the students are focused and playing their part.
  • Recycle your structures often.  I keep a running list of their TPR structures so they’re ready to go for a quick review. Have 5 extra minutes at the end of class? TPR it is! Need to wake them up? Have them stand and give them some instructions. Start slow and go faster and faster to get them giggling.  As we’re reading together as a whole class and we come across a structure we’ve  previously motioned, I ask them to motion it then we carry on with reading. It’s pretty incredible to see how doing a motion with a word locks it into their long term memory… frequently during “Celebrations of Knowledge” (AKA tests!) I’ll see students quietly gesturing to themselves as they’re writing to help them recall a word.
  • Use of English: I’m sure some will watch my video and criticize my use of English, and granted, there is kind of a lot. I say “show me” and not “Muéstrenme” frequently, but I’m doing it intentionally, so hear me out! I’ve found that kids are most focused on their new structures and motions when they’re isolated. It feels like when everything is in Spanish, something is lost, there’s not the laser focus I love about TPR. To each his own…you do your thing, I’ll do mine!
  • Sound Effects: It’s fun to do sound effects for words with your motions…if your class can handle it. Some wild classes can NOT handle making sound effects…we’ll the make the sound effects quite well, the problem is stopping the sound effects. For those classes, all their motions are silent and focused and that works for them. But for classes that can handle sound effects, so we make the creeeeeek sound while motioning the opening a door for abre  (open) or the shriek of terror that goes with tiene miedo (is afraid). It probably doesn’t do anything extra for their Spanish skills, but it does make it more fun!Another thing I really love to do, for classes who can handle is is to give them something useful to say along with their motion. So while gesturing quiere (wants) they say “por fa, por fa” or for recibe (gets, receives) they gesture and say ¿para mí? (For me?)  Try it out, if you’re class can’t stay focused, toss it out and have them motion silently. If they can do it and stay focused, load them up with all the language you can!
  • For the formative “close your eyes” quiz: Before you ask your kids to close their eyes in class, they’ve got to trust you AND have a really good reason to do so! The first few times we do it, I tell them it’s so I can see which structures they’ve internalized and which ones need more practice. And I’ll also tell them that after students do the motion with their eyes closed, I’ll call on someone who knows the answer for a quick translation. So imagine their eyes are closed, (mine are open! I’m watching them!) and I say “Show me quiere” Students motion, I scan the room, check on a Pace Student and then ask a strong student who is confidently motioning “Caleb, what does quiere mean?” And Caleb, still with his eyes closed, announces “She or he wants” and then I say another structure and we begin again.  I like doing the quick translation for 2 reasons, it’s just another reinforcement for my not so confident/strong/with it kiddos and it’s like a proverbial high five for my rock star students.  And one more thing…if your class is one that does sound effects with motions, instruct them to motion silently during the quiz, just so their neighbor isn’t motioning based on the sound. You’re checking for comprehension here!

Try it! It’s so fun!  And if you’re already pretty comfortable with TPR in your toolbox, have you tried the TPR game Screaming Ninjas, inspired by Sr. Wooly? My little darlings love it!

Hope your school year is off to a great start!


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