Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

by Kristin Dodds

One of the key things that interested me about TPR is the research that shows that it facilitates rapid and long term recall of vocabulary, especially for beginning level students. The traditional methods I have used in class have not been effective at doing this.

Another appeal of TPR was its fun, active, low-stress approach to teaching language. Last year I taught adult immigrants at night. They arrived after a long day of work and found it very hard to sit through lectures or drills. I tried to play games with them, but there was no consistent theory or research behind what I was doing. Therefore, I was delighted to read about TPR as it seemed to fit my needs perfectly.

I explored a number of TPR sources in order to get more information about its effectiveness, the research behind it, and the TPR resources available to teachers.

An excellent place to start with TPR is Ramiro Garcia's Instructor's Notebook [1]. This resource contains detailed suggestions on how to use the method. The book includes specific commands, TPR games, assessment and testing tools, and a wealth of other information. It also contains background information on the method:

Dr. James Asher introduced, in the early sixties, the concept of comprehending the target language through body movements. He went against the audio-lingual method, which starts with production and is a slow motion, high stress way of learning. Asher felt that if the audio-lingual method was turned inside out and the production was moved to the middle of the training program, language instruction would work for most, if not all students.

Comprehension should come first and continue until students are comfortable and confident in their understanding. Comprehension should also continue until students show a sign that they are ready to begin the transition to production. Asher's idea of comprehension is one that will produce long-term retention. Therefore, believability is important. If the input is understood but not believable, the result is only short term retention. Believability can be achieved by working the target language through body movements. This is the essence of TPR.

Asher [2] calls this comprehension through physical behavior, 'language body dialogues'. You hold a conversation with the student when you give a direction and the student responds with an action. Language body dialogues play to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is the uncritical side. That may explain why input in this manner has high believability for students.

This is what Asher calls the silent period, which is directly related to the silent period from infancy to about 18 months. During the silent period of infancy, there are thousands of language body dialogues when adults direct infants with commands. Learning a language through TPR produces internalization, which is a right brain activity. Memory is different in that it tends to be a left brain activity achieved through repetition. In memory, the goal is to retrieve on cue a copy of the input. Internalization is long term memory that a person can not only retrieve, but can manipulate. As comprehension is internalized, there comes a point when students are ready to produce (such as talk, read and write). Comprehension continues, even once production begins. "

One excellent TPR resource is Todd McKay's TPR index cards [3] (sequence / chain commands and narrative). These cards provide a series of commands that slowly build in complexity. They are ideal for beginning level learners. Everything is scripted for the teacher, so as to cut down on time consuming lists and having to fumble through papers or books.

Bertha Segal Cook [4] highlights another important point. She points out that by stressing comprehension and allowing for a silent period, TPR eventually leads to natural, spontaneous speech. Traditional methods, which force speech, often lead to embarrassed and rehearsed speech production.

TPR is based on the concept that language acquisition can be greatly accelerated through the use of kinesthetic behavior (body movement). Dr. Asher noted in his early work that young children without schooling easily comprehended and uttered thousands of sentences, but both high school and college students, under professional teachers, found the process of 2nd language learning a stressful and unsuccessful experience. TPR reproduces the natural order of acquisition. Listening skill is far in advance of speaking skill. For instance, it is common to observe young children, who are not yet able to produce more than one word utterances, to demonstrate perfect understanding when an adult says 'Run to Grandma and give her a kiss.'

Understanding the spoken language should be developed in advance of speaking. In 1st language acquisition, adults will manipulate children's physical behavior by a massive number of commands. So, understanding should be developed through movement of the student's body. The instructor can utter commands to manipulate student behavior. Most of the grammatical structure of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learned through the skillful use of the imperative by the instructor.

Speech emerges naturally in the 1st language, it is not forced. Therefore, do not attempt to force speaking from students. As the students internalize the target language through understanding of what is heard, there will be a point of readiness to speak. The individual will spontaneously begin to produce utterances. Asher stresses that speech production (expressive stages) is natural, developmental and a spontaneous reaction that follows internalization (receptive stages - comprehending) of the target language's code.

One criticism of TPR is that it is only useful for beginning level students. Some teachers complain that the commands become tedious for intermediate level students and that more complex language is difficult to teach strictly with commands. To address this perceived limitation, Blaine Ray and Contee Seely developed TPR Storytelling [5], an excellent method for expanding TPR to the intermediate and advanced levels.

Ray and Seely support the use of "classic" TPR at the beginning levels, and as a means of pre-teaching key vocabulary at intermediate and advanced levels. "In using TPR, everything is comprehensible. When students don't understand, the word (s) gets modeled. Teaching vocabulary so that students experience it as something real or very realistic and therefore making it highly believable, is most effectively done by teaching words through actions - TPR. One reason that TPR produces long term recall, Asher suggests, is that "in the initial learning, there was keen activation of the kinesthetic sensory system or 'muscle learning' ". By using your muscles, you can remember. TPR words can be demonstrated with an action and easily understood without translation. These words are taught with commands and the students respond with total physical responses.

After the first exposure, each item is practiced with physical responses. TPR teaches words quickly and in chunks. However, the problem with TPR is that only a small percentage of the words in a language can be modeled and easily understood without translation (ex. government). So, TPR is effective as long as the teacher has interesting and non-repetitive novel commands and it is used with words that are easily demonstrated and understood. TPR can be used regularly and effectively in the pre-storytelling stage (TPR Storytelling)."

After the beginning level, Ray and Seely introduce the idea of storytelling.... the teacher tells stories and has students act them out physically, playing various roles and characters. Each story is then re-told two or three more times in order to facilitate comprehension. Sometimes the story is re-told from a different point of view, or using a different time frame (past, present, progressive, future, etc...).

The above sources sum up the basic methods and resources of TPR. There is also a good body of research that demonstrates strong benefits for TPR when compared with traditional methods.

A study by Valerian Postovsky [6] supports the silent period and focus on comprehension that are key elements of the TPR method. In TPR, production is delayed until comprehension has been extensively internalized. Evidence supporting the hypothesis that delaying production is beneficial may be found in a doctoral dissertation by Valerian Postovsky who was at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. The subjects of Postovsky's study were military personnel ages 18-24 with about 2.75 years of college education. The results showed that overall proficiency in Russian was significantly better when oral practice was delayed at the beginning of language instruction until comprehension of spoken Russian was extensively internalized.

Another very important benefit of TPR is that students like it. In a study at the University of Texas, Swaffar and Woodruff [7] compared the retention rate of beginning level students in traditional German classes with those in TPR classes. They found that the attrition rate (from level one to two) in traditional classes was about 50%, while it was only 25% in the TPR classes. This is an important point, as attrition is a problem in many language programs.

The Teaching Methods Textbook [8] referred to a study that compared TPR to audio-lingual methods. "After 45 hours of instruction, the TPR group was compared to the audio-lingual group, whose hours ranged from 75 to 200. The TPR group exceeded all other groups in listening skills. After 90 hours of instruction, the group was given a form of the Pimsleur Spanish Proficiency Test that was intended for students who had completed 150 hours of college instruction, audio-lingual style.

Even with almost no direct instruction in reading and writing, the students were beyond the 75th percentile for level I and beyond the 65th percentile for level II. These studies clearly indicate that TPR produced better results than the audio-lingual method. Asher attributed the success to the fact that TPR utilizes implicit learning, whereas audio-lingual methods rely on explicit learning. These two concepts roughly parallel Krashen's acquisition/learning distinction."

Dr. Asher [9] himself, the developer of TPR, summarized the benefits of the method as follows, "I have demonstrated in laboratory studies and by language teachers in thousands of classrooms around the world in European, Asian, Semitic and Indian languages that TPR is perhaps the most powerful tool in a teacher's linguistic tool box.

It is powerful for three reasons. First, TPR works for almost all students of any age. Second, it is high speed language acquisition (students comprehend the target language in chunks rather than word by word). Third, study after study has shown that the skillful application of TPR results in long term retention lasting up to years. My conclusion is: this powerful linguistic tool of TPR rates special attention in a course of its own followed up with practice by students in the field monitored by "personal trainers" - the professional college teaching staff."

Because TPR has been around since the late 1960's, there is a wealth of research to support its effectiveness. TPR has been shown to be superior to audio-lingual and other traditional methods. It has been shown to produce long term retention of vocabulary and grammar. It has also been shown to reduce attrition in foreign language programs.

My practicum experience at AUA (which utilizes a silent period and a passive listening method), also convinces me of the efficacy of TPR. I have had one class at AUA that approximated TPR methods and it was fantastic. I learned the vocabulary for the parts of the body very rapidly and retained it. By contrast, it takes me much longer to understand and acquire language in the passive listening classes.

Overall I believe that TPR is an excellent method for beginning level classes, and with the addition of TPR Storytelling techniques it is an excellent method for all levels. The research behind it, and the wealth of available TPR resources and materials, makes this a very good method for ESL teachers who are interested in Natural Approaches to language teaching. I hope, in the near future, to gain hands on experience with TPR.

Ramiro Garcia, 2001, Instructor's Notebook How to Apply TPR for Best Results, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc., pp. I-16 to I-18

Asher, J. 1993. In Garcia (2001)

Todd McKay, 2003, TPR Index Cards in English, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc., pp.1 & 5

Bertha Segal Cook, 1999, Teaching English Through Action, Berty Segal, Inc., pp.ii-iii

Blaine Ray and Contee Seely, 2003, Fluency Through TPR Storytelling: Achieving Real Language Acquisition in School, Blaine Ray Workshops and Command Performance Language Institute, pp. 9-11, 13-14

Valerian Postovsky, 1974, "Effects of Delay in Oral Practice at the beginning of the 2nd Language Learning" - Modern Language Journal 58, pp. 229-239. In Eric J. Schessler, 1997, English Grammar Through Actions, 2nd Edition, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc., p.9

Swaffar, Janet & Woodruff, Margaret. 1978. "Language for Comprehension: Focus on Reading". Modern Language Journal, 62 (1978): 27-32

Patricia A. Richard-Amato, 2003, Making It Happen From Interactive to Participatory Language Teaching Theory and Practice, 3rd Edition, Longman, pp.159-160

James Asher, 2003, Learning Another Language Through Actions, 6th Edition, Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.