Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, October 18, 2004

TPR: After forty years, still a very good idea

By James J. Asher
(Reprinted with permission from Dr. Asher)

Dr. James J. Asher is the originator of the Total Physical Response (TPR). Dr. Asher has demonstrated how to apply TPR for best results at more than 500 elementary, secondary schools and universities around the world, including a 1983 lecture tour in Japan sponsored by JALT.  He is the recipient of many awards for excellence in teachingand research.  He is an emeritus professor of psychology and former associate dean at San Jose State University in San Jose, California.

Way back in 1965, I demonstrated a powerful linguistic tool in a pioneer experiment using the Japanese language with my research associate, Dr. Shirou Kunihira.  That tool is the Total Physical Response, now known worldwide as simply, TPR.  Since that time, scores of language classes using TPR in countries around the world have enjoyed successful results for students acquiring European, Asian, Indian and Semitic languages.

                    Why comprehension is important

TPR research opened up the concept that for children and adults acquiring another language in school, success can be assured if comprehension is developed before speaking. One important reason: Everywhere on earth in all languages throughout history, there is no instance of infants acquiring speaking before comprehension. Comprehension always comes first with speaking following perhaps a year later.

A second reason is that talking and comprehension are located in different parts of the brain. Talking comes from Broca's area located in the frontal lobe of the left brain. If there is damage in Broca's area, one may understand what people are saying but the person is unable to speak. Understanding or comprehension takes place in Wernicke's area located in the temporal lobe . If there is damage to Wernicke's area, one can speak but has difficulty understanding what others are saying. This has significance for language instruction which I will explain next.

                      Beware of "brain overload"

When the instructor in traditional classes asks students to "Listen and repeat after me!," this may be brain overload because both the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe in the brain light up at the same time resulting in slow-motion learning with short-term retention.  (Noted educator, Leslie Hart, calls "brain overload" a type of brain antagonistic instruction.)

                Well then, if comprehension is important,
       how about using translation to help students comprehend?

Unfortunately, translation does not help most students because there is no long-term understanding. When students translate, there is short-term comprehension which is erased the moment the student leaves the classroom, if not sooner.  The problem with translation is that the instructor has made an assertion which the critical left brain of the student perceives as a "lie."

For example, to claim that this is a "desk" and this is a "chair" and this is a "window" is absurd in the student's brain. The student, along with all other students in the classroom, have thousands of life experiences that validate this as "tsukue" and this as "isu" and this as "mado." Students simply do not believe the assertions by the instructor.

              What is the alternative to translation?

TPR is a powerful alternative to translation because we create experiences in the classroom that are "believable." If we ask students to be silent, listen to a direction and do exactly what the instructor does, we have created a "fact" which cannot be dismissed by the critical side of the student's brain.

Here is an example of how the student's brain is processing information at lightning speed: If "stand" does not mean to rise up from my chair, why did my body actually go from sitting to standing when I heard the instructor say, "Stand"?  If "walk" does not mean to move forward, why did my body walk forward when the instructor said, "Walk."?  These strange utterances must be valid.

TPR creates facts which make for long-term comprehension. At lightning velocity, the student's brain processes information like this: "I actually stood up when the instructor uttered the alien direction: 'Stand.' It is a fact.  It is true. It actually happened; therefore, I can store this in long-term memory." The result is TPR can achieve long-term retention in a few trials, often in one-trial.

    How to present a believable sample of the target language

Now I must refer you to these books: My first book: Learning Another Language Through Actions (in the 6th edition) and Ramiro Garcia's Instructor's Notebook: How to apply TPR for best results (in the 4th edition). I recommend that you follow the advice of Jim Martinez who successfully taught English in a private school in Argentina: "Read each book six times and each time you will discover something you did not know before about TPR."

            Once students actually understand, then what?

Once they understand, you can then use this skill to move over into Broca's area of the left brain with traditional exercises in
speaking, reading, and writing.  Then return to the right brain with more TPR to understand another sample. Then use that understanding to switch to speaking, reading, and writing.

                         The first order of business

The first objective in any excellent language program is enabling students to be comfortable and confident with the sounds, the grammatical patterns, and semantics of the new language. That can be accomplished with students of all ages including adults using concrete nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, and adverbs.

Do not underestimate the power of the concrete in acquiring another language. Everyone of us did it with our native language. One can acquire true fluency at a concrete level.

                        How about abstractions

Abstractions will come later, not necessarily by direct instruction but in the context of discourse. Traditional textbooks, in my
opinion, are notorious for trying unsuccessfully to force understanding of abstractions before students are ready.

Notice that when children acquire their first language, they become fluent native speakers at a concrete level of discourse; then gradually acquire abstractions in context or by asking direct questions such as: "Mother, what does 'government' mean?" Mother then explains using simple language that the child understands.

To break language apart into artificial categories such as phonology, vocabulary, grammar and semantics is of keen interest to teachers, but of no concern to students because in the process of achieving fluency with TPR, they internalize everything
simultaneously with no analysis, in the same way that children acquire their first language. Analysis into artificial categories
is fine to "polish" the target language for advanced students who are already fluent, but not for beginners or even intermediate students.

I do recommend, however, that five or ten minutes at the end of a session be open to curious students who prefer to ask questions about pronunciation or grammar.

                 Does TPR really help students with grammar?

It does. Eric Schessler's English Grammar through Actions is a fine little book showing how to TPR 50 grammatical features in English. We recommend that you use this as a supplement as you go along for pin-point instruction of specific grammatical features. With TPR, students understand grammar in the right brain but cannot tell you how grammar works. If your intent is getting specific pointsof grammar into the left brain for analysis, then Schessler's book can help.

Remember, the right brain internalizes without analysis for high-speed learning. The critical left brain must analyze everything which makes for agonizingly slow-motion learning. Excellent guidelines to keep in mind for teaching any subject come from Leslie Hart who calls left brain learning "brain antagonistic" instruction while right brain learning is "brain compatible" instruction. (For more on right-left brain research discoveries in more than 4,000 studies,read my books:Brainswitching: Learning on the Right Side of the Brain and The Super School: Teaching on the Right Side
of the Brain.)

    How to make the transition to speaking, reading, and writing?

After ten to twenty hours of TPR instruction, role reversal is one way to make the transition (students assume the role of
instructor to direct you and other students). Student-created skits, which they write and act out, are another way. Storytelling is a third option along with traditional pattern drills, and dialogues.

The books I mentioned will show you step-by-step how to be successful with role reversal and skit creation. Some new books by Blaine Ray (for high school and adults) and Todd McKay (for elementary and middle school) (see references below) show how to make the transition from classical TPR to TPR Storytelling (TPRS).

                     How to get started with TPR

Once you have read the books I recommend and you find TPR an attractive option, how should you begin? First, make no dramatic changes in what you are now doing. Sample a lesson or two from my book or Garcia's book with your own children or your neighbor's children. If neither are available, then try a lesson or two with your students. This will accomplish three things:

     1.  You become convinced that the approach really works;
     2.  You build your self-confidence because you can do it
         successfully; and
     3.  You smooth out your delivery.

Remember, the more you play with TPR-- yes, I said "play," the more insight you will gain about how this phenomenon really works.

Try TPR with your students for only five or ten minutes to introduce new material.  If you and your students are pleased with the result, try again in the next class meeting with another five or ten minutes.

                 Here are two more tips on using TPR:

     1. To escape cerebral overload, students should be silent when
        they experience TPR. Don't ruin the experience by demanding
        that they repeat every direction you have uttered.

     2. Use TPR only for new material that students have never
        experienced before. Of course, keep the sample at a concrete
        level rather than abstractions, which should be delayed until
        students are further along in the program.

                 TPR Issues for Teachers in Japan [& Asia In General]

For instructors who have limited skill in spoken English, the key, I think, is intelligibility. If the instructor's English is not perfect but intelligible, students will benefit from TPR experiences.  They will have something to work with which can be "polished" later by interacting with native speakers. This is my opinion, which is open to further research.

                   Working with mandated textbooks.

You are directed to use a traditional textbook selected by the Ministry of Education.  Now what?

You and your students can still benefit from TPR. The following suggestion comes from Dr. David Wolfe who was successful as supervisor of Foreign Language Instruction in the Philadephia School System and professor of Languages at Temple University. Dr. Wolfe recommends: Comb the book to list all adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and nouns that students can internalize with TPR. Do this before your students even open the book. Then when students open the book for the
first time, they encounter only "friendly creatures." This strategy transforms a "fearful" textbook into an attractive book that is an exciting challenge to students.

Here is a secret I will share with you: If I were the Minister of Education I would select Stephen Silver's Listen and Perform book for elementary and middle school children learning English, and follow up with Todd McKay's TPRS Storytelling books. For high school and adults, I would select Dr. Francisco Cabello's TPR in First Year English followed by Blaine Ray's  Look, I Can Talk seriesof TPR storytelling books. That plan would insure extraordinary success for at least 95 percent of students. For additional insurance that the plan will be successful nationwide, I would offer sophisticated TPR and TPRS workshops for language teachers.

For more articles about TPR, information about upcoming TPR workshops worldwide, and how to order TPR books mentioned in this article, visit www.tpr-world.com. For a printed copy of the TPR
Catalog,  download from the web or contact:
   Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.
   P.O. Box 1102, Los Gatos, CA 95031, USA
   Phone: 1-408-395-7600, Fax: 1-408-395-8440
   e-mail: tprworld@aol.com.


Asher, James J. (2004) A Simplified Guide to Statistics for Non-Mathematicians:

                        The  ABCs of  a successful research project
                       . Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks
                        Productions, Inc

Asher, James J.(2004).  The Weird and Wonderful World of Mathematical
                        Mysteries: Conversations with famous
                        scientists and mathematicians. Los Gatos, CA:
                        Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Asher, James J. (2003). Learning Another Language through Actions
                        (6th edition). Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks
                         Productions, Inc.

Asher, James.J. (2002). Brainswitching: Learning on the right side of
                        the brain. Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks
                        Productions, Inc.

Asher, James J. (2000). The Super School: Teaching on the right side
                        of the brain. Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks
                        Productions, Inc.

Cabello, Francisco (2004).TPR in First Year English. (Also available
                         in Spanish and French). Los Gatos, CA:
                         Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Garcia, Ramiro. (2001). Instructor's Notebook: How to apply TPR for
                   best results (4th edition). Los Gatos, CA: Sky
                   Oaks Productions, Inc.

Kunihira, Shirou and Asher, James J.
                  The strategy of the Total Physical Response: An
                  application to learning Japanese. International
                  Review of Applied Linguistics Vol III/4, 1965.
                 (The research in this publication is a follow-up
                  to the first documentary film showing three
                  12-year-old American boys acquiring a sample of
                  Japanese with TPR. Still photos from the motion
                  picture are reprinted in this ETJ Journal article.)
                  Video of the documentary may be ordered from Sky
                  Oaks Productions, Inc.

McKay, Todd. (2004). TPRS Storytelling: Especially for students in
                     elementary and middle school. (Available in
                     English, Spanish or French). Los Gatos, CA:
                     Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Ray, Blaine. (2004). Look, I Can Talk series (Available in English,
                     Spanish, French or German). Los Gatos, CA:
                     Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Schessler, Eric.(1999). English Grammar through Actions: How to TPR
                      50 grammatical features in English.
                      (Also available in Spanish or French).
                      Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Seely, Contee and Elizabeth Romijn. (2002) TPR is More than Commands
                      --At All Levels. Los Gatos, CA:
                      Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Silver, Stephen. (2003). Listen and Perform series (Available in
                         English, Spanish or French). Los Gatos, CA:
                         Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Silver, Stephen. (1986). The Command Book: How to TPR 2,000
                         vocabulary items in any language.
                         Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

* Special thanks to Jim Kahny for his helpful suggestions in the
  preparation of this article.