What is TPR?:

I am inserting some excellent information written by Dr. James J.Asher, the originator of TPR. It will provide you with the basic concepts and philosophy of this superb approach, and will also answer some of the questions most frequently asked by teachers and administrators. Read on, learn, and enjoy!

                     Berty Segal Cook


The Total Physical Response, known world-wide as TPR
by James J. Asher, Ph.D.

From experimental research and trials in hundreds of language classrooms around the world in scores of languages, we know more about how TPR works than any other idea in second language learning. For a detailed review of this research, see my book: Learning Another Language Through Actions. (See order form.)


TPR is based on the premise that the human brain has a biological program for acquiring any natural language on earth - including the sign language of the deaf. The process is visible when we observe how infants internalize their first language.
The secret is a unique "conversation" between the parent and infant. For example, the first conversation is a parent saying, "Look at daddy. Look at daddy." The infant's face turns in the direction of the voice and daddy exclaims, "She's looking at me! She's looking at me!" Dr. Asher calls this "a language-body conversation" because the parent speaks and the infant answers with a physical response such as looking, smiling, laughing, turning, walking, reaching, grasping, holding, sitting, running, and so forth.
Notice that these "conversations" continue for many, many months before the child utters anything more intelligible than "mommy" or "daddy." Although the infant is not yet speaking, the child is imprinting a linguistic map of how the language works. Silently, the child is internalizing the patterns and sounds of the target language.
When the child has decoded enough of the target language, speaking appears spontaneously. The infant's speech will not be perfect, but gradually, the child's utterances will approximate more and more that of a native speaker.

Children and adults experience the thrill of immediate understanding when you apply this powerful concept in your classroom.
Here is what we now know:

  1. The dropout rate of second language students in a traditional program can be as high as 95%. Studies at the University of Texas and elsewhere show that this stunning attrition can be reversed when TPR is a central feature of the language program. The reason that TPR dramatically reduces attrition is this: TPR is a confidence-builder. Students of all ages including adults experience instant success in understanding an alien language. They remark: "Hey, this isn't so bad! I understand what she is saying. I didn't know I could do this. I feel great!"
  2. TPR is aptitude-free. Academic aptitude is a negligible factor when TPR is applied by a skilled and talented teacher. In a traditional language program, principals screen "low" academic students from foreign language classes under the assumption that, "They simply can't do it!" Everyone is surprised when disadvantaged children who experience difficulty in class after class in a traditional school, enjoy success in a TPR class. These students experience the exhilaration of being competitive with the all "A" students.
  3. Contrary to the widely-held belief that children have a linguistic advantage over adults, studies with Spanish, Russian, and Japanese show that when adults play the game of learning another language on a "level playing field" with children, adults consistently outperform children, except for pronunciation. TPR provides that "level playing field." In a traditional class, adults endure the handicap of sitting in rows of chairs while an instructor performs and performs and performs. In a TPR class, the students perform and perform and perform while the instructor is the director of the play. Note that this is exactly how children acquire another language so quickly while living in a foreign country. Children are silent but respond to directions from caretakers and other children. Children act in response to hundreds of directions uttered in the alien language such as "Come here." "Put on your coat." "Throw me the ball." "Walk faster." etc. This is a linguistic luxury that their parents living in the same country do not experience.
  4. Studies with Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Russian demonstrate that TPR is "brain compatible," meaning there is short and long-term retention that is striking and statistically significant across studies. Retention with TPR is analogous to riding a bicycle. Even if years have elapsed since acquiring the skill, after a few warm up trials, proficiency returns.
  5. TPR seems to work effectively for children and adults. There is no age barrier. The only caveat is that if the language training starts after puberty, the probability is almost certain that one will have at least some accent in speaking the second language, no matter how many years one lives in the foreign country.
  6. TPR seems to work for most languages including the sign language of the deaf and the language of mathematics. Math education is even more challenging than foreign language education because, in the USA, we spend more on remedial mathematics than all other forms of math education combined. Traditional programs in both math and foreign languages share a common flaw, in my judgment. Both specialties play to half the brain and usually it is the wrong half.
  7. TPR can be the major focus of a language program or an extremely effective supplement.


  1. Instant understanding of the target language, regardless of academic aptitude
  2. High Speed Long-term retention
  3. Stress-free

Is TPR a method, an approach or a tool?
A student asked this question on my e-mail. I don't think that it matters how you classify TPR. My answer, however, is that TPR is a powerful right-brain tool at all levels of second language instruction. The tool works best in the hands of a skilled and talented instructor. I think that colleges and universities have been frankly negligent in not training future language teachers to be highly proficient in the handling of this powerful tool. A cursory mention of TPR in a laundry list of methods and approaches is not enough to build skill in the application of TPR. It needs a special course along with hands-on experience monitored by a senior instructor who is also skilled in the intricate applications of TPR.

Why have college and university teacher trainers underestimated the value of TPR?
I am speculating but I believe it works like this: Professors, especially in public colleges and universities, are not concerned with enrollments. The smaller the class size, the less one's workload. Compensation is not tied to class size. The motivation is for fewer students, not more. Therefore, there is little interest in a powerful tool that will attract and retain hundreds of students in the language program.

When does TPR not work?
This is a fair question. Here is the answer: Any novelty, if carried on too long, will trigger adaptation. No matter how exciting and productive the innovation, people will tire of it. They no longer respond. It is important to neutralize adaptation by switching continually from one activity to another. TPR is magical to jump start people of all ages into the target language. Instructors are perceived by their students as "miracle workers." This is a heady experience for any instructor. The tendency then is to imagine that TPR is a panacea to solve all problems. The instructor continues day after day, until the students are exhausted and mutiny with, "Please, not another direction. Can't we do something else." At this point the instructor concludes, "Hey, this TPR is only good at the beginning." Of course, this is an illusion. The tool can be used at all levels to help students internalize new vocabulary and grammatical features. But, this requires a conservative application of this powerful tool. Sure, use it in the beginning to catapult students into the target language, then withdraw the technique and save it for future use downstream in training. This is the skillful use of TPR. How to do this successfully is not obvious to most instructors.
For ideas on switching activities, see Ramiro Garcia's Instructor's Notebook: How to Apply TPR for Best Results. (See order form)

How can I use TPR as a beginner working with a tutor?
I recommend that the beginner become a TPR expert and then guide the tutor lesson by lesson. Start with, Learning Another Language Through Actions and Instructor's Notebook by Garcia (See order form). (Note from Berty Segal Cook ....My book Teaching English
Through Action (also in Spanish, French, German, Japanese, or Russian) has been highly successful for teachers with Beginning and Early Intermediate students/learners. It contains 102 TPR lesson plans and is widely used by both elementary and secondary teachers across the United States, and in 18 other countries. Even if the beginner is enrolled in a traditional course, TPR is your best friend. Ask your tutor to comb the textbook for all nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc that can be handled with TPR. Then TPR the vocabulary that the beginner will encounter in the next chapter of the textbook. Do this before the student looks at the chapter. This will transform the scary alien creatures in the chapter into warm, familiar friends.

Can I use TPR as a non-beginner? If so, how?
Sure. Use TPR to internalize any new vocabulary item or grammatical feature in the target language.


__________________________________________________________ Here are some important portions of an article about TPR by Dr. James J. Asher.
I ( Berty Segal Cook) have added some related incidental comments.

TPR: After forty years, still a very good idea
By James J. 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 teaching and 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 Japanese student,for example, along with the other students in his/her 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

Dr. Ashers' first book, Learning Another Language Through Actions (in the 6th edition now)provides an excellent basis in research and some lessons)

Berty Segal Cook's basic Teaching English through Actions ( also available in Spanish, French,German, Japanese, and Russian) a Teachers's Guide of 102 TPR Lesson Plans has been used in districts across the United States and in 18 other countries

Ramiro Garcia's Instructor's Notebook: How to apply TPR for Best Results 4th edition

All 3 are excellent resources and can be ordered.( see order form)

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.
With TPR, students understand grammar in the right brain but cannot tell you how grammar works. If your intent is getting specific points of grammar , point out the grammatical form AFTER it has been experienced ( the right brain..truth of the experience), and after the student is already familiar with the vocabulatyinto 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).

Once the students are into Role Reversal they can begin to see the words and go into Speaking, Reading, Writing... the Student books We Learn English ( Spanish, French, German) provide lessons/activities in Speaking, Reading, Writing, all related to vocabulary acquired in Listening lessons and ALL based on comprehension...This is well elaborated in Berty Segal Cook's Teaching Language through Action program.

Later. Student-created skits, which they write and act out, are another transition. Storytelling is a third option .

Student Pronunciation.

Most studies converge on this conclusion: If you start a second language program before puberty, children have a high probability of achieving a near-native or even native accent. After puberty, students can still acquire another language but most all will have some accent even if they live for fifty years in another country where the language is spoken.

There is another intriguing fact about the right side of the brain:
The right brain can process information coming in on parallel tracks while the left brain is limited to one track. This has profound implications for acquiring other languages in school. If we use the powerful tool of TPR for understanding on the right side of the brain, then it makes sense to start students in elementary school with several languages which the right brain can easily handle without interference.

If TPR is applied skillfully by elementary school teachers, students can graduate from the 8th grade understanding two, three or four languages which can be further "polished" in high school bringing students to fluency. Remember, the earlier we start internalizing other languages, the higher the chances of acquiring a near-native or even a native accent in each of those languages.


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.

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

Segal Cook , Berty Teaching English (Spanish, French, German, Japanese) Through Action. Berty Segal Cook


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