Total Physical Response to Language Learning

Total Physical Response (TPR) is another lesser known method of teaching language. It relies on speech and action to help students to acquire the language. In this post, we will look at the background, assumptions, and curriculum approach of this method.


TPR is based on a theory in psychology called trace theory. Trace theory proposes that the more frequently a memory connection is made the easier it is to recall it. For example, if a student is given the verbal command “stand up” enough times, they will quickly learn what “stand up” means.

This, of course, assumes that the student eventual understands what “stand up” means. This assumption of comprehension is based on the Comprehension Approach. This approach states that people understand something before they can reproduce it verbally.

Anyone who has ever seen a toddler can attest to this theory.  A toddler can obey commands much earlier than they can speak.


TPR is heavily based on imperatives as they are easy to understand as they are non-abstract. For example, it is easier to tell someone to sit down (non-abstract) than to ask them why they think rice is the best food (abstract).

TPR also takes a lot of assumptions from behaviorism and the concepts of stimulus-response. The continuous repetition of command and execution allows for the acquisition of language. Just as we see in children.

The teacher’s role is to be the center of the classroom. This is because they are the ones providing the imperatives for the students. The teacher does not really teach but provides learning opportunities and feedback for the students. The learner’s role is primarily as a listener who becomes a performer.


The primary goal in TPR is to teach oral and listening skills. The teacher provides a large number of imperatives that the students execute, often over the first 120 hours. Eventually, the students should be using the imperatives with each other.

It is usually up to the teacher to develop the activities as there are few if any books for classroom use involving TPR. As such, TPR is a useful part of a larger learning experience and probably should not be used exclusively.


TPR is fun for getting students out of their chairs and experiencing language. However, it is limited in developing deeper language and communication skills. As such, TPR can be used for adding variety and stimulation but other approaches and methods are useful if the goal of the students is more than just lower-level communication.

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