Total Physical Response

Total physical response (TPR) is a method developed by James J. Ashers, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, California. Dr. Ashers began experimenting with TPR in the 1960s.The method has been developed from developmental psychology, learning theory and language learning procedures. He has been invited to present his successful total physical response approach in the USA and England, and other parts of the world.

TPR is based on the premise that the human brain has a biological program for acquiring any language. Based on the developmental psychology, the proponents of TPR claim that memory is increased if it is stimulated through association with motor activity and the process of learning a foreign language is a parallel process to learning the first language (Brown, 1987: 163). Children do a lot of listening before they learn to speak and they do a lot of physical activities in learning their first language, such as reaching, moving and grabbing. In having children learn the first language commands from the adult dominate the communication and children respond physically before they begin to produce verbal responses (Richards and Rodgers, 1986: 87). Based on their first language acquisition, TPR emphasizes on comprehension and delays the production of language. This process is the one by which children acquire their first language.

Many people believe that TPR is only appropriate for children since the method relies on imperatives. However, Ashers (1988: 3-1) believe that the method can be used to teach any foreign language not only to children but also adults. A research on language teaching through TPR conducted by Ashers and Brice (1982) provided data that when adults learn a second language under the same conditions as children, adults outperform children. The only advantage children have is acquiring a near-native pronunciation. He suggests that the time per session should vary depending on the age of the learners. The older the learners are, the longer the time they can learn effectively. Thirty minutes of training one time will be effective for children. Junior and senior high school students respond well to 50-minute sessions while university students can handle up to 3-hour sessions.

The use of imperative may not be possible in all language classes. If the whole procedure of the method cannot be done, Ashers (1988: 3-4) suggests that language teachers use the method as an adjunct to other approaches. He provides some results of experiments that show the effectiveness of the method as the beginning procedure of teaching a foreign language. After the learners understand some words in the target language, the class can continue with other traditional methods, such as audio-lingual method.  

The method seems to be done in a class with a large area without chairs and tables. However, the idea is not always true. The use of imperative does not necessarily need the space with chairs and tables (Ashers, 1988: 3-11). The usual classroom with students sitting in rows is acceptable and workable even though Ashers acknowledges that this environment is not an ideal one. The optimal design for this method to work well is a large with six to twelve movie seats. Each set would have three sides that are movable. The sets would represents life situations as the bedroom, kitchen, living room and the park. He also suggests that the ideal group size is 20 to 25 students. If there are more than 40 students in one class, the class can be divided into several smaller groups. First, the teacher utter commands and then model by responding with appropriate action. Each group listens to the commands from the teacher or tape recorder and responds with actions to the spoken commands.            

The advocates of TPR believe that language learners should understand the target language before speaking. Language learners can learn through observing actions as well as by performing the actions themselves (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 114). By observing actions and performing, they will understand the language they are learning. The meaning of words can be understood by making associations between the utterances they hear and the actions they are observing. The meanings of words they may guess will be internalized by performing the actions in accordance with the commands. Even though performing and observing the actions is often associated with TPR, the tradition of teaching a foreign language through commands had been used long before the introduction of TPR. Palmer and Palmer stated that no method of teaching foreign speech is likely to be economical or successful which does not include in the first period a very considerable proportion of that type of classroom work which consists of the carrying out the pupil of orders by the teacher  (cited in Richards and Rodgers, 1986: 88). This principle implies that the teaching of speaking is delayed until the comprehension skills are established. At the beginning of language class, learners will spend most of the time in comprehending the target language, especially represented by verbs of imperatives and concrete nouns. Speaking will be introduced later after language learners have enough understanding of the target language.

Having fun makes language learners interested in learning the foreign language is also a principle of the method. The principle that learning a foreign language will be more effective if language learning have fun also belongs to other methods. The difference is that in the TPR fun is provided through physical activities. Physical activities are meant to reduce stress people feel when studying foreign languages (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 117). Since physical activities are done at the very beginning of language class, language teacher should be very selective in choosing words to teach. As mentioned earlier, the language to teach should start from the words comprising verbs of imperatives and concrete nouns so that it is easier for language learners to perform and observe the actions. Confusion in performing the actions may cause boredom and frustration, which the method tries to avoid.

Like other methods, the TPR also deals with error correction. Correction is carried out in an unobtrusive manner. When the learners make an error, the teacher repeats the command while acting out (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 115). Ashers (1988, 3-6) suggests that the teacher should have wide tolerance for distortions but eventually he/she should narrow the tolerance for production or grammatical errors. The teacher almost dominates the correction. Teacher correction seems to be the only way in dealing with correction. The teacher does not delay the correction; he/she will correct the error as soon as the error is noticed.  Although the teacher will finally give a turn to the student to repeat the command, he/she does this only to check whether the student already produces the command properly or not. No peer correction is done; this seems to be avoided in order not to produce further confusion among the learners.      

Richards and Rodgers (1986: 88) states that Ashers does not directly discuss the nature of language and how the language is organized. They conclude that in the TPR method language is seen as a set of grammatical rules and language consists of language chunks. This implies that language class can be organized based on the grammar to teach or the vocabulary items. Grammar is taught through inductive processes. Language learners learn grammar based on sentences used in commands. The grammar is learned together with vocabulary items. The learners first learn the meanings of words in the target language. When the teacher develops the commands by using longer sentences, the learners begin to learn grammar by observing the actions and make associations between the actions and the commands. The learners try to test the result of the associations by giving commands to their peers.

Another assumption about language is that spoken language is emphasized over written language (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 115). Spoken language and written language are considered different. Even though Ashers does not specifically discuss the sequence of the skills to be mastered, the procedures he has suggested implies that language class begins with spoken language and written language will be introduced later on and speech has primacy over written language. The class deals with writing after the learners can perform the commands and give commands to other learners.

TPR also views that verbs are central. The imperative, which is done by using verbs, is the "golden tense" because students of all ages have instant understanding of the target language through the imperative. From the imperative, students can make smooth transition to all other grammatical features. After students internalize certain items through the imperative, they can switch to short dialogues, stories, patterned drills, etc.  

Ashers (1988:3-42) indicates some assumptions about language learning. Learning a language is sequential. People learn a foreign language is similar to learning their first language. There is a biological sequence both in learning the first language and foreign languages. The sequence can be observed when the infant learns his/her mother tongue. His/her parents always give commands to the infant. The infant responds to the command "Dave, pick up your red truck and put it in your bed room" by performing it. The infant will pick up his red truck and put it in his bedroom. This fact suggests that the infant has already internalized a sophisticated understanding of the mother tongue. The process follows the principle that understanding of the language comes before speaking. The understanding of the target language is accelerated by presenting the language through commands.

Learning may take place when language learners observe actions and perform the actions themselves (Larsen-Freeman, 1986: 114). Since not all of the students in the class can perform the actions together with the teacher, the other students in the class should observe the actions and listen to the commands. This is believed that the students who observe the actions also have learning processes. Use of multiple modalities (aural, visual, kinesthetic, spatial) assists in forming long term memories.

Another assumption about language learning is that stress intervenes between the act of learning and what is to be learned; the lower the stress, the greater the learning (Richards and Rodgers, 1986: 90-91). Therefore, in order for language learners to be successful in learning the target language, there must be the absence of stress. It is commonly believed that the environment of the foreign language learning often causes stress and anxiety. The advocates of the TPR believe that strong feelings of stress have negative effects on long-term learning. Language teacher should create an exciting learning environment by focusing on meaning interpreted through movement. Language learners do not learn language forms directly; they learn the forms by interpreting them from the commands. Language learners remember meanings much better than forms. This activity is believed to liberate self-conscious and stressful situations and language learners will learn the target language optimally.

The learning teaching interaction gradually moves from teacher centered to student centered (Reynolds: 2001). At the first stage, the interaction begins from the teacher's commands. The students listen to the language used and watch the movements of the teacher and other students as well. They may guess meanings from observations while they are responding to the commands. They themselves may also decide when to change roles: who commands the class. Finally they create the interaction among them and direct themselves to give commands to others.  

With regard to learning theory, the TPR also considers the power of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Motor activity, which is a right-brain function, should precede the language processing of the left brain.  Many language learners are believed to be too anxious in learning any foreign language. Language learners should feel stress-free by listening and acting in learning a foreign language. To avoid the students from stress, language class consists of commands and language learners perform physically. Performing physically is believed to make language learners learn the target language more exciting and also believed to make the memory stronger and more likely to be recalled. Therefore, at the beginning the teacher in language class is very directive in orchestrating a performance before language learners take the role of the teacher in giving commands. The learner will be directive when they are ready to produce the language and they will learn the language by giving commands and performing the commands among themselves.

The teacher in TPR should foster an atmosphere of general euphoria. It is important to ease as much as possible the tension of performing the commands in front of their peers. Collective participation should be encouraged from the beginning. Also, in keeping with the target language, a name in the target language is assigned to each student. Each student places a name card on the desk so it can be read easily even though it is an optional thing to do.

Garcia (1996) has experimented with many seating configurations. He has come to a conclusion that the best way is the seating plan in which the class is divided into two sections facing each other. This way makes the class have enough space to move around. In the back of the room there are three chairs from which the students perform the commands.

There are several techniques utilized in teaching the target language through TPR. Garcia (1996) divides the techniques into introductory techniques and working techniques. The introductory techniques refer to the many ways in which a new item or command can be presented for the first time to the students. Working techniques refer to the ways in which the commands and supporting vocabulary already presented to the students can be combined and explained in order to advance in the target language. It is believed that each of the techniques has two activities that make the two hemispheres of the brain: the left and right hemisphere. Motor activity, which is a right-brain function, should precede the language processing of the left brain. The commands introduced by the teacher activate the right hemisphere and the activities of the students activate the left hemisphere of the brain.

The following introductory techniques of TPR are taken from Gracia (1996):
1.      The teacher utters and models the commands for the students. The students perform the commands by listening to the teacher and by doing what he/she does.
2.      The teacher creates situations in which a student has to choose between two items. The student already knows one item well therefore, by the process of elimination, the other item is immediately recognized.
3.      With the introduction of a new word, the student has to choose from three items of which only one is known. If the person guesses the wrong one, another try is needed. If the guess is correct, the reward is a word of praise from the teacher.
4.      The teacher introduces a new item by making very obvious to the student what to perform, either through gestures or other additional cues.
5.      The teacher introduces new materials by performing the commands on a cassette. The instructor records his own voice and then follows each direction as it is uttered, but sometimes makes an incorrect response which is corrected by the voice on tape.

The introductory techniques above can be continued with the following working techniques (Gracia, 1996):
1.      Sometimes it takes a great effort for the student to transfer a concept to another situation. Hence, it is important to present an item in many different situations and to recombine vocabulary.
2.      The teacher should follow as slow pace in introducing material. A barrage of vocabulary will be counterproductive in the retention of learned items.
3.      Besides recombining the vocabulary presented, it is valuable to expand the meaning by accretion so to speak. This can be accomplished by putting the lexical items in more complicated performances.
4.      As the students increase their comprehensive vocabulary, it is of great value to include functional words such as of, with, and, etc. that keep the language smooth and together.
5.      It is very beneficial for the learner to keep retrieving the original material introduced. These basic commands learned early in training are the foundation upon which more complex construction can be anchored.
6.      From the start, it is useful to introduce equivalents and synonyms. This technique may sound confusing, but it is not if properly done.
7.      As the students learn more individual commands, it is an effective procedure to give several commands in sequence to be performed in a continuous action. The teacher should not get too ambitious in this strategy. When abused, this technique could cause more harms than benefits. Also, if over-extended this is more an exercise in memorization than comprehension.
8.      The teacher should be very cautious about the idea of introducing prematurely an overwhelming number of vocabulary items. In the long run this is not desirable because it tends to create confusion. It is better to introduce a few items at a time.  

Ashers (1988) has written a book consisting of a relatively complete syllabus of teaching English as a foreign language. In the book he not only provides the readers with the language materials but the procedures of presenting the materials as well.

Using hand signals, motion four students to come up to the front of the classroom. Then gesture for two students to sit on either side of you facing the class. Other students in the class are often seated in a semi-circle so that there is a rather large space for the action.

Then say "stand up!" and immediately stand up as you motion the students seated on either side of you to stand up. Next say, "Sit down!" and immediately sit down along with the four students. If any student tries to repeat what you have said, signal silence by touching your lips with your index finger. Then say "Stand up!", and the group, including the instructor, should stand up; and then "Sit down!" each followed by the appropriate action until all respond confidently, without hesitation (Ashers, 1988: 4-2).   

The procedure above is the beginning activities in teaching English. The teacher introduced two verbs of commands "stand up" and "sit down". These two verbs are easy to be presented. As mentioned earlier that TPR follows the language sequence of how an infant learns his/her mother tongue.  After the learners can respond the command confidently, the learners may practice giving the commands among them. The procedure above can continue by introducing the verbs " walk, stop, turn around, jump". If the teacher observes the hesitation of the students in responding, the teacher should model the actions and commands with the students until the students can individually respond quickly and accurately. When the learners are ready for an expansion of utterances, the activities below can follow.

Point to the door. (The teacher and the students point to the door.)
Point to the chairs. (The teacher and the students point to the chairs.)
Point to the table. (The teacher and the students point to the table.)
(Ashers, 1988: 4-3)

Through the activities above the class is not only introduced the verb "point to" but also the nouns "door, chairs, and table". After the students have enough understanding of the words, the language to teach can be expanded and the commands may consist of longer utterances. The teacher should always consider the language the students have mastered. The commands may consist of two or three actions but most (or all) of the words used in the commands must be familiar.

Point to the door. Walk to the door. (The teacher and the students point to the door and walk to the door.)
Touch the door. (The teacher and the students touch the door.)
(Ashers, 1988: 4-3)

The language materials may cover a great deal of vocabulary and the first days will be spent to teach vocabulary but the introduction of abstract nouns may be delayed since this may produce confusion and difficulties in understanding their concepts. Speaking follows listening. As long as the learners can respond commands accurately, no speaking is allowed. This is allowed in TPR that the learners can answer with gesture such as pointing. Examples would be:

Where is the towel? (Eduardo, point to the towel)
Where is the toothbrush? (Miako, point to the toothbrush)
Where is Dolores?
(Richards and Rodgers, 1986: 96)  

Listening and comprehension can also be practiced by giving scenarios to the students. The scenarios below are taken from Garcia (1996: V-3):

1.      Go to the table. Touch the table. Sit on the table. Point to the table with your hands. Squat in front of the table. Turn around. Get up. Return to your seat.
2.      Go to the table. Pick up the green book. Read the book. Scratch your stomach with the green book. Put the book in the box of fruit. Put your head in the box of fruit. Pick up the box of fruit. Put your head in the box of fruit. Take your head out of the box of fruit.
3.      Go to the chalkboard. Salute the flag. Jump twice. Touch the chalkboard with your nose. Scratch your right foot.
4.      Go to the chalkboard. Draw a school. Erase the roof of the school. Write the name of the teacher of English.

When the students reach a certain level of understanding of the target language through body movements, the students are ready for role reversal: they play the teacher's role and utter directions in the target language to cause action from other students or the teacher. The role reversal should be done gradually since the very essence of TPR is listening and comprehension before production. The teacher does not hurry the students into speaking.

More advanced students can be encouraged to speak in the target language by providing scenarios. The following are examples of learning scenarios for advanced students (Garcia, 1996: V-27):

1.      You arrive at your home. The neighbor's kids are playing in your front yard. They are pulling flowers, playing with the water hose, etc. Give some commands suitable for the occasion.
2.      You need some groceries from the store. You ask your friend to do it for you because you are very busy. Ask your friend to bring you a few things (vegetables and foodstuff).
3.      You are in the wilderness. You come upon a place with tall grass and thick shrubs. Suddenly you see a snake. You have three friends with you. React to the situation with some commands.
4.      You find a four-year-old girl in the middle of the street. She is crying and frightened. Try to communicate with her with several commands.

Writing and reading
So far the class deals with understanding and listening (to some extent speaking as well). Writing may be introduced in the first days if needed. TPR flows from comprehension to speaking; from comprehension into reading and writing. Reading and writing in TPR may flow after the students are able to comprehend the commands. It is assumed in the following activities that the students have learned the words "run, go, board, chalkboard". The main material to teach is "name". The word "write" may or may not have been introduced. The main consideration in giving commands is that there is no more than one new word. If there are more than one new word, the understanding of the commands is relatively difficult. The following activities are meant to teach writing. This is the beginning of writing class and the commands are simple.

I will write my name on the board.
Juan, run to the chalkboard and write your name.
Jaime, go to the chalkboard and write your name.
Everyone, write your name on your paper.
(Asher, 1988: 4-8)

For more advanced students, students' names can be replaced with other concrete nouns, as follows:

Juan, go to the chalkboard and write what you see
Jaime, walk to the chalkboard and write what you touch

The commands are not only used to teach verbs of imperatives but they can be used to teach tenses. The following examples are the activities used to teach present continuous tense.

Rita, touch the table. (Pause) Shirou, touch the table that Rita is touching.
Juan, touch the chalkboard. (Pause) Maria, touch the chalkboard that Juan is touching.
Miguel, draw a square on the chalkboard.(Pause) draw a circle around the square that Miguel is drawing.
Maria, write your name on the chalkboard. (Pause) Juan, erase the name that Maria is writing.
(Ashers, 1988: 4-24--4-25)            

It is assumed that in the above activities, the students have learned the verbs touch, draw, erase, write, and the nouns square, circle, table, chalkboard.  

The following is another procedure suggested by Ashers (cited in Richards and Rodgers, 1986: 97). The instructor wrote on the chalkboard each new vocabulary item and a sentence to illustrate the item. Then she spoke each item and acted out the sentence. The students listened as she read the material. Some copied the information in their notebooks.

The TPR allows language learners to learn the target language in a manner similar to a child learns his/her mother tongue. In a class that is taught through the TPR, a language teacher begins the class by modeling actions and students observe and act the same actions. The students guess meanings by observing and acting the commands from the teacher. The students follow simple commands and directions and then give commands to fellow classmates. Gradually, the students themselves will direct the class and decide who has to give commands.

Language teachers or prospective language teachers have to ask themselves which principles can be implemented in English teaching in their condition and situation. As suggested by Asher, the TPR should be used in association with other methods and techniques. Language teachers may develop some techniques deriving from the principles of the TPR and try out the techniques in teaching English in Indonesia. They do not necessarily take the whole procedure of the TPR. They may consider some of the underlying principles and the techniques which can be implemented in their language classes.

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