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Total Physical Response (TPR)

(J. Asher)


Originally developed by James Asher, an American professor ofpsychology, in the 1960s, Total Physical Response (TPR) is based on the theory that the memory is enhanced through association with physical movement. It is also closely associated with theories of mother tongue language acquisition in very young children, where they respond physically to parental commands, such as "Pick it up" and "Put it down". TPR as an approach to teaching a second language is based, first and foremost, on listening and this is linked to physical actions which are designed to reinforce comprehension of particular basic items.

A typical TPR activity might contain instructions such as "Walk to the door", "Open the door", "Sit down" and "Give Maria your dictionary". The students are required to carry out the instructions by physically performing the activities. Given a supportive classroom environment, there is little doubt that such activities can be both motivating and fun, and it is also likely that with even a fairly limited amount of repetition basic instructions such as these could be assimilated by the learners, even if they were unable to reproduce them accurately themselves.

The above examples, however, also illustrate some of the potential weaknesses inherent in the approach. Firstly, from a purely practical point of view, it is highly unlikely that even the most skilled and inventive teacher could sustain a lesson stage involving commands and physical responses for more than a few minutes before the activity became repetitious for the learners, although the use of situational role-play could provide a range of contexts for practicing a wider range of lexis. Secondly, it is fairly difficult to give instructions without using imperatives, so the language input is basically restrictedto this single form. Thirdly, it is quite difficult to see how this approach could extend beyond beginner level. Fourthly, the relevance of some of the language used in TPR activities to real-world learner needs is questionable. Finally, moving from the listening and responding stage to oral production might be workable in a small group of learners but it would appear to be problematic when applied to a class of 30 students, for example.

In defense of the approach, however, it should be emphasized that it was never intended by its early proponents that it should extend beyond beginner level. (In theory it might be possible to develop it by making the instructions lexically more complex (for example, "Pick up the toothpaste and unscrew the cap"), but this does seem to be stretching the point somewhat). In addition, a course designed around TPR principles would not be expected to follow a TPR syllabus exclusively, and Asher himself suggested that TPR should be used in association with other methods and techniques. In terms of the theoretical basis of the approach, the idea of listening preceding production and learners only being required to speak when they are readyto do so closely resembles elements of Stephen Krashen’s Natural Approach.

Short TPR activities, used judiciously and integrated with other activities can be both highly motivatingand linguistically purposeful. Careful choice of useful and communicative language at beginner level can make TPR activities entirely valid. Many learners respond well to kinesthetic activities and they can genuinely serve as a memory aid. A lot of classroom warmers and games are based, consciously or unconsciously, on TPR principles. As with other "fringe" methods, however, wholesale adoption of this approach, to the total exclusion of any other, would probably not be sustainable for very long.

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a language teaching method built around the coordination of speech and action; it attempts to teach language through physical (motor) activity. Developed by James Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University, California, it draws on several traditions, including developmental psychology, learning the­ory, and humanistic pedagogy, as well as on language teaching proce­dures proposed by Harold and Dorothy Palmer in 1925. Let us briefly consider these precedents to Total Physical Response.

Total Physical Response is linked to the "trace theory " of memory in psychology, which holds that the more often or the more intensively a memory connection is traced, the stronger the memory association will be and the more likely it will be recalled. Retracing can be done verbally (e.g., by rote repetition) and/or in association with motor activity. Combined tracing activities, such as verbal rehearsal accompanied by motor activity, hence increase the probability of suc­cessful recall.

In a developmental sense, Asher sees successful adult second language learning as a parallel process to child first language acquisition. He claims that speech directed to young children consists primarily of commands, which children respond to physically before they begin to produce verbal responses. Asher feels adults should recapitulate the processes by which children acquire their mother tongue.

Asher shares with the school of humanistic psychology a concern for the role of affective (emotional) factors in language learning. A method that is undemanding in terms of linguistic production and that involves gamelike movements reduces learner stress, he believes, and creates a positive mood in the learner, which facilitates learning.

Asher's emphasis on developing comprehension skills before the learner is taught to speak links him to a movement in foreign language teaching sometimes referred to as the Comprehension Approach (Winitz 1981). This refers to several different comprehension-based language teaching proposals, which share the belief that (a) comprehension abilities precede productive skills in learning a language; (b) the teaching of speaking should be delayed until comprehension skills are established; (c) skills acquired through listening transfer to other skills; (d) teaching should emphasize meaning rather than form; and (e) teaching should minimize learner stress.

The emphasis on comprehension and the use of physical actions to teach a foreign language at an introductory level has a long tradition in language teaching.


· Theory of language

Asher does not directly discuss the nature of language or how languages are organized. However, the labeling and ordering of TPR classroom drills seem to be built on assumptions that owe much to structuralist or grammar-based views of language. Asher states that "most of the gram­matical structure of the target language and hundreds of vocabulary items can be learned from the skillful use of the imperative by the instructor" (1977: 4). He views the verb, and particularly the verb in the imperative, as the central linguistic motif around which language use and learning are organized.

Asher sees language as being composed of abstractions and non-abstractions, with non-abstractions being most specifically represented by concrete nouns and imperative verbs. He believes that learners can ac­quire a "detailed cognitive map" as well as "the grammatical structure of a language" without recourse to abstractions.

Abstractions should be delayed until students have internalized a detailed cognitive map of the target language. Abstractions are not necessary for people to decode the grammatical structure of a language. Once students have internalized the code, abstractions can be introduced and explained in the target language.

This is an interesting claim about language but one that is insufficiently detailed to test. For example, are tense, aspect, articles, and so forth, abstractions, and if so, what sort of "detailed cognitive map" could be constructed without them?

Despite Asher's belief in the central role of comprehension in language learning, he does not elaborate on the relation between comprehension, production, and communication (he has no theory of speech acts or their equivalents, for example), although in advanced TPR lessons imperatives are used to initiate different speech acts, such as requests ("John, ask Mary to walk to the door"), and apologies ("Ned, tell Jack you're sorry").

Asher also refers in passing to the fact that language can be internalized as wholes or chunks, rather than as single lexical items, and, as such, links are possible to more theoretical proposals of this kind, as well as to work on the role of prefab­ricated patterns in language learning and language use Asher does not elaborate on his view of chunking, however, nor on other aspects of the theory of language underlying Total Physical Response. We have only clues to what a more fully developed language theory might resemble when spelled out by Asher and his supporters.

· Theory of learning

Asher's language learning theories are reminiscent of the views of other behavioral psychologists. For example, the psychologist Arthur Jensen proposed a seven-stage model to describe the development of verbal learning in children. The first stage he calls Sv-R type learning , which the educational psychologist John DeCecco interprets as follows:

In Jensen's notation, Sv refers to a verbal stimulus—a syllable, a word, a phrase, and so on. R refers to the physical movements the child makes in response to the verbal stimulus (or Sv). The movement may involve touching, grasping, or otherwise manipulating some object. For example, mother may tell Percival (age 1) to get the ball, and Percival, distinguishing the sound "ball" from the clatter of other household noises, responds by fetching the ball and bringing it to his mother. Ball is the Sv (verbal stimulus), and Percival's action is the response. At Percival's age, children respond to words about four times faster than they respond to other sounds in their environ­ment. It is not clear why this is so, but it is possible that the reinforcing ef­fects of making proper responses to verbal stimuli are sufficiently strong to cause a rapid development of this behavior. Sv-R learning represents, then, the simplest form of verbal behavior.

This is a very similar position to Asher's view of child language acqui­sition. Although learning psychologists such as Jensen have since aban­doned such simple stimulus-response models of language acquisition and development, and although linguists have rejected them as incapable of accounting for the fundamental features of language learning and use, Asher still sees a stimulus-response view as providing the learning theory underlying language teaching pedagogy. In addition, Asher has elaborated an account of what he feels facilitates or inhibits foreign language learning. For this dimension of his learning theory he draws on three rather influential learning hypotheses :

1. There exists a specific innate bio-program for language learning, which defines an optimal path for first and second language development.

2. Brain lateralization defines different learning functions in the left- and right-brain hemispheres.

3. Stress (an affective filter) intervenes between the act of learning and what is to be learned; the lower the stress, the greater the learning.

Let us consider how Asher views each of these in turn.

The Bio Program

Asher's Total Physical Response is a "Natural Method" inasmuch as Asher sees first and second language learning as parallel processes. Second language teaching and learning should reflect the na­turalistic processes of first language learning. Asher sees three processes as central,

(a) Children develop listening competence before they develop the ability to speak. At the early stages of first language acquisition they can understand complex utterances that they cannot spontaneously pro­duce or imitate. Asher speculates that during this period of listening, the learner may be making a mental "blueprint" of the language that will make it possible to produce spoken language later,

(b) Children's ability in listening comprehension is acquired because children are re­quired to respond physically to spoken language in the form of parental commands,

(c) Once a foundation in listening comprehension has been established, speech evolves naturally and effortlessly out of it. As we noted earlier, these principles are held by proponents of a number of other method proposals and are referred to collectively as a Comprehension Approach.

Parallel to the processes of first language learning, the foreign language learner should first internalize a "cognitive map" of the target language through listening exercises. Listening should be accompanied by physical movement. Speech and other productive skills should come later. The speech-production mechanisms will begin to function spontaneously when the basic foundations of language are established through listening train­ing. Asher bases these assumptions on his belief in the existence in the human brain of a bio-program for language, which defines an optimal order for first and second language learning.

A reasonable hypothesis is that the brain and nervous system are biologically programmed to acquire language ... in a particular sequence and in a particu­lar mode. The sequence is listening before speaking and the mode is to syn­chronize language with the individual's body.

Date: 2016-01-03; view: 389

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