Why Total Physical Response (TPR) Works

By Editorial Staff •  Updated: 04/03/23 •  Teach Online

When you start diving into the world of online teaching you’re going to hear a lot about using “TPR” in the online classroom, but what exactly is TPR? For starters, TPR is an abbreviation for a total physical response.

TPR is a term created by Dr. James Asher, a psychology professor from the University of San Jose, who developed it as a teaching methodology. The methodology was developed from observational studies of how children learn their first language and are built upon various related works, including trace theory and developmental psychology.

Language-body conversations are the fundamental basis of TPR. It is the most powerful of the linguistic tools you can leverage. It’s more effective than teaching props, speaking slowly, or repetition. TPR will not solve all language learning problems but will prepare your students for a successful transition to reading, writing, and speaking in a new language.

Total Physical Response – Why It Works

Effective TPR should be from both the teacher and the student. TPR often gets conflated with “acting” because many new online teachers liken it to being some clown when in reality, it’s how young learners develop language.

To be an effective online English teacher, you need to incorporate TPR. Using body language to associate specific acts like “read, listen, walk,” and other concepts works because students can more easily associate the particular language they want to teach with relevant movement.

TPR is not flailing your arms around wildly or giving gross exaggerated movements – it’s simply associating body movement with language. TPR works so well because it hits on different learning styles:

Students have preferred learning methodologies, just like you do as an adult. Some prefer audio and instructions; others excel with video and less reading-based material; the last group wall into the kinesthetic group, who learn by doing.

Visual Learners

Visual learners benefit from TPR because it makes associating words and sentence structures with appropriate movements easy. These two elements combined allow an online student to meet the lesson objectives efficiently.

Audio Learners

TPR is less essential for students who learn a language by listening to it repeatedly. Audio learners develop their ability for language by recognizing patterns and sounds and being able to emulate and imitate. However, though a student may prefer audio, it must remove TPR’s overall importance for body-language comprehension.


Children learn by doing more often than not, so effective TPR can help develop a child’s foreign language ability and make the class more fun and engaging. Remember, when your student is having fun, you’re having fun.

Focus on the objectives of TPR.

TPR does not mean to act like a clown. It’s designed to prompt the student to perform a specific action, whether to repeat a sentence, read, or respond to an open-ended question. This is important because you want to maintain a 50% teacher-to-student talk ratio.

Using TPR will allow the student to take the lead at specific points in the lesson and participate in the conversation when prompted via TPR.

Use TPR appropriate for the student level – Adjust!

If the student is conversational, ensure your TPR is appropriate for their level. If your student is a young learner with limited language ability, always pay attention if the student demonstrates comprehension during the lesson.

It’s YOUR classroom. Feel free to follow a specific process like a robot. Your goal, above anything else, is to meet the lesson objectives.

Model TPR for Student Success

Modeling is a method of teaching where you say and act out a sentence structure with the student’s primary goal using the target sentence structure correctly. With modeling, it takes multiple times for the student to follow along. Still, with enough repetition, the student will be able to understand your body language concerning what language they should use.

TPR Story Telling

Something as simple as the “itsy bitsy spider” or “row your boat” is an example of storytelling. Songs and chants are a lot of fun for young learners, and it helps them associate a physical action with a word. Imagine how you would model rowing a boat to an online student. That is how you incorporate TPR. To make the lesson helpful and increase the student’s confidence and retention regarding vocabulary.

Instructional TPR

Instructional TPR are classroom commands. Students are expected to avoid repeating orders for obvious reasons. Instructional TPR involves “listen, circle, stand up, what do you see?” and so forth. Instructional TPR is helpful in class because it allows the student to speak and participate in the lesson more efficiently while also reducing teacher talk.

Educational TPR

Last is educational TPR. Education TPR is used to meet the specific lesson objectives. Educational TPR helps convey the meaning of concrete concepts using language and body so the student can build upon their previous knowledge and begin incorporating the new vocabulary into their lexicon.

Consistent and persistent

To conclude, TPR, the total physical response, is something you can only implement a few times in a class. It has to be consistent and persistent across all your classrooms with all your students as a way to teach online effectively.

In what ways do you incorporate TPR into your online classroom?

Editorial Staff

I'm David Unwin and I head the editorial staff here at Teach and GO. I've taught as an ESL teacher in Thailand for 5+ years at all levels of education, from elementary to University. I was also one of the first 1000 VIPKID teachers. I and my team now share my extensive experience as a teacher here at Teach and GO. Learn more.