Total physical response in teaching multicultural classes and (very) young learnersAna-Alina Asaftei Ichim, teacher of English and French
Total Physical Response is a widely used method – though few people know it under this name – which was developed by Dr. James J. Asher and helps students learn and practise a foreign language even if they do not exercise speaking. It offers the possibility to learn more easily some new phrases and to introduce to students what Scott Thornbury calls “formulaic language”,That is, by physically responding to some phrases and then trying to pronounce them, a student sees and learns language as real communication, and “there is evidence to suggest that a lot of this formulaic language is subsequently segmented into its components, which is in turn re-combined to form novel utterances” (Thornbury, Scott, Slow- release grammar, English Teaching professional, Issue 61, March 2009, Keyways Publishing Ltd, ISSN 1362-5276)
This combination is precious also for its contribution to learning when it comes to haptic (Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom, by M. Reid, Editor New York: Heinle&Heinle, 1995) type of learners, who learn easier and better by moving or handling objects. When a teacher uses pictures, loud, clear pronunciation and physical response, students are offered all the types of sources: visual, auditory and haptic (Reid, M., Learning styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom, New York, Heinle&Heinle, 1995) which makes learning more efficient for all of them. At the beginning of the exercise, the teacher pronounces the word or phrase to be learnt, shows an image of the word or phrase, then explains the students what they have to do – usually in their native language – and then asks one student to begin. They start with the physical movement at first, then pronounce it whispering and in the end they choose a moment to speak aloud.
Very young learners and students of different cultures especially appreciate this method as I introduce it in songs and poems. For example, when teaching the domestic animals, students are introduced the images and the name of the animal, but they do not have to say it; afterwards they are presented the song “Old MacDonald” and they can see which sound and movement each animal has; in the end, they participate in the singing of the song either by making the movement, by saying the sound or by singing the song altogether, which is exactly what the teacher wants.
Students, who find themselves at the beginning of studying English but they cannot keep up with the native rhythm or they just do not feel confident enough to speak, think that a physical response is more appropriate. I often use short stories, questions or commands and they like miming the response. For some students, this is an opportunity to show the others what kind of theatrical talent they have, even if they are able to use language to answer. They find it easier to remember the sentence if they have acted it first. An example of English lesson at beginner or elementary level (fourth – sixth grade) in which there can be used this method is when teaching Present Perfect Tense: one student says a sentence (I have just opened the window) and a second one physically responds to it (goes to the window, opens it and shows the others the result).
When it comes to using TPR with adults, first of all they have to feel free to express their feelings and use physical movements. I tend to use TPR in easy to understand stories or short commands people need to remember for their everyday life, like: Go slowly to the kitchen, make some coffee, taste it, it is delicious, now go to the bathroom, brush your teeth etc. The teacher might also use some pictures at first and then ask the students to respond – either way, students remember much better the information when TPR is used to introduce new vocabulary or grammar.
This is an example of game to be played with students who cannot keep up with the rhythm of a fluent use of language. As you can see, the girl in the clip does not need to use much English unless she wants it specifically, but later she is able to use freely the phrases when meeting an unknown person.
Another example is when teaching adjectives which denote feelings. The students are required to recognize the movement for each feeling and sing the song if they want to. The boy in the clip feels confident to sing the song, although not every time. But he did act out “the face” of each feeling.
Another way of using TPR is dancing on songs or rhythmic rimes with messages; a correct group or individual dance proves the correct understanding of the sentence. For example: the following rimes understood correctly lead to a group dance called “hora” in Romanian: one step forward, two steps backwards, turn left once, turn right twice, clap your hands and say “hey-hey!” Dancing as part of this method proves to be efficient as a relaxing exercise or an ice-breaker as long as students will not be forced to participate. Students of a different ethny can be asked to say some phrases in their own language and act them out in order for their colleagues to guess the translation. This way everybody tries to feel more comfortable with each other. In conclusion, TPR is a proved efficient method which can be used with students of different cultures, levels, ages and with different learning styles. As a wise, old Romanian man said, if you cannot speak a language of another people, try to use the language of your body.