Statistics on Childhood Language Acquisition Support Using Total Physical Response (TPR)

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Teaching Children a Second Language

Teaching kids, particularly young ones, a foreign language can be hard. How do you keep them interested? How can you make it fun? What’s the best way to ensure they are learning? It’s a lot to think about. One way to create a fast-paced, active and fun classroom environment is to incorporate some strategies using Total Physical Response (TPR). These strategies work best with beginners and with children in the 0-12 age group.

If you are interested in the research supporting the use of TPR for foreign language acquisition, please check out the synopses of various TPR research experiments on the TPR World website.

What is TPR?

TPR is a method of language teaching developed in the 1970s by Dr. James J. Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University. Basically, Dr. Asher believed that the process of learning a second language was similar to the way we learn our first language: it requires a lot of listening and other input before production is possible. The brain needs time to figure out the “code” of the new language.

When he looked at the way parents and children communicated, Dr. Asher found that both verbal and visual cues were used. Statistics on childhood language acquisition show that children taught with TPR retain more information. The visual cues helped the children to decipher the language. TPR brings gestures and images into the classroom to help students break the code of a new language in the same way.

Because it uses visual cues, TPR is most effective when you are teaching concrete objects and ideas, such a vocabulary, simple commands and basic sentence structures. If students can look at a picture or see an action and immediately understand what you mean even if they don’t know what you are saying, using TPR would be a good idea.


Games can effectively be used to teach both vocabulary and structures. First, find some visuals for the vocabulary you want to teach. For example, if you are teaching animals, some photos or illustrations of dogs, cats, birds, etc. will do just fine. Then, think of a gesture that can go along with each. The gesture for “bird” might be flapping your arms like wings. Remember, for young children in particular, bigger is better. Don’t flap from the wrist, flap from the shoulders!

In class, show the children the picture and then say the word while doing the gesture. Encourage them to copy you. Once you have gone through all the vocabulary, you are ready to start playing.

Many classroom games can be adapted to use with TPR. For young children, even something as simple as calling out a word and then letting them run around making the gesture can be a fun activity. For older children, you will need a little more structure. One ever-popular option is called “Bridge.” Spread the visuals on the floor in a line. Split the class into two teams. Have the teams start from opposite ends. As they step next to a visual, they should say the word and do the gesture, then advance to the next visual. When they meet a person from the opposite team, they do rock, paper, scissors. The winner keeps going; the loser goes back to the end of their team’s line. The first team to reach the other side wins.

You can also use games to teach structures in the same way. Simply add a gesture for the structure. For example, if the structure you want to teach with animals is “I like _____,” you could try hugging the appropriate visual while saying it. Remember to keep the animal gesture as well. “I like” [hugging visual] “birds” [flapping wings].


Particularly with younger children, teaching songs can be an effective way of learning. Even when they don’t understand the lyrics, they can at least hum along until they get the gist. Classic songs work best, as children may know the content in their mother tongue. Start by coming up with gestures to accompany the song. You can think of it as very literal interpretive dance, if that helps! In class, play the song once while singing and doing the gestures. Then, stop the CD and go over each line with the children, slowly coaching them through the gestures. Do the whole thing once without the CD and then finally, give it a whirl with the CD. This can be a lot of information for children to absorb at once, so you might want to use the same song over several lessons.


Most kids love a good story. Storybooks can be used in a TPR classroom as well. The important thing to remember is to choose a book with interesting, evocative illustrations. Try choosing a book that incorporates lots of vocabulary that they already know.

As you read the book, use the illustrations to elicit vocabulary that the children know. Cue them with the appropriate gesture and ask them to do it as well. If there are structures they know, try eliciting them as well. Repeat each one a few times to get everyone speaking.

To prevent kids from getting distracted or lost, keep them as active as possible. Ask students to turn the page for you. Ask their opinions of the illustrations or the events in the story. You can even ask them to guess what will happen next if their level is high enough.

Expectations for TPR

Remember that the theory of TPR is based on input and “code breaking,” so don’t expect too much too quickly. If students do not produce the language right away, that is OK. The first step is comprehension. If they can hear a word and produce the gesture, you have gotten that far already! The next step will be getting them to produce the language themselves.

The gestures provide a handy tool for review, so be sure to use it. You might even want to include a review activity at the beginning of each class to go over vocabulary and structures from the previous lesson. You will be able to see how much students have retained and how fluent they are. If they consistently have trouble recalling information from the previous lesson, you might want to adjust the amount of new information you teach them each time.

The TPR classroom can be a lot of fun for both students and teacher, so don’t be shy and go for it!