Total Physical Response (TPR) in Preschool and Elementary Spanish

At Sonrisas Spanish School, we incorporate many techniques that we have been exposed to throughout our careers teaching elementary Spanish. Many of the teaching methodologies that we have observed and researched have influenced the development of our own teaching style. In our curricula, we have drawn upon the strengths and the most effective techniques of our different influences. Click here to request a free sample of our lessons.

Our first experiences teaching foreign language were in ESL classrooms. There, we used two methodologies in particular to teach English, methodologies that we later found to be extremely effective when we integrated them into our elementary Spanish curricula. These two methods are Total Physical Response and The Natural Approach. In this post, I am going to focus on Total Physical Response.

Total Physical Response (TPR) is an ESL methodology developed by Dr. James J. Asher in the late 1960s. Like Penfield’s mother’s method, the TPR approach to foreign language acquisition models the way children learn their first language. Parents begin having conversations with their infants right after birth. A baby smiles and an adult says, “What a beautiful smile you have.” An adult shakes a rattle, hands a baby the rattle, and says, “Now you shake it.” Dr. Asher calls these interactions “language-body conversations.” Although not yet talking, the child is imprinting a linguistic map of how language works, silently internalizing the patterns and sounds of language. When the child has decoded enough of the language, she begins to speak. Gradually, her words begin to approximate the language of her parents.

Gestures are a critical facet of the TPR approach. In the elementary Spanish classroom, TPR is played out by saying an action word and demonstrating that word simultaneously. The teacher says, “Yo toco la cabeza,” as she touches her head. Then she says, “Ahora tú [pointing at student] la cabeza [pointing at the student’s head].” In this way, students are asked, through gesture, to respond physically to commands such as “siéntate,” “levántate,” “brinca,” “escucha,” “pon atención,” etc.  Further, students are not required to speak until they feel comfortable doing so. This is because like infants, they begin learning language with a “silent period,” during which they internally decode language until they feel comfortable speaking it.

The beauty of using TPR in the elementary Spanish lesson is that comprehension happens without the use of translation. Translation is a process that takes language out of the natural linguistic experience and transforms it into intellectual study, a process inappropriate for children. Comprehension can be, and should be, expressed through gestures—children can respond with gestures long before they are ready to use the language orally. Another important benefit of TPR is that it engages children kinesthetically, bringing the language into their young bodies. This experience is fun and essential to students’ success in acquiring language

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