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Top Tips for Using TPR in Preschool ESL Teaching

Top Tips for Using TPR in Preschool ESL Teaching | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Total Physical Response is a very successful teaching method that can be used for both children and adults, particularly for beginner and lower-level learners. This English teaching approach, developed by Dr. James Asher, has been applied for almost thirty years. Asher's language learning method is built around the coordination of speech and action, and its purpose is to teach language through physical activity.

In Asher's theory, children should acquire a second language just like they learn their mother tongue, by developing listening competence first and being able to understand speech before imitating it. Essentially, listening comprehension is acquired because children need to respond to parental commands. When they eventually do, after a silent period of learning new vocabulary, natural and effortless speech follows.

Teachers who use the TPR technique allow for this natural language learning to happen - developing their students' listening comprehension first by having the children respond to their spoken commands through physical actions and allowing for a silent period. That, in turn, will lead to students speaking the foreign language 'effortlessly.' Important to remember such language learning parallel to native language learning occurs in a stress-free environment, and TPR has been proven to reduce student anxiety by being fun, motivating, and interactive.

Is TPR Beneficial in Online ESL Teaching?

TPR in the context of teaching English online revolves around using over-exaggerated body language, and it really helps in improving student comprehension of your instruction. Being animated and silly attracts student attention, aids in communication, and contributes to a better learning experience.

It is easy to imagine how helpful it must be for a beginner student when the teacher points/shows while speaking; instead of saying 'Can you see…?, or 'Can you say…', the teacher would point to his/her eye, or gesture to his/her mouth while saying that phrase. Online teachers can use their hands as binoculars to find out if a student can see or tap their chin to pretend to be puzzled, assign gestures to certain words, actions, and sounds to ensure comprehension, etc.

It is very helpful and motivating for the students to see the 'thumbs up,' 'high five,' or a heart shape -made with hands- sign. Essentially, successful online English teachers incorporate a lot of TPR gestures into their lessons to associate body movements with language and help their students learn by doing.

How Can TPR be Used in Teaching ESL to Young Learners?

Total Physical Response, also known as the Listen-then-Do approach, is very beneficial for teaching vocabulary and grammar to preschool language learners.

From nouns and verbs (especially those difficult to explain actions!) to storytelling, imperatives, and teaching phonics/modeling pronunciation, TPR is a very useful tool in teaching ESL to young learners. You can find examples of implementing the Total Physical Response technique in your teaching below. Those games and activities can be adapted to work for online teaching environments.

Simon Says

It is the classic TPR game that allows for using simple, or more complex commands, depending on the student's ability level. Similar games exist in other languages, and teachers may adapt the English version to Turkish (Jacob) or French (Jacques) or even use a different position, i.e., king/captain. Target language for this game can include instructions, animals, clothes.

The teacher says 'Simon says' followed by an instruction for students to say/mimic. If the teacher omits the phrase 'Simon Says,' students should not do it. When teaching online, you can tell students to step back from the computer, put their arms out and ensure they have enough space to move around. The game is best played at the beginning of the class, 'to get the wiggles out'; as the class becomes familiar with the game, more complex commands may follow, i.e., 'Simon says, clap your hands twice and shake hands with the person next to you. Silly commands can be used for added entertainment, i.e., 'Eat a big hot dog with lots of mustard.'

TPR Storytelling

It is helpful in teaching phrases and requires the teacher to be a very emotive storyteller. Students learn new phrases by watching the teacher and repeating important words and phrases using the same motions as the teacher. TPR storytelling helps in developing fluency because stories are simple and easy to remember, and the words are used in a meaningful context. You can teach your students a 'time out' signal (i.e., hand slaps against fist) to let you know that they don't understand the story, and you need to stop/explain. There is a nice story called 'Susan Laughs' by Jeanne Willis that contains 14 action verbs in two categories: sports and hobbies. Great educational potential! Your students can mime the verbs and respond to your commands, memorizing vocabulary through actions.

TPR Songs

Many songs and nursery rhymes include actions that are easy to demonstrate using body language. When students start using those motions, they will understand the connections between new vocabulary words and their meaning. Body parts, prepositions, weather vocabulary, etc., can be taught very effectively using songs, i.e., Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, Wheels on the Bus, and many others. Youtube offers a variety of videos that can be used in teaching, for example, Treehouse's TPR Song and Chant Animations.

Scavenger Hunt Challenge

Using the TPR method, students can be instructed by the teacher to bring/hunt for something orange/round/wooden. Students can find certain objects and draw a picture of them for added memorization, i.e. 'It wakes you up in the morning and tells you what time it is, or 'March like a soldier and find something you use to talk to people far away (for those students in an online classroom).


Activity best suited for action verbs and sports. Teachers can introduce various verbs with flashcards and act out each of the action verbs. Thanks to TPR, your students will repeat those movements along with pronouncing the words, and they can retain the new vocabulary by using pantomime cards in pair/group work activities. Students will undoubtedly have lots of fun imitating/showing actions like 'You're eating a banana, or 'You're having a shower. Students will have the opportunity to practice Present Continuous, as well as forming questions: 'Are you eating a banana?'.


Finally, TPR can be used to model proper pronunciation, and it is a very effective method for teaching command words. Teachers can show students what they need to do with their mouth to form a sound and demonstrate where to place the tongue and lips to make a certain sound.

Students can be encouraged to touch their throats to ensure that vibration occurs with voiced sounds (vowels and diphthongs). They can also practice the aspiration technique with a tissue, holding it in front of their nose to make it move when the puff of air is produced from pronouncing words containing an aspirated sound (/p/, /k/, /t/, /ch/). Students will have fun practicing tongue twisters like 'Two tigers are taking a train.' Young learners can also act out the syllables with hand actions and show the correct number of syllables with their fingers/pencils/stickers.


Total Physical Response is extremely beneficial and effective in teaching young learners, as well as beginner students of all ages. When preschool-aged children respond to language cues with movement, they reinforce and practice their language skills. Movement and games help them internalize the new vocabulary, and it is a perfect form of learning for the young students by responding to their natural desire to react, interact and mimic people, animals, vehicles, etc. Integrating TPR into your teaching routine through consistent words and actions will help your students be more involved in the language and develop confidence as they learn.

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