Total Physical Response Learning: 4 of the Best Second Language Activities

In the 1970s, James Asher, a psychology professor at San Jose State University, created a ground-breaking second language program that completely shifted the way children learn new languages. His program, “Total Physical Response Learning (TPR),” transformed language lessons into fun interactive games and activities students would love.  

He found that using commands, such as “sit-down” or “jump”, in another language, sped up the rate at which children learn. Association of a new word with a movement or action strengthens memorization of a language. Unlike many other types of learning, Total Physical Response Learning activities are easy to incorporate in any classroom for a variety of age groups. Parents can easily play these games with their children at home as well, and even begin to pick up the language themselves.

TPR Storytelling

Regardless of age, everyone loves a good story, especially children. Teachers that incorporate a new language into their classroom story-times are subtly but effectively exposing their students to brand new words and language concepts. Whether a fairytale, adventure, or silly comedy, an effective TPR story always incorporates a specific recipe:

  • Enjoyable characters students can relate to
  • A specific plot/story direction
  • A good moral lesson
  • A healthy blend of the students’ native language as well as new second language vocabulary and terms
  • Creative descriptions
  • Listener interactions (having the listeners “act out” certain story elements–hand motions, facial expressions, word repetition, etc.

Second Language “Simon Says”

An old standby, Simon Says is still a timeless game many children love. It combines a healthy mental challenge with fun energetic body movements. Children have an easier time incorporating new words into their vocabulary when their whole body is being used as a learning tool. Start the game with basic native language words (i.e. “spin,” “raise one hand,” “pat your head”). Then, throughout the game, begin to incorporate new second language terms.  

Demonstrate the new words yourself. For example, to teach a new French term, say “Sautez trois fois!” and demonstrate the action by jumping three times. After your students watch, repeat the term again and have them do it with you. Throughout the game, repeat this command and action. By the second or third repetition, the children should be familiar enough with the sound and association to instantly perform the command. The friendly competition within this game will also motivate the children to listen and learn as quickly as they can.

Treasure Hunt

Searching for new objects and “hidden treasures” throughout the classroom is an easy way to help build teamwork among the students using their natural curiosity and problem-solving abilities. By mixing in foreign-language descriptive terms such as color, size, and quantity, students begin learning a large variety of adjectives for their new language.  

Begin the game with very simple terms. If teaching Spanish, begin by using color terms such as “amarillo” (yellow), “blanco,” (white) or “rojo” (red). Demonstrate each new word with a group of the appropriately colored objects before the game. Hide the objects around the room without the students watching. After they return, give them a command like “Find amarillo!” They’ll scatter about the room and find objects of the appropriate color. Go through the color list several times and watch the game speed up as the associations become stronger.  

To increase the difficulty, use the game to teach quantity. Demonstrate each number with specific groups of objects such as three balls, one hat, or five blocks. Repeat the numbers with different objects, each matching the appropriate numbers. Begin the game by asking for “dos” (two). Continue the game, repeating and reinforcing each number with a visual representation of the amount. By the end of the game, students will have a healthy and growing grasp of both number properties as well as what these numbers are in the second language.

Action Songs

Similar to TPR storytelling, songs are a great way to introduce a new language. The tune of the song, mixed with hand or body motions, creates natural memorization. Use simple songs such as “Head and Shoulders,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” or popular nursery rhymes. Because these songs are already familiar to many children, the new word associations will form quickly. Sing the songs in the native language first and begin gradually replacing certain words with the second language. Continue replacing more and more words. With time, children will be able to sing the songs in either language with ease.

We, as adults, learn new languages slowly, but children pick them up with ease, almost automatically, without thinking about ‘the difficulty’ involved. They are master learners, master puzzle-piece connectors, hungry for new knowledge and skills. Allowing them the tools to learn a new language unlocks their potential and feeds their natural curiosity. By far, Total Physical Response Learning is one of the most fun and effective ways for children to master a second language. For more information on this classroom practice and for TPR activity ideas, please contact us today.

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