Total Physical Response

Do It to Learn It

On this week’s podcast, aquarist Jim DePompei describes a dance-like call and response technique they call the do-it-do-it at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Language educators have hit upon a similar strategy they call total physical response, but it needn’t be limited to the language classroom – I have used it teaching science as a way to bridge the gap between boring vocabulary and pretty interesting natural processes!

How To Do TPR

Here’s how it works: First, collect a set of vocabulary around a particular topic. In my case, I was teaching fifth grade earth science and wanted to introduce water cycle words – precipitation, groundwater, and so on.

Then, invent a gesture for each of the vocabulary words. The more fitting your gesture, the better. For example, I used wiggling fingers for precipitation and two hands, palm-up, face-out for dam.

Next, you’ll want to model your gestures, asking students to repeat after you. As Jim DePompei noted, it’s not important if all your learners are following along – sometimes, they don’t at first but they are still getting the benefit of the gesture.

At some point, try to bring out a printed or written version of the world. In a classroom, you might have the advantage of a word wall or bulletin board. Mobile educators might use a magnet board or portable whiteboard.

Now, you can adapt the repetition phase as you like – maybe pairs or small groups practice the gestures; maybe you do a silent mastery check by pointing at words and seeing how they do. This part can be really fun, like at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium – it’s an entire dance! And that’s the key – the more fun, the more will be remembered.

How Does it Work?

Back in the 1960s, a researcher named James Asher noted that children learning Japanese improved when they paired vocabulary with movement. Students would be asked to sit down, repeat the Japanese word for “sit down,” and then physically sit down.

Those students learned the words better than students in traditional language classes. Asher’s conclusion (building on and enlarged by many other researchers) was that motor skills are extremely durable – they have “enormous resistance to extinction,” in his words.

Since then, TPR has been used extensively in language instruction and with great success – moving leads to durable memories. For informal educators, TPR is an incredible tool – not only because movement is engaging and fun, but because the facts we learn while moving stay with us longer than the ones we merely hear.

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Gestures Teach!
Gestures Teach!
Gestures Teach!
Gestures Teach!


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