9 Total Physical Response Activities for Language Learning

9 Total Physical Response Activities for Language Learning

How many times did you almost fall asleep in class as a student? Be honest, everyone’s been there at least once. Between PowerPoints and droning teachers, there are a lot of things that can go wrong in a  classroom. Teachers who can keep things lively will see students who are more involved and engaged with the material, even if it’s difficult. Many language teachers use Total Physical Response, or TPR for short, to keep their student’s energy up.

What is Total Physical Response?

Total Physical Response is a method developed by James Asher in the 1960s. It was created with the goal of helping students learn a second language. TPR helps students learn by associating a physical action with new vocabulary.

Some benefits of TPR:

  • It helps students remember new phrases or words
  • It can be used in both large and small classes
  • It doesn’t require much preparation (bye bye worksheets!)
  • It gets students excited about learning and involved in the lesson
  • It is effective for all age groups and abilities

TPR isn’t only for the teachers though, students who are trying to learn a language on their own can benefit as well. Associating a movement with new vocabulary can help you remember it next time. TPR works by helping students understand the meaning of new words quickly. Teachers can develop TPR centered activities, or add TPR into any classroom activity they already do.

How to use Total Physical Response?

Ready to get moving? Here’s a quick step by step guide for teachers using TPR for the first time.

Prepare: Decide on the vocabulary you will be teaching and think about the most effective movements to use. You can also take some time to gather any props or extra materials you will need.

Teacher Modelling: Show the students the movement and say the vocabulary word. Be sure to do this a few times so everyone understands what you’re doing.

Student Modelling: Now it’s time to get your students involved. Choose a few and have them mimic the action and say the vocabulary word. This will help the rest of the class understand what you need them to do in the next step.

Student Participation: To ensure everyone understands, have the entire class model the movement and say the word together. This will get everyone on the same page. It will also help relieve some of the self-consciousness your students may feel saying a new word or doing a funny action.

Write it Down: Write the word down on the board, or whatever you are using to show your students new vocabulary. Not doing this earlier helps students focus on the sounds in the word and your actions, rather than the spelling of it. Writing it down for them at this point in the process helps students connect the sound with a written word.

Repetition and Practice: Continue teaching the rest of your vocabulary in a similar manner. At the end, be sure to review all the new words and movements with the class.

Total Physical Response Activities

Group Singing

Everyone loves a good song right? This is an especially great tool for younger learners, as singing together is a fun and exciting activity for them. Adult learners may not get as much of a kick out of this.

A great example of group singing with total physical response is the grade school classic, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”. This song is not only fun to sing but incorporates movements that students can remember even if they can’t quite get all the words. This helps them remember the words more accurately after practice, and reinforces their meaning.

Simple Simon Says

This is a great game because your students likely already know it in some capacity. Simon says to do something, you do it. Teachers in large classrooms typically have all of the students stand up to start.  Throughout the game, students sit down if they miss a question, answer incorrectly, or answer when they are not supposed to. This is useful for reviewing vocabulary from previous lessons or at the end of a complicated lesson.

For example, you’ve just taught a lesson on the face (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc.) and you want to make sure your students understand. You can stand at the front of the class and play “Simon says…” “touch your eyes”, “touch your ears”, “touch your mouth”.

This game is perfect for all levels, as even students who do not initially understand the game can catch on quickly. It can also be used for more advanced vocabulary and can be done at any pace to test quick understanding.


Charades is a helpful game for any learner, not just for language learning. Charades involves a student getting up and performing for the rest of the class. They are told a vocabulary word or action that the rest of the class needs to say, and then it’s their job to get that answer from the class. This helps test the student performers ability as well as the ability of the class.

You can also let your students get a little competitive by dividing them into teams. Teams alternate turns, so they can’t guess off of the other performer’s actions. This helps get your students more involved in the game, as everyone likes a little competition.

You can do this game with or without preparation, making it a great cool down activity or quick review game. If you want to prepare, write down your vocabulary (this works best with verbs) and put them on pieces of paper in a jar for your students to pull from. If you’re winging it, tell only the student that is performing which action they need to do.

Pantomime Actions

Have some extra props lying around? Get your students interacting with them by using this pantomiming activity. Here’s how it works- think of a series of actions you can do with your props, then get your students to mimic the actions. Use simple sentences for each action, so your students can practice extended speaking.

For our example, we’ll use a grocery store scenario-

“Get a basket”

“Pick up an apple”

“Look at the apple”

“Put the apple in the basket”

This can be extended indefinitely depending on your props and subject matter. This is a great way to get students practicing speaking and performing TPR at the same time. For large classes, you may want to set up a few different stations so no one gets bored watching or doing the same thing.

Storytelling sessions

Stories are a great way to put vocabulary in context and get your students to have a better understanding of what goes on in class. Adding TPR to your story makes it easy for students who may not have understood the vocabulary the first time around. Plus, it makes it more engaging.

Choose a story about something that can involve your vocabulary words more than once. For example: If your class has just learned about the five senses, you can tell a story about Sally’s first time in the park. Talk about what she hears, sees, and smells and use your TPR for each vocabulary word multiple times.

At the end of the story, ask a few students to summarize what happened. They can use the TPR for smells, sees, and hears to help them remember what happened in the story and practice speaking in full sentences.

9 Total Physical Response Activities for Language LearningHave a drama session

Do you sometimes feel like your students are a little dramatic? This is the perfect activity for them! A great way to test their language and TPR skills is to have them do a little improv. You’ll play the role of the narrator and decide how the story goes. Choose something light and easy to follow, like a hero’s journey.

For this kind of story, you’ll need a hero, a princess, and a villain. For a larger class, feel free to add more characters but don’t make the story too long or too complicated. You also can’t forget to leave some of the class in the audience to watch the chaos unfold!

Use some target language you’ve covered in class- ex. “Run away!”, “Wave Hello”, etc. and have the students in the play act using the TPR you covered in class. Don’t be afraid to stop the story if someone is confused or doesn’t understand. This activity is all about putting the vocabulary they learn in class to good use, so make sure they know what they’re doing.

Mime activities

This one’s all about total physical response. Your poor student has completely lost their voice! They’ll be assigned a partner who has to determine what they need, but they can’t say a word. You’ll give them a task or phrase they need to make their partner say. For example, “You’re looking for your dog.” The mime student must convey this entirely through their actions, and the partner must guess the target sentence.

This is a great way to test your student’s understanding, as they will have to remember the vocabulary off the top of their heads. This is also a great activity for large classrooms, as you can pair off students and have them race for first place.

Role Play

A simple way to get your students talking and using TPR is to have them roleplay easy scenarios. This is better for more advanced students that have a little more confidence speaking. All you have to do is give them a scenario or a few pieces of target vocabulary and watch them go.

You can do this two ways- you can have two students get in front of the class and perform, or you can pair them off and have them work more independently. Many students can be shy or reluctant to speak when learning a new language, so pairing them off and listening in on a few conversations works well for small classes. No matter what you do though, make sure they’re up and moving around!

If your students are reluctant to talk, some teachers find it helpful to set a timer for how long the scenario has to go on. 30 seconds is a good starting point for most classes, and you can give them time to prepare before they start.

9 Total Physical Response Activities for Language LearningTreasure Hunt with a Twist

This is perfect for classes that love to compete. Group your students into four or five groups and send them on the scavenger hunt of their lives! Or at least of their day. Instead of giving your student’s paper clues, give them verbally. Whichever team completes the activity first wins for that round.

For example, after teaching action verbs, you can ask your students to “go to the back of the class”, “run to the front of the class”, “find something yellow”, or “jump in place”. Be sure to keep track of each teams points, and award the winner with bragging rights (or candy).

This activity is great for getting everyone practicing total physical response, as teams cannot earn points unless all members are participating.

We hope this list of fun activities gets you and your class moving. total physical response is a great language tool for any age or level and can help your students more quickly remember vocabulary and phrases.

Check out these articles to up your language learning game:

5 Reasons to Use the Speech Shadowing Technique

7 Science-Based Methods to Thinking in a Foreign Language

The 8 Practical Steps to Learn Grammar Easily

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