Get Physical: Using Total Physical Response at Home

TPR feature

With summer around the corner, does your child have boundless energy? You may want to try using Total Physical Response. TPR is a technique that gets children moving while reinforcing new language structures and academic vocabulary. Long used to teach English learners, TPR is now being incorporated across many subject areas. Whether you are a classroom teacher or a parent who wants to work on vocabulary with their child at home, TPR is a great way to engage kids as they learn new words.

TPR helps children remember new vocabulary and phrases by creating a mental association between speech and movement. By using it, learners react to verbal input with movement, mirroring the way that children learn language from their parents. The movement helps children better understand the new language and serves as a memory aid. The TPR method gives learners an opportunity to hear the same language repeatedly over time before they are expected to produce the language themselves. Because it gives kids the chance to actively participate in learning, TPR has even been found to lower stress levels.

Here are a few ways to use Total Physical Response at home:


TPR is a fun way to teach vocabulary. In a lesson that incorporates TPR, a gesture is taught as new words are introduced. Get your head around what TPR looks like by watching teachers use the strategy. You can start by watching a middle school science teacher use TPR to teach science vocabulary on the Teaching Channel.

In the video below, you can see TPR in action in a bilingual third grade classroom. The students take it a step further by helping the teacher create the gestures:

Here’s a teacher using TPR by combining repetitive language, movement and drawings on the board to tell a story to primary school children:

Signal Words

One way that teachers incorporate TPR in the classroom is through using signal words and gestures. A signal word is what a teacher calls out to gain the attention of the class during a transition. Teachers choose a vocabulary word based on what the class is studying and develop a gesture that represents the word. For example, during a unit on geometry a teacher might use “angle” as a signal word. When the teacher calls out the word “angle” students form an angle with their arms and respond chorally with the definition, “the figure formed by two rays meeting at an endpoint.”

Try using a signal word with your child at home by choosing a vocabulary word that you would like to reinforce. Let your child know that when you call out the word, your child should respond with the definition and a gesture. Use the signal word as a fun way to let your child know that it is time to transition to a new activity, for example at dinnertime or bedtime.

Action Songs

Action songs are a great way to get kids practicing language in an interactive way. Linking movement to songs and chants helps children internalize the meaning of new words. For example, watch this teacher combine gestures and song to teach middle school science.


Children learn best when they are relaxed, so why not dial up the fun by incorporating TPR in games? A simple game of Simon Says will get kids moving and learning commands. Or, play a game of charades and have your child act out new vocabulary words for others to guess.

TPR is fun for both adults and kids. Try using TPR with signal words, songs, and games, and be prepared to be amazed by how it helps children retain academic vocabulary. To learn more about the research that led to the development of TPR, and to find TPR-related resources, visit

By Kerry McKee, who began her career in education teaching English abroad in Kochi, Japan. Since then she has spent almost ten years teaching at both the elementary and high school level in the Bay Area.

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