Let’s Get Physical

Today begins a series of posts by a guest contributor, Dr. Tricia Stapleton, Assistant Teaching Professor of Social Science & Policy Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute:

I first started teaching when I was a graduate student in a French literature program. Instructors there were trained to teach languages with the communicative method, which involves creating a classroom “immersion” experience for students where only the target language is spoken. Instructors were also encouraged to use total physical response (TPR).

Newton-JohnDeveloped for second-language learners by James J. Asher, TPR links listening comprehension to physical action. With TPR, students listen to a command in a foreign language and immediately obey. For example, a student may hear “Stand up, walk to the door, and shut it” in the target language, and is expected to then carry out these actions. The process begins simply, but over the course of a session commands become more complex.

Second-language learners exposed to TPR showed higher levels of listening comprehension than students exposed to other teaching techniques, and Asher concluded that TPR produced dramatic changes in students’ learning. Asher also found TPR was less stressful to second-language learners, as the students weren’t overwhelmed with having to cultivate two skills at once, like listening comprehension and spoken fluency.

In a language classroom, TPR is fairly easy to implement. Instructors focus on improving listening comprehension first, and students can benefit from seeing peers or the instructor model actions, so the technique can be used with varying class sizes.

When I switched my area of study, I wanted to bring TPR into my political science classes but was unclear how to do it. How could I get students out of their seats to connect actions to the material? And would TPR be as useful in improving students’ retention of political science concepts and theories as it was for second-language learning?

My solution was to turn to role-playing and simulation as a way of adapting TPR to  political science. More on that in my next post.