Total Physical Response and Situational Language Teaching Methods

Total physical response

By Venessa Wallace

Total physical response is a structural method of language teaching based on the innatist language learning theory. Focus is placed on grammar structures and accuracy leading to communicative competency and fluency hence, students are encouraged to speak when they feel comfortable. The fundamental activities employed are oral drills accompanied by a physical action. Similarly, the situational language teaching is a structural language teaching approach. It is related to the behaviorist language learning method therefore, error avoidance, grammar and accuracy are vital for developing competence in the 4 basic skills of language. Lessons utilize vocabulary and sentence pattern, and drills coupled with visual aids such as pictures and flashcards. These language teaching methods foster a classroom environment that is conducive to learning, effective at teaching beginner level second language skills, emphasizes structured and semi- structured practice, and reduces the use of the learners’ native language (L1) in second language teaching.  

TPR and SLT Teaching Methods

According to the condition-oriented theories which focus on the environmental factors appropriate for effective language learning, it is important to maintain conditions that are conducive to learning. Total physical response presents new concepts using directives and actions while employing humor in some of its directives which follow the idea that when the first language is learned it involves extensive listening accompanied by movement. Students are encouraged to follow the directions modeled by the teacher but can verbalize the directives at their will. This factor of freewill could reduce anxiety, learner stress, and frustration in students allowing them to speak when they are confident that they understand what is being taught. In application to language teaching, for example:

  • Directives can be done at the beginning stages of the course
  • More difficult structures are introduced once all students are comfortable enough and able to vocalize the initial directives.

Brown (2007) stated that at the beginning of language learning process students focus on and process specific aspects of language. This stage is characterized by repetition and is mostly teacher centered because students have limited language knowledge. The procedures of total physical response method involve the use of simple directives and visual aids accompanied by movement. Similarly, situational language teaching approach contextualizes target language using pattern sentences and vocabulary drills. Additionally, at the beginner level the students’ role is to listen and repeat therefore, these approaches are suitable for lower level students and young learners. They can be applied to teaching simple language structures and vocabulary such as color, fruits, body parts, sports, shapes etc. For instance, in teaching sports:

  • The teacher can introduce a few flashcards of different sports such as tennis, volleyball and soccer.
  •  After which the teacher can gesture the sport.
  • Then drill the sentence “ I can/can’t play tennis” accompanied by a thumbs up gesture for “can” or thumbs down gesture for “can’t” and tennis gesture for “play tennis.” Tennis can be substituted for other sports
  •  After extensive drills and repetition students can begin to ask related questions, such as “ can you play tennis?”.
  • Using this approach students will imitate each behavior modeled by the teacher.
situational Language teaching method

Learning Conditions

The procedures highlighted by total physical response and situational language teaching emphasize controlled introduction of new structures moving from semi structured practice toward a more unstructured practice involving interaction among the learners. By Taking into account the importance of practice in relation to retention in the learning process, learners have plenty opportunities to practice the language, starting with more control by teachers. As they get more proficient and confident as outlined by Davies et al. (cited in Richards and Rodger 2014), more independence is given to the students where they can formulate questions and respond to stimuli. This process further allows students to try their newly acquired language in different contexts or scenarios to aid in consolidation. Additionally, doing role switching in the practice stage can provide opportunities for less proficient students to interact and learn from more advance students.

Use of L1 in L2 classroom

A popular argument is ESL classes is whether to use L1 in lessons. One argument against L1 use is that, it limits students’ opportunities to experience a feeling of achievement and motivation that occurs as a result of deciphering problems on their own. Considering this argument, I believe that SLT and TPR methods are appropriate for teaching difficult concrete concepts to second language learners. For example, in functional English or English for specific purposes classes that involve learning procedure of a task, students may already have content knowledge in their L1 but are unable to express the required functions in English. Since SLT and TPR teaches by examples and not explanation it could be easier for students to make associations with previously acquired knowledge, leading to awareness and learning of the target language without the use of L1 that further boost motivation, confidence and ultimately autonomous learning.  

In summary, the procedures outlined by both methods facilitate confidence building and autonomous learning through modeling, drilling and contextualizing vocabulary and sentence structures. Furthermore, these techniques are appropriate for teaching beginner level and young learners. Additionally, in relation to total physical response, considering that students can vocalize when they are confident to do so, this method could reduce learner anxiety and stress, hence enabling a suitable learning environment. By teaching through examples instead of explanation the use of L1 is limited, consequently, students are allowed more opportunities to figure out unknown concepts and structures, which further increase motivation. Total Physical Response and Situational Language Teaching approach takes into account the importance of environment, practice, motivation and learner autonomy to the learning and acquisition of a second language these methods of language teaching are easy to apply to teaching in various classroom situations.

How have you used TPR and SLT in the past? In what context do you find these methods to be most effective? What other methods do you think they would work well together with? Please comment below.


  • Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy (3rd ed.). NY: Pearson and Longman
  • Richards, J.C., & Rogers, T.S. (2014). Approaches and methods in language teaching (3rd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.