Although we usually identify communication with speech, communicative acts are composed of two broad dimensions: verbal and nonverbal.

The term nonverbal communication is used to refer to paralinguistic expressions and body language in oral interactions. In this same light, nonverbal communication refers to the aspects of the communicative process that deal with the production and understanding of messages that are not part of the oral language system. In general, all the aspects of communication that do not contain words are considered within nonverbal communication. Despite the fact that nonverbal communication usually occurs in conjunction with verbal communication and it shares some common features with oral language, we may note that it presents some specific characteristics:

  • Due to the limitations of words, sometimes nonverbal communication is more effective since it enhances understanding, particularly at early stages of FLT.
  • Nonverbal messages tend to be powerful and clear, especially in situations in which the learner wants to communicate feelings.
  • Some features of nonverbal communication are universal.
  • Nonverbal signs are more spontaneous than words and are difficult to manipulate.
  • An additional and complementary channel is useful in FLT to understand and express complex messages, due to the lack of oral communicative abilities of young FL learners.

we suggest an adaptation from Steve Darn classification of the components of nonverbal communication (Internet TESL Journal, 2005).

Component. Description.
Kinesics Body movement and gestures.
Proxemics Space management in relation to social interaction.
Haptics Use of touch.
Vocalics Pitch, tone, volume and speed of voice.
Oculesics Eye contact.
Facial expressions Facial gestures to indicate mood, agreement, understanding, anger, etc.
Posture Position and orientation of the body.
Olfatics Use of smell.
Silence Absence of word.
Adornment. Time management


As Richards (1996) points out, TOTAL PHYSICAL RESPONSE (TPR) is a teaching method developed by James Asher built around the co-ordination of speech and action. It attempts to teach language through physical activity. In this method, the emphasis is on comprehension and the use of physical action. In fact, Asher states that «most of the grammatical  structure  of  the  target  language  and  hundreds  of  vocabulary items  can  be  learned  from  the  skillful  use  of  the  imperative  by  the instructor». Seen in this light, imperative verbs become the central linguistic elements around which language is used and learning organized.

Asher established three dimensions of what he considered as facilitating or inhibiting foreign language learning:

  • There exists a specific innate bio-program for language learning, which defines an optimal path for first and second language development. In this sense, Asher believes that second language teaching and learning should reflect the natural process of L1 acquisition. In this natural process, children develop listening competence before speaking one; at early stages of L1 acquisition, children can understand complex utterances although they are unable to produce them. Moreover, children´s comprehension is developed as they are required to respond physically to parents´ oral language, usually commands. Finally, once listening comprehension has been acquired, speech will naturally emerge.
  • Brain lateralization defines different learning functions in the left and right brain hemispheres. Asher sees Total Physical Response as directed to right-brain learning, whereas most second language teaching methods are directed  to  left-brain  Drawing on work by Jean Piaget, Asher holds that the child language learner acquires language through motor movement – a right-hemisphere activity.  Right-hemisphere activities must occur before the left hemisphere can process language for production.
  • Stress (an affective filter) intervenes between the act of learning and what is to be learned; the lower the stress, the greater learning. According to Asher, an essential condition for successful language learning is the lack of stress. He argues that first language acquisition occurs in a stress-free environment. Therefore, relying on the natural bio-program for language development, he asserted that by focusing on meaning interpreted through movement, rather than on language forms studied in the abstract, the learner is said to be liberated from self-conscious and stressful situations and is able to devote full energy to learning.
  • In TPR, the students´ main roles are those of listener and performer. They have to listen and respond physically to commands given by the teacher, both individually and collectively.
  • In more practical terms, in TPR, the student can encode language when the input received is based on orders which he must carry out by physical response. The teacher usually orders the student to do something (i.e. stand up, open the door) and the success of the activity is measured by means of the student’s reaction. Normally, TPR begins with simple orders, which gradually become more difficult by introducing all the elements learned in previous lessons and topics the students are familiar with. The importance of TPR is to help the students to grasp the general meaning of the texts within a situation with the help of gestures and miming. If well-combined, these non verbal strategies can transmit messages and meaning and at the same time the students will be active and doing something.
  • Imperative drills are the major class activity in TPR, typically used to elicit physical action and show understanding. In a more advanced stage, dialogues and guided role plays focused on everyday situations (i.e. going shopping, at school, etc.) are also common activities. A basic example of a Total Physical Response activity which uses extralinguistic strategies may be the game “Simon says” where, in the context of a game, children learn to understand simple imperatives along with associated parts of the body or simple actions. They obey the orders of the teacher only when he or she speaks on behalf of Simon (i.e. ‘Simon says … stand up, touch your nose, etc.’). To help the children, the teacher may perform the action which they have to imitate. Eventually they do not need this extralinguistic back-up. Once they know the meaning they can do it by themselves.
  • Larsen-Freeman (2000) analyses a possible sequence of activities based on TPR strategies:
Observations. Principles.
The teacher gives a command in the target language and performs it with the students. Meaning in the target language can often be conveyed through actions. Memory is activated through learner response. The target language should be presented in chunks, not just word by word.
The teacher gives the commands quite quickly. Students can initially learn one part of the language rapidly by moving their bodies.
The teacher sits down and

issues commands to the

volunteers and then to others than volunteers.

The imperative is a powerful linguistic device through which the teacher can direct student´s behavior. Students can learn through observing actions as well as by performing the actions themselves.
The teacher introduces new commands and when the students make an error, the teacher repeats the command while acting it out. It is very important that students feel successful. Feelings of success and low anxiety facilitate learning.
The teacher gives the students commands they have not heard before. Students must develop flexibility in understanding novel combinations of target language chunks.
The teacher writes the new

commands on the board.

Spoken language should be emphasized over written


A few days later, students

who have not spoken  before

give commands.

Students will begin to speak when they are ready.

As Larsen-Freeman (2000) notes in relation to the roles of both the teacher and students: “initially, the teacher is the director of all students´ behavior. The students are imitators of her nonverbal model. At some point (usually after ten to twenty hours of instruction), some students will be ready to speak. At that point there will be a role reversal with individual students directing the teacher and the other students”.

In the above sequence, we can see the characteristics of TPR-based activities. The first part of the lesson comes down to modeling; the teacher gives commands and students perform actions. Then they perform those actions alone to show understanding. Next, the teacher can recombine the commands for students to develop flexibility in understanding unfamiliar language. Finally, after responding to oral commands, students read, write and speak.

In guise of a conclusion, we may say that TPR became a popular approach amongst supports of comprehension as the cornerstone of language learning. In a more eclectic view, TPR is a valid strategy to be used within the scope of communicative techniques in the FL classroom.


  • LARSEN, FREEMAN, D. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd edition). Oxford University Press 2000
  • RICHARDS, J. and LOCKHART, C. “Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms”. Cambridge University Press. 1996.

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Teacher: Tiffany Overton


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