Top 10 Total Physical Response Techniques for Online ESL Teachers

Total Physical Response (TPR) Techniques for teaching English onlineThere is one common denominator that dominates the teaching criteria required by all online ESL companies, especially the ones geared toward teaching beginners and young students: Total Physical Response (TPR). This methodology involves a series of techniques that focus on using the body through gestures and facial expressions in order to facilitate understanding and solidifying learning. Every online company that I’ve interviewed with and/or worked for has prioritized TPR above all else, as it is the one nearly fool-proof way to get your point across to students. While TPR motions can be considered fairly obvious, it is crucial to remember to be consistent when using them. If you are going to assign a gesture to an action, word, or sound, make sure you use it all the time, and encourage your student to use them, too. Below I’ve listed the TPR gestures that I use most frequently with short descriptions on how to put them into effect. Good luck!

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  1. Look and Read

As you will be sharing a screen with your student when teaching online, this will undoubtedly be the most common command. While underlining and circling will also be used, you need to have a way to draw their attention to specific items on the screen. Also, you want to teach them to respond to auditory cues like, “Look at the ___” , once they’ve advanced beyond needing something circled for them. When you want your student to look at a specific item, speak slowly while pointing to your eyes. I differentiate ‘read’ from ‘look’ by pointing from my eyes to the screen, following the words in the sentence with my finger.

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  1. Listen

Conducting role play, reciting a poem, singing the lyrics to a song, or reading a passage and asking comprehension questions are best conquered by first modeling them to a student. When you’d like your student to listen first before responding, point to your ear/headphones. This is not to be confused with you the teacher listening for a response from the student, which I discuss next.

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  1. Speak, Repeat After Me, and Expecting a Response

Sometimes, your student will not yet have the ability to understand when you are asking them to speak. To tackle this challenge, point to your mouth when you want a student to speak, then cup your hand to your ear. For example, if you want them to recite a vocabulary word, you can point to your mouth and say, “Say apple”, then cup your ear and beckon them with your hand to encourage speaking. When I want my students to repeat a sentence after me, I point my finger toward my mouth and make a circular gesture, inviting them to repeat. With some learners, I accompany this gesture with, “I say, you say!”.

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  1. Syllables

Young learners, especially those whose native tongue is an Asian language, are not accustomed to pronouncing words with many syllables. Even when said slowly, some words can be extremely confusing to their ears. When a student is struggling with a longer word, I clap out the syllables as I say the word slowly. Encourage them to clap with you, then recite and clap on their own.

Read: Is Teaching Online for You? 5 Qualities of an Online ESL Teacher

  1. Counting the Words in a Sentence

Asking a student to repeat a sentence after you can also prove to be troublesome. While more advanced learners may be able to follow what you are reading from the screen or pick up the individual words while listening, many will require a more basic technique. When I teach sentences, I use my fingers to count the words as I say them slowly. For example, while saying, “Tommy likes to play baseball”, I would put out one finger at a time until five fingers are visible. This is also great for making sure that your students don’t miss small words like ‘to’, ‘but’, and articles- a very common mistake.

Read: How to Get Started as an Online ESL Teacher

  1. Click / Use Your Mouse

Depending on the company that you end up working for, the activities that require the student to use a mouse will vary. My students use their mouses on many slides, and I try to extend the material on most slides by having them draw on the screen. As such, understanding how to use a mouse is pretty important. If you are using a laptop, I recommend buying a mouse to use as a prop. That way, you can pull it out and show it to your student before saying, “Where’s yours?”. You can also demonstrate how to click and drag to draw in this way.

Read: 6 Tips for Teaching Online

  1. Circle/ Match

Just as above, this will require a mouse as a prop. You’d be very surprised how many students I’ve had draw circles in the air to mimic me- or worse, draw on their computer screen with a pen! I demonstrate drawing a circle or drawing a line to match on screen, with my prop mouse, and on a small handheld whiteboard, just to make sure they get it. I always recommend using this, unless you are positively sure that your student is taking your class through a touch screen tablet, in which case you will need to adjust accordingly.

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  1. Imitate Animals

If you are teaching children, it’s almost definite that your powerpoint program will teach or feature animal characters. While many children will already know these animals, acting them out sure helps to spice up the lesson. Remember what I advised above about keeping your TPR consistent, though: don’t get your cats and dogs mixed up. I once accidentally confused a few of my students because my slithering snake and swimming fish were too similar. Define the TPR for each animal early on, and make sure that the differences are visible.

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  1. Facial Expressions and Actions

These are perhaps the easiest terms to teach using TPR. A happy/sad/scared/angry face is something that usually translates across cultures, but be sure to make them as big and dramatic as possible to get some laughs from your students. Many verbs are pretty easy to act out, but remember that your work space to act things out is only as big as your camera’s view. In order to keep students from getting distracted and out of control, it’s best to try to stay within the field of vision at all times, rather than instructing them to run laps around their houses.

  1. Praise Like You Would In Person

I will admit that some of these can make you feel a bit silly at the beginning, but young students truly love it. Sitting in front of a screen can be boring, so getting them to interact with you “physically” is extremely important. Thumbs up are always a good fallback technique, but I try to go above and beyond this by high-fiving and creating handshakes to do ‘through the screen’. Of course, it’s always good to pretend that your student’s superhuman strength caused your hands great pain by blowing on them afterwards.