A Pilot Study Comparing Total Physical Response Storytelling 

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opening the door. Because of this connection between sensorimotor activity and language acquisition, TPR emphasizes verbal commands accompanied by corresponding actions.

Furthermore, according to Piaget and Inhelder (1969), language acquisition in children follows an evolution. First, children utter spontaneous vocalizations (approximately from 6 to 10 or 11 months). During a second phase, children differentiate phonemes by imitating the language they hear around themselves (11 to 12 months). Third, children come to the end of the sensorimotor period (about 2 years of age)—this is marked by the children’s capacity to internalize schemes. That is, children make sense of the world not only through external stimuli, but also by internalized schemas—mental frameworks, which represent the world—and become capable of uttering simple, one-word sentences (Piaget, 1954; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).

TPRS? is a strategy for teaching foreign languages developed by Blaine Ray in the early 1990s. In the development of the strategy, Ray was influenced by the discoveries of James Asher, who developed Total Physical Response (TPR), another strategy for teaching foreign languages, and by the second language acquisition theories of Stephen Krashen (Ray & Seely, 2009). Krashen (Krashen & Terrell, 1983) developed a theory of second language acquisition, which asserts that languages are acquired primarily by understanding verbal or written messages (comprehensible input)—not by speaking or reading sentences aloud without prior understanding of them. In addition, Ray added the element of stories to devise a strategy to teach foreign languages more effectively.

A thorough investigation of Ray’s works does not reveal a strong rationale for his assertion that stories promote a better acquisition of a foreign language. Neither does Ray’s website (Blaine Ray Workshops, Inc., 2010) provide a satisfactory rationale. Instead, this website only provides a cursory explanation of the rationale behind TPRS?, namely that stories

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are effective because they can be made to contain comprehensible input and an interesting plot to maintain the students engaged in it; stories can also be acted out repetitively. On the other hand, Ray’s website is a rich source for information on teaching materials and workshops. Ray’s website seems more commercial than academic. Therefore, since the inclusion of the element of storytelling in TPRS? is not well explained in Ray’s rationale (Blaine Ray Workshops, Inc., 2010; Ray & Seely, 2009), his lack of explanation points to the need for further explanation of the use of storytelling as a strategy for language instruction.

Since antiquity, storytelling has been used as a method of education (Mello, 2001). In all cultures, storytelling has served as an essential way of transmitting important knowledge (Collins & Cooper, 1997; Gordon, 1978; Leeming & Sader, 1997).

A survey of the literature reveals some advantages about the role of storytelling in the classroom from which a theoretical rationale can be constituted. Among those benefits that relate to improving memorization are the following: First, it can help in the understanding of concepts and retention of information (Casey, Erkut, Ceder, & Young, 2008; Hutchison & Padgett, 2007). Second, it can improve literacy skills such as building vocabulary and enhancing speaking, listening, reading and writing skills (Collins & Cooper, 1997; Egan, 1986). Third, stories are a very effective method of memorization (Egan, 2005; Schank & Abelson, 1995; Willingham, 2009).

Kosa (2008) suggests that storytelling is beneficial to student learning because it reaches a wider variety of students with different perceptive preferences; it addresses kinesthetic, tactual, auditory, and visual modalities. Kieran Egan also asserts that stories have an almost-universal appeal:

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Nearly everyone responds well to stories—that’s why even the news is given in story shapes. (“What’s the story on the fire downtown?”) This is because the story is simply the main tool we have for organizing content in a way that brings out its emotional force, and delivers information to engage the emotions of the hearer (personal communication, October 10, 2009).

Similarly, in his theory of multiple intelligences, Gardner (2006) advances the notion that students are more effectively taught when they receive instruction that addresses their different kinds of intelligences. Furthermore, by engaging the senses more actively and creating an emotional reaction through the telling or writing of stories, people are better able to retain new knowledge, including vocabulary (Willingham, 2009). Willingham further declares that stories are easy to comprehend because the audiences who hear the stories often know the structures of those stories. In addition, stories are easy to remember due to the causal structure of stories where a part of the plot in a story helps people remember other parts of the same story. It follows that by comprehending and remembering stories people can better retain vocabulary from stories as well. In fact, according to Schank and Abelson (1995), people remember by telling stories especially when the telling of stories is rehearsed. Through the act of storytelling, memory is constituted, and conversely, the stories we tell are based on the memories we have.


A component of teaching a foreign language using TPRS? consists of acting out

ministories. So an assumption is that all or most of the students will respond positively to acting out stories. Aspects of self-consciousness or shyness are not fully considered. It is assumed that even a minor involvement in acting out a ministory will have a positive effect in the students.

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Another assumption is that the students will learn the vocabulary taught through their participating in the lessons and not through their conscious effort to memorize the vocabulary. Since the students will keep the vocabulary lessons with them prior to taking the post-tests, chances are that some of them may attempt to memorize the vocabulary beyond the exposure of this vocabulary exclusively during the instructional time.

Background and Need

Krashen’s (1983) theories laid out in The Natural Approach also played an important role in the development of Ray’s TPRS?. Ray paid special attention to Krashen’s input hypothesis, which postulates that second language acquisition is helped by the notion that a second language learner acquires knowledge of a new language that is just above his or her current level of competency, a concept which Krashen referred to as (i + 1). Krashen makes a clear distinction between acquiring a language and learning a language. According to him, acquiring a language is an unconscious process while learning a language is conscious. Krashen believed that children learn their first language unconsciously and that adults should learn a second language in the same way—unconsciously.


In my research I did not find studies conducted with adult ESL learners that shows the effectiveness of TPRS? in facilitating vocabulary acquisition and retention. This study may fill that gap. The results of the study may also help future teachers teaching ESL to a class composed of students similar to those in this study.

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Chapter 2 Review of the Literature

Historical Background

A theorist in the field of teaching English, Palmer (1959) who taught English in Japan in

the 1920s, wrote English Through Actions. In this book, Palmer anticipated the theory of teaching English by issuing commands to students, a common practice in TPR, at least thirty-five years before Asher developed TPR. Reportedly, Asher, who experimented with teaching English through issuing commands to his participants in the studies, was not aware of Palmer’s contribution when he developed TPR.

Review of the Previous Research

During the 1960s and 1970s Asher conducted experiments that showed the effectiveness of TPR (Ray & Seely, 2009). At the time, Asher was working as a psychologist at San José State University and, in developing TPR, was influenced by the work of Jean Piaget on first language acquisition in infants.

In 1977, Asher’s first edition of Learning Another Language Through Actions was published (Ray & Seely, 2009). And after the years, it is not entirely clear where Asher’s theory stands in the historical perspective. For instance, TPR is mentioned favorably in the introductory pages of Methods That Work: Ideas for Literacy and Language Teachers (Oller, 1993). More specifically, Oller declares that evidence, perhaps the most convincing one, about the

effectiveness of TPR is that students taught under TPR are able to carry out commands voiced in the target language (Oller, 1993). On the other hand, Brown (1994) treats TPR just as a technique among many others rather than a complete system. Brown also believes that TPR can be effective in the early stages of learning a language, but that faces limitations when students are ready to learn more advanced aspects of a foreign language. At present, a brief survey of the literature shows that TPR has lost some of its importance making room for TPRS?.