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Foreign Language Teaching 101: The Total Physical Response and Suggestopedia Approaches


Foreign language teaching has changed immensely throughout the years. In the previous era, teachers would enter the classroom and begin the transfer of information, with the role of language for students also clearly defined: to listen, take notes, study, and eventually learn. However, through observation, studies and experimentation, we discovered that language teaching is more complex in practice. It requires the educator attending the methods of presentation of the new information, while also providing the right circumstances for developing the competencies, skills and abilities of the students. The following series will explore some of the methodology and aspects of language teaching while also looking at the different mediums used by educators and learners.

The Foreign Language Teaching 101 series is divided into six chapters:

The Total Physical Response and Suggestopedia Approaches

Language learning used to be viewed as straightforward as teaching mathematics or history. The role of learners in the process was neglected and not given much thought. However, with time, linguists discovered that humanistic pedagogy works better and that learners have a responsibility for the success of their education. This led to the development of a variety of novel approaches to teaching, inspired by the theories of developmental psychology such as the Total Physical Response (TPR) and Suggestopedia.

The TPR was developed in the 1960s by James Asher, a professor of psychology at San Jose State University California. The approach is built around the coordination of speech and action and teaches language through motion or physical activity. It was inspired and backed by several theories and language teaching methods proposed by Harold and Dorothy Palmer in 1925 (Richards & Rodgers, 2014, p. 277). Asher was also deeply influenced by the experiments of Roger Sperry, who, in 1960, discovered that the human brain is made up of two parts that work independently of one another. Sperry found that both the left and right parts of the brain have their functions (Blog's Team, "Roger Sperry", n.d.). As a psychologist, Asher also took inspiration from the ‘trace theory’ which suggests that the human brain makes connections faster when one repeats things orally or through action. The more repetition there is the stronger the connection, and the higher the chance of recall on demand. And if the two techniques are combined — like oral repetition and physical motion performed together — the process is enhanced, and memorization happens more quickly. This is also explained as a method to connect the two parts of the brain. In his book, Learning another language through actions, Asher argues that the left part of the brain is usually tasked with memorization and short-term retention. At the same time, the right side works through finding patterns and long-term information retention. He applied the humanistic pedagogy idea that learning is easier in a relaxed and enjoyable environment. People learn faster and absorb information better through games and enjoyable activities.

Image 1. Berthemy, 2020. "A group of girls dancing".

According to Asher, the popular teaching methods didn’t yield successful results because the teachers were addressing only one part of the student's minds. On his website, Asher poses the question, “Babies don’t learn through memorizing lists of words, why should children and adults?”. He believes that learners should undergo a period of exposure to the language without being expected to produce or make sense of it right from the start. From observing infants, we can also notice that no child starts speaking the day they are spoken to. Most often, children are silent for the better part of their first two years of life. That doesn’t mean they don’t learn, however. And this is at the core of the TPR approach. James Asher, similarly to every parent, observed how young children learn the language and noticed that they first begin understanding simple commands and responding to them with actions. The parents say, “Come here”, “Take this”, or “Which one would you like?” and instead of answering verbally, the child follows their directions or points. Asher’s idea was to apply this approach to adult foreign language education.

In the TPR classroom, the teacher has to be a performer, to capture and retain students' attention and hence stimulate their motivation. Asher says the teacher must have “a truckload of tricks” for that. Examples of these “tricks” are the skill of cartooning, the use of drama and storytelling, the creation of mind maps, and mnemonics. The teaching process is aided by the ability to demonstrate simple concepts or meanings through drawings. Mind mapping plays to the right side of the brain, as it supports the discovery of patterns and the creation of associations. Mnemonics, or the application of various strategies to aid memorization, is helpful for the teacher to be familiar with. Drama or storytelling also plays a key role in the TPR curriculum.

Image 2. Yasni, 2019. "Back To School".

A TPR lesson would start with a warm-up: a review of previously taught material. The teacher repeats some commands from the last lesson, and students have to perform them fast. For example, “Maria, touch the wall", "Pierre, close the door", "Luca, put the chair here (points) and sit on it". Next, there is an introduction to new vocabulary. The teacher shows pictures and speaks the words or actions depicted: “Wash your hands”, “Clean the plates”, “Fold the clothes". Other vocabulary items are being introduced (sink, glasses, t-shirt, shorts, socks, etc). Following this, the target language is written on the board. Then the teacher asks simple questions, such as “Where is the cup?”, “Who is wearing the blue shorts?” and, depending on the level, students either point, perform, or answer shortly. Students practice with each other taking turns, asking questions, and giving commands. Finally, reading and writing where the teacher writes sentences on the board in the target language and reads them. Students repeat and transfer them to their notebooks.

Throughout the years, there have been many discussions about the efficacy of TPR. One recent study in an Indonesian elementary school reported that students who were taught with TPR achieved better results than their peers (Zulpan, 2018). And with time, the TPR has been established as very conducive to young learners' education. It is playful, fun, instructive, and leaves room for making mistakes and learning from them. It is especially suitable for kinesthetic learners – those individuals who learn better through movement. Additionally, it doesn’t require a lot of preparation or props for the classroom.

One of the disadvantages of this approach is its difficulty in conveying abstract concepts. In this sense, it is limited and more suitable for beginner and elementary-level classrooms. Another disadvantage is that it may take a considerable amount of time before students begin producing any language. This is not convenient for language schools, and goal-oriented or time-restricted learners. A third drawback stems from the fact that it puts very little emphasis on error correction. And last but not least, it can be perceived as repetitive, particularly by adult learners (Javed, 2022). Despite its downsides, the TRP approach is still used today in many classrooms around the world. It is often not the sole method of teaching but is rather implemented as an additional technique to catch students’ attention, introduce new vocabulary, or add variety to the practice materials.

Image 3. Kniaz, 2020. "Children-camp entertainment activity".

Similar to the TPR, the Suggestopedia method arose in the 1960s. It was developed by Georgy Lozanov, a medical doctor and psychiatrist who wrote “Suggestology”, where he discussed his theories about suggestion and subliminal signals coming from the environment. These signals, according to Lozanov, are absorbed by the unconscious mind before being expressed consciously. Suggestion, he believed, activated the unused parts of the mind (Bancroft, 1976).

“The basic assumption in Suggestopedia is that interpersonal communication is both conscious and subconscious. All stimuli are complex and require interpretation. A person’s underlying capacity can be developed through a process of suggestion, whereby the teacher uses different stimuli to help the learner replace negative thoughts with desire and creativity, and at the same time facilitate memorizing” (Lozanov, 1978).

Not unlike the TPR, Suggestopedia aims to involve both the left and right parts of the brain. According to Lozanov, a relaxed, friendly, and non-intrusive atmosphere in the classroom is crucial for learning. He also believed in the power of music to create a state of pseudo-passiveness – a mental state optimal for the transfer of knowledge. His preferred choice of music was slow classical Baroque concertos in 4/4 time that “relaxes the body and alerts the mind” (Richards & Rodgers, 2014, p. 321).

Image 4. Liverani, 2017. "Piano. Montreal, Canada".

The main goal of the Suggestopedia approach is to accelerate the learning process and help students start conversing quickly. It aims to do that by increasing learners’ comprehension and enhancing their ability to memorize vocabulary quickly. The course, comprising 10 units, is very structured and repetitive and should be completed in 30 days. Every unit is supposed to be worked on for three days. On the first day, the teacher introduces the topic of the dialogue that will be studied. This dialogue is then given to the students with its translation into their native language. Students read it and ask any questions they may have. After that, the dialogue is read twice in special ways conducive to memorizing it. The next day, students re-read the dialogue, trying to imitate the teacher’s reading, discuss it, and study the 150 new vocabulary items in the unit. Finally, students are encouraged to use the language from the dialogue, experiment with it, and try to implement it in other contexts.

In Suggestopedia, learners play a passive role. They need to conjure up the internal motivation to learn, while also being relaxed. Their mental state is of the utmost importance, as they need to be able to immerse themselves in the method while avoiding any other distractions. They are not supposed to analyze or study the material in the literal sense of the word. Rather, they should let go of any expectations and subject themselves to the influence of the educator's readings. Lozanov calls this process ‘infantilization’, in the sense that adult students are trusting the teacher as the absolute authority. And when it is time to practice the new language via role-plays, games, and other similar activities, they should act playfully, a bit like children. One other characteristic of the learner in this approach is the fact that they have to adopt a fictitious identity. They choose a name, a nationality, and even a history for themselves and play that role throughout the course.

Image 5. Tjiuwanda, 2019. n.a.

The teacher's role is to create an encouraging environment during lessons that will allow students to reach their most suggestible mental state. Teachers should be authoritative and convey absolute confidence in the method and their own abilities. They also need to have acting, singing, and psychotherapeutic skills. Educators should maintain a positive and enthusiastic attitude and not criticize students (Bancroft, 1976). This approach has provoked a lot of heated discussions and has attracted many devoted supporters as well as passionate critics. There are several advantages to Suggestopedia, including enhanced memorization, a relaxed environment in the classroom, and improved oral production. Students subjected to this type of education are generally well-motivated and find it fun and useful (Bancroft, 1976).

Some of the disadvantages of the Suggestopedia approach are due to the small number of students. According to its creator, the classroom should allow for up to 12 students. Therefore it is difficult to implement it in a lot of educational systems around the world. A second obstacle may be cultural concepts and disbelief in suggestion, especially since it is often used as a synonym for hypnosis and is commonly perceived as an excuse for laziness. And last but not least, the skills that the Suggestopedia teacher must have made finding and training these educators a long and expensive process. Although Suggestopedia is rarely incorporated in today’s teaching, some elements – like creating a relaxed classroom environment and making learning a joyful experience – are often implemented.

Image 6. Z [username], 2017. "Location: Tambon Mae La, Kayin State, Myanmar (Burma)".

Bibliographic References and Further Readings

Bancroft, W. J. (1976). "Suggestology and Suggestopedia: The Theory of the Lozanov Method". Education & Welfare. National Institute of Education. Javed, A. (2022). "Total physical response advantages and disadvantages". EngloPedia Website, Applied Linguistics Section. Lozanov, G. (1978). Suggestology and outlines of suggestopedy (2nd ed.). Gordon & Breach Publishing Group.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2014). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (3rd ed.). Cambridge Language Teaching Library. Cambridge University Press.

Blog's Team, "Roger Sperry". (n.d.). FamousPsychologists Blog. TPR Team [blog]. (n.d). "What is TPR? From a lecture at Cambridge University, England by James J. Asher, Ph.D.". TPR World Website (Total Physical Response). Zulpan, Z. (2018). "Total Physical Response (TPR): Its Effect on Students’ Achievement in Reading Procedure Text". JEES (Journal of English Educators Society), 3 (2), 205-214.

Visual Sources

Image 1. Berthemy, Y. (2020). "A group of girls dancing".

Image 2. Yasni, Z. (2019). "Back To School".

Image 3. Kniaz, A. (2020). "Children-camp entertainment activity".

Image 4. Liverani, C. (2017). "Piano. Montreal, Canada".

Image 5. Tjiuwanda, Y. (2019). n.a.

Image 6. Z, @dead__artist [username]. (2017). "Location: Tambon Mae La, Kayin State, Myanmar (Burma)".


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Gery Ciftcioglu

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