Dr. James J. Asher

Dr. James J. Asher, a professor of psychology and former associate dean at San Jose State University, has degrees in psychology from the University of New Mexico and the University of Houston with postdoctoral training at the University of Washington (Linguistics), Standford University (Research in Educational Psychology), and the Defense Language Institute West Coast (Arabic).  His research into language acquisition has been funded by grants from the Office of Education, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Defense, and the State of California.

He has written more than a hundred articles which appeared in publications such as Child Development, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Psychological Reports, The Journal of Special Education, The Modern Language Journal, The International Review of Applied Linguistics, The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, and Psychology Today.

In the past 25 years, Dr. Asher has been invited to demonstrate his stress-free “total physical response” approach at several hundred elementary, high schools and universities, including the University of California, Standford University, the University of Texas, New York University, the University of Hawaii, the University of Alaska, and Cambridge University in England.  His classic video demonstrations of TPR with children and adults have been seen by thousands of people around the world.

– from the back cover of James J. Asher, Learning Another Language Through Actions

“Dr. James J. Asher is a Professor of Psychology at San Jose State University in San Jose, California and the founder of TPR (Total Physical Response).”

TPR (and TPRS) is built on the theory and research of many language acquisition specialists and continues to develop according to the findings of classroom experimentation and new brain research.  Three key players in the development of this method are worth exploring in more depth.  The following summaries by Elizabeth Skelton, in her book Putting It Together: TPRS as a Sheltering Strategy for ESL provide a more in-depth understanding of the theories of James Asher, Stephen Krashen, and Blaine Ray.

James Asher´s research on second language acquisition in the 1960s provided the rationale for the well-known Total Physical Response Method, which has been used effectively in language classrooms for over 40 years (Asher, 2000).  The TPR method asks language learners to respond physically to commands in the target language, which are first modeled by the instructor.  Once students have acquired the vocabulary necessary to understand a series of commands, the instructor delays modeling the command.  Soon, the instructor can completely remove the model of the command and simply ask students to perform on their own.  Adding novel commands, or recombing vocabulary in a new way, is another way TPR builds comprehension.  From here, as they say, the sky is the limit.  Amazing results have been accomplished by experienced teachers who are able to bring the student right up to the intermediate level.

Here is an example of this TPR process.  The teacher says, “Stand up”  while standing up.  The students simply stand up with the teacher.  They do not have to repeat the command or respond verbally.  Next the teacher says, “Sit down” while sitting down.  The students respond by sitting down.  Now the teacher may add another element by saying, “Touch the table” while touching the table.  After modeling and practicing these three elements several times in a variety of orders, the teacher may now give the command, but delay the modeling.  If the students respond accurately and quickly, the teacher can give the command without modeling at all.  Finally, the students are ready to perform a novel command such as “Sit on the table.”  They have acquired the word sit and table, but they have not yet heard “Sit on the table.”  If the students hesitate to respond, the teacher simply models the action.  This process continues throughout the lesson as new vocabulary and structures are added and novel commands challenge students to demonstrate complete comprehension.

TPR is built on four main principles.  First, comprehension precedes production.  As language learners, our ability to comprehend a message greatly exceeds out ability to produce that same message.  Many times English Language Learners seem able to follow classroom procedures and participate in classroom projects, but are reluctant to speak or respond verbally.  Asher´s research in second language acquisition illustrates this phenomenon, which we now accept as a normal developmental phase.

Because students need time to acquire aural skills, TPR allows for a receptive “silent period.”  This “silent period” is the second principle of TPR.  When students are listening and responding to the new language, they may only respond with full-body actions, nods, gestures, pointing, and “yes” or “no.”  Allowing this silent period is critical for successful language learning.  According to Asher´s research, forced production may actually retard language acquisition.  TPR enables teachers to assess comprehension without requiring verbal output from beginning level students.

TPR is also built on a key principle from first language acquisition.  Asher noted that babies and toddlers mainly acquire their first language by responding to commands from their caregivers.  Parents all over the world give their children “commands” or speak in the imperative mode expecting their children to respond physically, not necessarily respond verbally.  When a parent or caregiver says, “Come here and show me your toy,” they expect the young child to walk over with the toy.  If the child doesn´t respond, the parent may repeat the command and give a gesture or model of what they want.  This type of communication style is reflected throughout the day with babies and toddlers including such common commands as, “Raise your arms so I can take your shirt off.”  “Let´s sit down and read a book,” and “Go get your shoes.”  First language learners often listen and respond physically to this kind of language for 18 months to three years before they begin speaking.  Second language learners can move through this silent period faster, but Asher´s research demonstrates the importance of using the imperative mode at beginning stages of language acquisition for second language learners, too.

The “motor skills hypothesis” is another key principle of the TPR method.  Asher hypothesized that there is “memory in movement” claiming that what we learn with our bodies will be remembered longer.  He noticed that once you learn to ride a bike, you do not need to relearn the process every time you get on a bike, even if you haven´t ridden in years.  The memory of the skill is stored in the body in “muscle memory.”  Asher hypothesized that language learned with the body could also be stored in long term memory.  Students who experience language learning with their entire bodies can acquire vocabulary and concepts faster and retain them longer.

– from Elizabeth Skelton, Putting It Together

Click here to continue reading the summary on Dr. Stephen Krashen and his contributions to the methodology.

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