Just Plain Good Teaching, Part Two: Engage the Body and the Brain | Edutopia
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Just Plain Good Teaching, Part Two: Engage the Body and the Brain

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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This is the second part of a two-part entry. Read part one.

Sheltered instruction uses the phrase "comprehensible input" to describe how teachers can build the background knowledge students need to understand a lesson. Comprehensible input, simply stated, means that the teacher -- aware that students do not capture knowledge very well by passively listening -- provides contextual clues to the meaning of words he or she says by showing pictures, gesturing, pantomiming, pointing, playing music, writing the words, and doing anything else, including standing on her head, to get the students to understand fully.

The rule of three applies here: Use at least three sensory methods to get your point across, and the students will remember and understand at higher levels. An additional benefit is that students will be more likely to keep trying to understand because they see that you are trying to make sure they get it.

As a Spanish teacher, I learned that it increased my students' confidence if they could get to the point of instant recall of vocabulary before I asked them to actually use it; they participated more, and they felt more successful. I used an approach created by James J. Asher, an emeritus professor at San Jose State University, called Total Physical Response. It operates under the theory that, because your body is connected to your brain, you can learn better if you use more of your body than just your eyes and ears. Instead of simply saying a word and having the students repeat it, for example, I showed them the word through actions and had them do the actions, too.

The applications for this theory in a foreign language class are obvious, but a science or math teacher can do the same thing with a little preparation. For example, if you post algebraic theorems or scientific terms around the room, you can name a theorem or a term and have the students touch it. You can put a problem on the board and have the students point to the theorem that will be the first step in solving it.

Just having the students stand up or give a thumbs-up if they think they know the gene sequence is TPR. Have them stand next to the biome that matches, or have them come up with a pantomime to get the other students to guess the right phylum. A creative teacher can make the questions increasingly difficult by going up Bloom's Taxonomy. For example, ask students to point to the force that is most important when figuring out the trajectory of a rocket.

And what are the students who don't understand doing while the rest of the class is engaging in TPR? They're watching and mimicking the others until they get it on their own. Once all the students feel comfortable with the vocabulary, you can start using it in deeper learning conversations. When you say, "The hypotenuse is adjacent to the side," the students will understand what you are talking about, and you can get on to why it's an important thing to know about right triangles.

If you combine TPR with the "comprehensible input" sheltered instruction espouses, you end up with an incredible amount of JPGT that even special-needs students on both ends of the scale can use. A teacher intent on not leaving any student behind must first do some "just plain good teaching" before focusing on any particular student.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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krista porter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do believe that physical activity can increase brain function. I am a physical education teacher and right now we are doing a larger than life obstacle course of the heart. In the obstacle course we talk about chambers, valves, oxygen and deoxygenated blood cells, and how the blood flows throughout the body. This has only been going on for 2 days and every student that has gone through it can tell you where to get oxygen, why there is not any oxygenm, any question that you would expect a fifth grader to know about the heart. It is amazing how much a student can learn when a teacher incorporates movement in their learning.

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Active learning requires the students to willingly think on multiple levels. When student and teachers are using physical responses as learning tools, they are moving more than just their brain. They are creating dendrites and synapses, but they are also making learning interesting and fun. Which will help students to feel that learning is a good thing and not a punishment. It also is a real assessment of learning because you can see which kids get it right away, and which do not. It is a formative assessment because the students can auto correct and learn the right answer by watching others if they get stuck. TPR is good for the learning cycle and practice cycle.

Have fun with this!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Dana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for sharing your insights. I too believe that multi-sensory teaching methods are too often reserved for students with disabilities. I believe that all students benefit from multi-sensory teaching methods, because it stimulates different areas of their brain. I also believe that it is our responsibility as educators to be familiar with the different functions of the brain and how they work. If we understand the brain, we will better be able to understand where our students deficits are and how we can strengthen specific areas of the brain.

Ginger Knop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree that JPGT involves many different aspects of getting your students to learn. Whether it be through visual, audibal, or kinetic stimuli, a good teacher will pull out all of his/her sources to not only get students' attention, but increase their chances of really learning the material. The days of "drill and kill" are over. Now is the time to get students moving and learning.
In my Pre-K class, I realize that not every student is going to learn the same way. Therefore, when, for example, teaching numbers and one-to-one correspondance, we get up and stomp, jump, clap five times to learn the number five. Then we will go on a "Number Hunt" where each child is given a number and they have to find it in the room somewhere. This is also a good way to visually see that numbers are everywhere. When you incorporate learning activities like these, it makes learning fun and pretty soon, they really know their stuff!

Ginger 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree that JGPT is what you have to do in order to get students to learn. The days of "drill and kill" are over. Now is the time to get your students moving and learning. When the body is active, so is the brain and the more likely students will put their energy towards learning.
I teach Pre-K and these students are always on the move. When it is time to learn a new number, for example 5, we get up and stomp 5 times, clap 5 times, jump 5 times. Then, we will go on a number hunt throughout the school and look for the number 5. The students have fun learning!
Knowing what we do about how people learn, it is important that teachers have a variety of methods to instruct their students in whatever way they learn best. Whether it be kinestheticly, visually, or audibly. If you can incorporate all of these for each lesson, you will reach more of your students and pretty soon, everyone is learning.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When studying research based on how the human brain works, I have found that using a multitude amount of methods help students learn. As we have always known, the brain is connected to personal experiences. By actively involving students in their own learning, students are given the opportunity to form these real life experiences. I really like the idea of using three sensory methods to help students learn a concept. It not only provides repetition, but it also allows students to relate to the material through their own learning modality.

Angey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have heard of and used something very similar to this in my classroom. For instance, when teaching students the parts of the plant, our head was the flower, our arms the leaves, our legs the stem, and our feet the roots. Students seemed to do so much better when using this technique. We called it Brain Smart.

Brain Research strategies are becoming more prominent in today's classrooms. Some of the strategies that are implemented into the classroom are very effective, while others fail. One such research I am familiar with is the use of different scents for different content areas. For instance, I may use a lemon scent while teaching Language Arts but use peppermint for math. I am interested in learning more about any strategies you have implemented yourself and whether or not they were successful.

Patcharee Plypoo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sheltered instruction, comprehensible input, total body response: these are all big fancy terms, but I agree that it is all just plain good teaching, JPGT! As a kindergarten teacher, it just seemed natural to have my students involved on many sensory levels. I make extensive use of pictures to introduce new vocabulary. We often pantomime, point, color and cut and paste together pictures. We act out nursery rhymes. These activities work extremely well to help build vocabulary and understanding among my students with limited English language skills. But I would think that most all kindergarten teachers would do these things. I guess it just shows that what works for the youngest students can also work for the older ones. Just plain good teaching.

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Brain research is a relatively new topic for me as a teacher. I do know about the multiple levels of intelligence and that learning must being meaningful to students for them to be engaged. Reading this blog and others, about the importance of engaging not only our brains, but our bodies has been beneficial for me as an educator. I do try to incorporate several different strategies when teaching a new skill, including movement, hands-on activities, and music. This is one way to bring the focus back on the individual learner rather than the 'standardized' learner our government is focused on.

Kelly Raimondi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Brain research is also a new topic for me as a teacher. The strategies mentioned to engage the body and brain (Sheltered instruction and Total Physical Response) should definitely be evident in every classroom where there is "good" teaching going on. I am aware of Bloom's Taxonomy and leep it in mind as I plan my lessons. Through my research on th brain I learned I am already using brain-compatible strategies. I make sure everyday that my classroom is conducive to learning. I always give my students the opportunity for hands-on learning using manipulatives, especially in math. I also use a lot of rhyme and music in my lessons daily. All of these strategies definitely help improve students memory and learning. They allow the students to take a more active role in their learning and they are loving it!

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