Professional Learning

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

October 9, 2008

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.

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