George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

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

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Was this useful?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (43) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Melissa Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I, too, found myself going over my lessons and activities throughout the year to see if I truly engage the students and involve learning "all over the cortex". This subject fascinates me and I look forward to next fall when I can actually put it into action. Until then, I'm going to engage in Edutopia and find out more and how other teachers are doing in their classroom in this area.

Chaunte Robinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too use gestures and physical movement when teaching. I use it a lot when we are learning new vocabulary. For instance, when I am spelling new words with students, I spell in a rhythmic kind of way, as well as do gestures and I have students repeat me. Example: umbrella, I would say.. U-M-BRE-double L-A, while gesturing getting up snd umbrella and holding it. When I see them trying to spell the word, they mimic what I did.

The information you posted is great and I would love to learn more about it.

Chaunte Robinoson
2nd grade teacher
Chicago, IL

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


I think we all start out as kinesthetic learners--learning through our bodies, because that is all we have. As we get older, we develop other ways to learn, but we never lose the kinesthetic. I witnessed a creative teacher teaching logic to his students with hand gestures. He would ask them questions and they would respond with the verbal answer (and, or, not, and or,nor, etc...) but would also do the and gesture that corresponded. These were seventh graders learning advanced logic (college level)! I have also seen a chemical bond dance, phonetics, grammar and story telling with gestures. Especially for younger students but also effective for older students, total physical response also helps the teacher determine if the student is catching on too. Just by looking you can see if the students have the concept or not.

Have Fun with this!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Rebecca St. John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love your idea of having students use hand signals in order to keep them engaged. I think that this technique allows students to actively participate in a way that is low risk.

Linda Hirschmiller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a third year kindergarten teacher in a socioeconomically disadvantaged urban school in El Cajon, California. The majority of my students live in poverty and enter my classroom with very little knowledge of letters or sounds: Many do not even know how to write their own names. I have been using TRP in my classroom with wonderful results. When my students are learning the alphabet, we sing a song together while creating a body motion for each phoneme. The alphabet song that we sing includes the name of the character that helps the students remember the letter sound (Andy Apple, Benny Bear ect.), the sound that the letter represents verbalized three times (/a//a//a/, /b//b//b/ect.) and the name of the letter (a,b ect.). When we sing the song, the students point to the alphabet friend (picture), make a movement three times when they sing the letter sound, and then trace (and later in the year write independently) the letter on the white board.
When I first started teaching kindergarten, I did not have students this engaged and it took much longer to help them learn their letters. My first year, I had some students leave me at the end of the year not knowing all of their letters.

Each year, I added a little bit more TPR and the students performed a little bit better. This year, all 20 of my students could name and write all 26 letters by November, and they could write simple sentences independently by December. By the end of the year, my students were writing narrative stories with a beginning, middle and end and I attribute their success to the type of total body engagement methods that you mentioned in this post.

I would love to know if you have any suggestions for further reading.

Linda Hirschmiller
Kindergarten, Johnson Elementary
El Cajon, California

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


Have you seen Dr. Asher's web page? He has a lot of materials and books. ( There is also TPRS (TPR with Storytelling) founded by Blaine Ray ( Interestingly enough, not much has been said about using this kind of teaching and learning with the core subjects.

I firmly believe that science, math, English and social studies teachers could teach their classes as if they were foreign language classes. If they did, I am certain that the same success you found would also be theirs.

Good Luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Alesia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been in search of ways to engage my kids that are more than the obvious thumbs up or down etc. Thank you so much for your ideas. I can see how this would work on the kids and I'll bet they will love the idea of getting up and moving around. Thanks.

Johnie Franks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very interested in TPR but was wondering what sort of research has been done to back up its validity?

Adrian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello! My name is Adrian and I am an Elementary School music teacher in Buford, GA in Gwinnett County. I teach music for grades K-5. I am currently working on my Masters through Walden University. I love how the blog said to use at least three sensory methods to get points across. As teachers, it is our job to teach to every student and to reach all kinds of learners. With testing stresses, it seems that teachers are straying so far away from what they know to do as teachers (engage the students) so they can teach "to the test." Though the teachers don't do this on purpose, they feel such pressure to produce adequate test scores, and, in turn, are turning to the "paper-pencil" activities and "sit and get" lectures. One of the initiatives my school is working on is to constantly have the students engaged. We are working in a partnership with an Atlanta based company called ArtsNow to train our teachers to integrate the arts into their curriculum and teaching style. If we do this, we will definitely be using three sensory methods for each lesson! This is SO important!

Marie Travers's picture

To me, this brain-researched concept of matching body and mind is complete common sense. Its nice to know that there is proven research to back me up! As a former Kindergarten teacher, I used lots of movement activities to teach; it is easy to be creative with small children. Lets not forget or overlook that children of any age can benefit from some of the same activities as the small children. Act out stories, make models of anything and everything, get down on the carpet and explore. You can't go wrong teaching multiple modes of learning; you are almost guaranteed to reach each student in some way.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.