Prepositions with TPR

What’s the best way to remember something?  It’s to log it into your emotional memory.  Your emotional brain came thousands, if not millions of years before your rationally thinking brain, so it’s got a head start on being able to remember things that can keep you alive, that you enjoy, things that you dislike and things that might cause you harm, it’s kept your ancestors alive.  I’ve academic research on all of this published in other locations and in many conferences so if you want pointed in the right direction, let me know, this blog post is going down a different route.

The amygdala in your brain is where your emotional memory comes from, the rest is based on rational thought and memory.  To quote Daniel Goleman in his Emotional Intelligence book, “The hippocampus is crucial in recognising a face as that of your cousin.  But it is the amygdala that adds you don’t really like her.” (Goleman, 1996) 

Due to this understanding of how emotions come before rational thought, a particular teaching method has evolved over time to become known as Total Physical Response (TPR).  TPR is where students learn language through movement, dance and song. 

As Ghasemi & Hashemi point out, learning a language, especially with young learners, is a social creature, and through it, other social behaviours are acquired, hence why they recommend using TPR as language is more than just a standard course in the curriculum (Ghasemi and Hashemi, 2011).  Er also backs this up as they state when a student is in the Critical Period (Hartshorne, Tenenbaum and Pinker, 2018) for learning a language, multiple methods used during that time is key (Er, 2013).

Hashemi points out that TPR works best with children aged 8-10 as they still have a low attention span and a lot of physical energy, their physical world is dominant all the time (Hashemi and Azizinezhad, 2011).  They use a poetic ancient Chinese proverb to discuss the users of TPR, “Tell me, I forget.  Show me, I remember.  Involve me I understand” (p.2084).

This method lowers student inhibition and stress so it is working both sides of memory in the brain, the emotionally charged one, and one for ordinary facts.  This strength is backed up by a study by Kuo et al where TPR was used to teach young learners vocabulary and found that there was positive effects on student performance, attitudes, confidence as well as motivation (Kuo et al., 2014).  Lanir also talks about success with TPR in that their students learn lexical chunks with movement in the classroom, and the students then are able to create their own visualisations of new language (Lanir, 2015).  This method of teaching is particularly helpful when students come across a language point that gives a negative emotional reaction due to difficulty, one of the best examples being Phrasal Verbs due to their 3000 possible combinations and 5500 possible different meanings (Sinclair, 2012). 

So as we can see, the benefits of TPR (or if we think about it in computer terms, writing to our emotional memory) it reduces inhibition, lowers stress, it creates a brain link between speech and action to boost language and vocabulary learning. 

There is something else here we need to be aware of – our emotional memory are the memories created from events with strong emotional attachments – for better or worse.  Like in a previous blog post discussing a very important book, this can be very negative as well as positive, so we always have to be careful when and what we are doing in the classroom, hopefully in the ‘safe’ environment in the class its always something fun, or as we say, a bit of craic.

Have a think about your teaching experiences for a moment.  For your students, what are the most difficult language points to learn?  Having taught in Spain and Italy for many years, my first answers would be phrasal verbs (that’s a whole other thing), prepositions and depending on regional L1 of the students, perfect tenses.  In Asturias perfect tenses didn’t really exist in Asturiano so the class generally needed to be half Spanish, half English to explain it in English, whereas in Extremadura, it was second nature.

Prepositions are an interesting one.  For Romance Language natives such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian, prepositions are one of the most difficult things to master in English (Lorincz and Gordon, 2012).  I’ve worked in academies where I’ve had teachers tell me the Preposition Dance is the way to go! …or the In, On, Under song that gives you nightmares of fish coming out of boxes is the way to go instead… Honestly I’ve never really found either of these to be beneficial of students who may be introverted or really don’t like those singing beavers and fish.

So over time I worked on my own, more subtle TPR tool that helps students, can be gamified, and works for both the introverts and extroverts in class. The only thing you need is your two hands.  (Now that I type this up, I realise I’ve never had a one handed student, but to counter this, they simply need to imagine a box in front of them). 

Like any TPR, it uses the Model – Mirror – Practice – Repeat means of showing it to them, get them to slowly do it with you, then practice it by calling it out to them, then repeating it over time (Rowland, 2020). 

The video below shows how I teach students, young and old, seven prepositions at once, and I have to say, I swear by this, it works perfectly and they enjoy it, even the 80 year old A2 students!  Try it out and let me know what you think.

It’s learning gestures for ON – UNDER – NEXT TO – IN – IN FRONT OF – BEHIND – BETWEEN.

Er, S. (2013) ‘Using Total Physical Response Method in Early Childhood Foreign Language Teaching Environments’, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier B.V., 93, pp. 1766–1768. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.10.113.

Ghasemi, B. and Hashemi, M. (2011) ‘Foreign language learning during childhood’, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier B.V., 28, pp. 872–876. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.11.160.

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B. and Pinker, S. (2018) ‘A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers’, Cognition. Elsevier, 177(July 2016), pp. 263–277. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.04.007.

Hashemi, M. and Azizinezhad, M. (2011) ‘Teaching English to children: A unique, challenging experience for teachers, effective teaching ideas’, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, pp. 2083–2087. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.10.405.

Kuo, F. R. et al. (2014) ‘The effects of Embodiment-based TPR approach on student English vocabulary learning achievement, retention and acceptance’, Journal of King Saud University – Computer and Information Sciences. King Saud University, 26(1), pp. 63–70. doi: 10.1016/j.jksuci.2013.10.003.

Lanir, L. (2015) ‘Visualising language’, ET Professional, pp. 38–39.

Lorincz, K. and Gordon, R. (2012) ‘Difficulties in Learning Prepositions and Possible Solutions’, Linguistic Portfolios, 1(1), pp. 1–5. Available at:

Rowland, M. (2020) Total Physical Response, Teacher Toolkit. Available at:

Sinclair, J. (2012) Collins COBUILD phrasal verbs dictionary. Collins COBUILD.

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