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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 5; September 2001

(Sometimes) Against the grain
Total physical response for teaching metaphorical language

Seth Lindstromberg (Hilderstone College, Kent, England)

I don't think there is anything controversial in this piece—except that it involves an approach to course and lesson planning that publishers are unwilling to allow into their general EFL/ESL course books. This approach is called the 'threads' approach. I will say more about it in a later issue. (See also Tessa Woodward. 2001. Planning Lessons and Courses. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 55-56.)

In a nutshell, this piece is about a way of using teaching method TPR (Total Physical Response) in smallish, regular doses at intermediate level and above. Although I explain TPR very briefly further below, basically I take it for granted that readers are familiar with the basics of TPR. Details can be found in works by James Asher (who developed the method), Donald Freeman, Jack Richards, Earl Stevick and others. Here, I will only say that TPR is founded on the belief that the early stages of language learning (including acquisition of vocabulary) proceeds best if the sense of target items (words and phrases) is acted out. Apparently, there is good evidence that TPR is effective in just this sense.

Extending Total Physical Response: from action to metaphor
The distinction between 'metaphor' and 'metaphorical expressions'

Roughly, metaphor occurs when a thing (or action or concept) in a 'target domain' is thought of in terms of something belonging in another, less abstract domain, a so-called 'source domain'. For example, if I think of a person as being 'swayable', what I have done is this…

  1. I took a term (sway) and an idea (physical swaying) from the source domain of entities and then
  2. I applied both the term and its physically grounded (or 'literal') meaning to the target domain of mental attitudes.

Native speakers will understand the phrase swayable child not just because it is in common use. They will also understand it also because it is an expression of a general, conventional metaphor, i.e., a common way of thinking about personalities (specifically, about attitudes) as if they were tangible rather than intangible. Attitudes do not really exhibit varying degrees of rigidity. They are not really swayable, firm, flexible, unbending, steady, stiff or brittle and so on. Mental attitudes do not really move from left to right. They do not break in the middle. Nor do they resist breaking in the middle or anywhere else. But we naturally speak and think of them as if they do. Again, this way of thinking is an example of metaphor. A metaphorical expression is a particular word or phrase which can express such a way of thinking.

The frequency of metaphor
Certain kinds of text tend especially to be well stuffed with vivid metaphorical expressions, for instance, newspaper commentary on business, politics and sports. Metaphorical expressions are also fairly common in information-rich conversation (as opposed to small talk. In other kinds of discourse such as job ads and technical instructions vivid metaphorical expressions are much less frequent but still findable here and there. Large numbers of metaphorical expressions are underlain by metaphors so basic to normal thought that we typically do not even notice that they are metaphors. But that is another story, one already well told by Lakoff and Johnson (1980.)

Is there any value in knowing the root of this or that metaphorical expression?
Make up your own mind. If you were learning English, which do you think would be mnemonically more efficient and would yield greater depth of understanding...?

  • To learn the meaning of rock as in (rock this way and that). And also learn rock and roll, rocking chair, rock the boat (as 'disturb the status quo') and rocked by the news. And to associate each of these expressions with an image of something physically rocking or being rocked…yourself, for instance. .
  • Or…to learn these expressions without reference either to each other or to the physically grounded sense of rock. For instance, to learn that rock the boat means 'disturb the status quo' and nothing more.
Well-known surveys of how people learn and recall vocabulary are apparently unanimous in stating that there are mnemonic and general cognitive benefits in developing links between any new vocabulary item and other items/facts which one has already learned.

General remarks on some metaphorical expressions may or may not need explanation
Some metaphors are probably universal (Marx 1996) - the following, for instance:

    GREATER QUANTITY (e.g., higher prices, a price rise, build up reserves)
    UP = GREATER INTENSITY, DEGREE (e.g., the height of stupidity, the temperature went up)
    MORE IMPORTANT (e.g., a higher authority, up the chain of command)

That is, many, perhaps most, expressions of this broad metaphor may require no special explanation in the classroom. For instance, if learners know the meaning of authority, the phrase a higher authority is likely to be readily understood.

The sense of many other metaphorical expressions may be much harder for learners to see. This is may be so, for example, if the relevant source domain is relatively unimportant in one's native culture. Thus, in Britain riding and horse lore generally (including fox hunting) is the source domain of many metaphorical expressions--keep a tight rein on your emotions, unbridled lust, a blinkered outlook, galloping inflation, hobbled by debt, at the end of my tether, kick over the traces, fall at the first hurdle, shoot someone else's fox, to mention just a few. Ditto the playing of card games, especially poker and bridge (have an ace in the hole, tip your hand, do it in spades, art isn't my strong suit…) Sailing has been another important source of English metaphorical expressions (try a new tack, take the wind out his sails, etc) although, as seafaring has become less and less done, this family of expressions is becoming smaller and smaller. Other languages, for historical/ economic/ geographic/ cultural reasons, may have few if any common metaphorical expressions based on riding, card playing or sailing. Learners speaking these languages might profit by some explicit instruction about relevant expressions and their source domains.

Here, I will concentrate only on the rich source domain of physical movement.

What is basic TPR?

  • Introduce the physically grounded senses of your target vocabulary.
  • Make use of movement to associate the word with the meaning.
  • Demonstrate the movement and get students to move as well.
  • As the course progresses, add new lexis and grammatical patterns by, for instance, adding new items within lexical areas previously covered, by covering new areas, by adding qualifiers (e.g., a table -> a table with four legs -> a table with four hollow legs or touch yourself -> touch your face -> touch your right eyelid or spin around -> spin around clockwise), by adding on speech functional heads (Could you…?) and tails (…, please). (This is a partial list of options.)
  • Beginners, especially, need to hear new language, and act it out, quite a few times before they use it.

How to make TPR usable at intermediate level and above?
Another way of extending TPR is to move from the literal to the metaphorical (e.g., snap your fingers -> a snap decision.) With intermediate and advanced learners the move from literal to metaphorical can be made quite quickly. For instance, the literal meaning can be introduced on one day, reviewed latter in the same lesson, reviewed the next lesson (on another day), and then a metaphorical use can be introduced in the/a lesson after that (on yet another day).

From intermediate level up, I concentrate on 'descriptive action verbs'. Here is a short list. (Anyone wanting a longer list can email me at SethL@hilderstone.ac.uk).
shrug (shrug off an insult)
turn/spin around clockwise (My head was spinning, in a spin)
rock (rock the boat, be rocked by bad news)
bend over (bend over backward to help someone)
scratch (scratch the surface of an issue)
stretch (stretch the truth)
squeeze (a financial squeeze)
seize (seize an opportunity)
swing (mood swings)
shake (shaken by the news)
flinch (flinch from a responsibility)
wriggle (wriggle out of a responsibility)

An additional way of extending TPR is to move into a different register and then move into metaphor in that register too (e.g., tip your head -> incline your head -> be inclined to do something; stretch -> extend -> financially over-extended.


  • I generally present two to four dozen action verbs and then stop. People tend to get the ideas that such verbs are doubly useful and then perhaps (I humor myself with this thought) pay more attention to these excellent words when they come up later on. I fancy also that most learners get better at looking for and finding plausible metaphorical roots after their bit of work on this in the classroom.
  • My experience is that adults take to this particular lesson thread immediately while immature teens may remain skeptical for some time. So I generally do other things with such killjoys.
  • I will send Mario a more detailed description of method for inclusion (if he likes it) in a later issue.
  • This article arose out of two different talks given at the 1997 IATEFL Conference in Brighton and at International House, London, May 1997.

Marx, Lawrence E. 1996. 'On perceptual metaphor'. Metaphor and Symbol, vol. 11/1.
Basic reading
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press. [Essential.]
Woodward, Tessa and Seth Lindstromberg. 1995. Planning from Lesson to Lesson. Longman. [About lesson threads--out of print, but perhaps still findable]

Finding metaphorical expressions and learning about their source domains A large learner's dictionary such as the Cambridge International Dictionary of English, The Cobuild Series English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary or The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is a good source of reasonably common metaphorical expressions. If you compare their entries for sway, you will find that only the Longman dictionary explicitly marks metaphorical usages. But even in the case of this dictionary, one could wish for greater consistency in this regard. George Lakoff and co-workers at the University of California at Berkeley have compiled a catalog of metaphors and example expressions which are eventually findable on-line by doing a search on 'George Lakoff'.

Further reading on metaphor Very 'academic' but very good is George Lakoff's chapter, 'The contemporary theory of metaphor', in Metaphor and Thought, edited by Andrew Ortony (2nd edition 1993, Cambridge University Press). An excellent book length survey is Raymond Gibbs' The Poetics of Mind (1994. Cambridge University Press). See also the journal Metaphor and Symbol (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 10 Industrial Ave, Mahwah, NJ, 07430, USA). .
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