Intro and contents



Reaching out



Starting out


Gesture activities for the language classroom

1. Starting out with gesture.

 gesturing in the language classroom

I am assuming here that you already have a coursebook for your classroom. You may have already begun the course and you are following a curriculum laid out by the centre where you work. So what we can do, then, is to gradually introduce a number of gestures in your classroom of vocabulary items that coincide with the target language you need to practise. The best way to go about this is to choose high frequency lexical sets for gesturing. This approach can be used with children of all ages as at this stage we do not need to input gestures that require metalinguistic cognitive ability. In other words, we can limit the gestural input to simple iconic pictographs and kinetographs such as objects or action verbs and not necessarily ask learners to conjugate verbs, for example. As a rule, I start verb conjugation tasks within stories from about seven years upwards although you may "drill" verb conjugations (more on this later) at an earlier age if the curriculum requires this explicit knowledge from your learners.

Some lexical sets you can introduce from the beginning are:

subject personal pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, (also the same for object personal pronouns: me, you, him...)

possessive adjectives: my, your, his, her, its, our, their.

common classroom instructions and questions: come here, sit down, stand up, open your book, close your books, take out your things, put your things away.

classroom objects in the classroom: book, table, chair, desk, board, pencil, pen, rubber, pencil case, pencil sharpener. notebook, workbook, student's book, board.

other common verbs: be, I am, you are, he is, etc., like, I like my school, love (for things), I love films, go, come, come back, go away, look, listen, watch.

question words: why? (question mark), where?, which?, when?, what?, who?, how?, how are you?.

How to go about it.

You do not need to interrupt your normal class management arrangements and teaching style and flow to bring a consistent gesture code into the classroom. The picture above shows a preferred layout for chairs organised in a U-shape so you can see all the students at one time but this may not be possible in your classroom - neither is it necessary at this stage. You can also continue with the style of teaching you feel comfortable with, you are just going to add short sessions to your classes where you introduce gestures with their corresponding vocabulary.

When you are going to introduce gestures, ensure the students are looking at you and not carrying out some other task at the same time. Books should be closed, pens and pencils or things they can fiddle with put away. This is a visual and kinesthetic task where all learners must be focussed on what you are doing with your hands so you should be preferably standing to facilitate visual contact.

You introduce a gesture through a comprehensible meaning. This meaning may be a spoken word they already know well so you can just say it or, if the object is less familiar, you may need to point to the thing or act it out. What you are trying to achieve here is a transfer of meaning from a recognisable source to its gesture equivalent. For example, you point to the board and say board and then you gesture board. You enact writing on something, on the board, on a piece of paper, with a pen and then gesture the word write.

When you gesture the word you input, all the learners imitate your gesture and utter the word at the same time. This is important. Gesturing the meanings of words is a multi-modal approach to memory and learning (Kelly, McDevitt, & Esch 2009; Macedonia, Müller, & Friederici 2010, Allen 1995; Macedonia & Knösch 2011 - see these references in my research section) and several experiments have shown that there exists a critical moment for enhanced recall effectiveness that is at the moment of storage, rather than at retrieval of novel lexis. This theory has been supported in several experiments by Klein & Saltz 1976, Postman et al. 1978 and Saltz & Dixon 1982.

The dynamic of gesturing in the classroom will probably be new to your learners and some may just watch you and repeat the words rather than gesturing at the same time. I suggest through positive and lively encouragement you get all your learners to perform the gestures. In my experience, Spanish children at the primary school age do not exhibit feelings of self-consciousness when gesturing in this way, and after understanding very early on that gestures are part of the language learning process, will soon perform them quite naturally. I also use the student motivation tool, which is a means of awarding merit marks in real time for learner participation and good class work. I have added an extra category for gesture and award points for those students who make efforts to always gesture with the teacher.

What happens next?

Gesture exploited in the language classroom in this way is a very powerful eliciting tool. A proportion of a teacher's time is spent trying to get learners to utter the right words and also in the right order. A consistent gesture code allows you to elicit spoken utterances from your learners at any given moment. It is true that you can point to objects present in the classroom and elicit a single word utterance in this way, however, the vast majority of objects in the world exist outside our visual scope and pictures of them cannot be found at a drop of a hat. Gestures allow us to bring into immediate eliciting range animals and plants, bicycles and balls, beaches, parks and shops, mountains, rivers and streams and even stars, planets and comets from outer space!

Also, in a very simple way, we can begin to combine gestures for multi-word utterances. We can elicit a blue ball, a high mountain, a long river and a cold planet. We can elicit the utterance my book or his pencil and even I like my bicycle.

That is why it is a good idea to have gesture equivalents for words your students already know. You can then combine those words into short phrases thereby giving your learners exposure to how those phrases sound and how the component parts fit together. Furthermore, when you elicit words and phrases, your learners are required to recall them from the meanings given in the gestures. Frequent recall of novel words helps learners to strengthen their lexical knowledge in their long-term memory (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006)*.

With most of the high-frequency word meanings in your class transferred to gestures you can carry out the following didactic activities:

Your students will also be able to use gestures to express meanings of spoken words that they cannot recall to you and to their peers (see a video example of this here...). By using a gesture they can, at least convey the meaning, which releases tension caused from communication breakdown in the L2. You too will be understood more verbally. Learners can follow your utterances more easily if accompanied by gesture. Thus means you can explore more spoken language in the classroom and allow oral communication to take up a greater proportion of interaction time.

*I will explore with you in a later article the fascinating work done by Roediger & Karpicke and others on recall and memory .


Klein, K. & E. Saltz. (1976). Specifying the mechanisms in a levels of processing approach to memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 2, 671-679.

Postman, L., B., Thompkins, A. & Gray, W.D. (1978). The interpretation of encoding effects in retention. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 17, 681-705.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2007). Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 57.

Saltz, E and D. Dixon. (1982). Let’s pretend: the role of motoric imagery in memory for sentences and words. Journal of experimental child psychology 34, 77-92.


Copyright © 2019 Mike Bilbrough
All rights reserved