Intro and contents



Reaching out



Gestures in communication

My research 1

My research 2

Student profile

Video of class

Input and output

Output and interlanguage

Gesture and grammar

Eliciting with gesture

Silent period

Fading gesture

Gesture in CLIL



Gestures for language teaching.

My first research ventures - 1998.

The research projects I have mentioned on the article Teaching English through Hand Gestures have helped to maintain my own enthusiasm in this area. I have designed a gesture language to represent the lexis and grammatical structures of the English language with the intention of paralleling spoken language through gestures at the sentence level. I actually conceived the first draft of a gesture dictionary back in 1998 and I have developed this gesture tool and ideas for implementing it in the classroom with groups of children in private language teaching centres in Spain. The first mention in academic circles of this idea took place at the TOEFL conference, Madrid, in March 2002, when I gave my first workshop and informal feedback on the findings of a three-year informal classroom research project teaching English to primary school children through gesture at a language academy in Seville.

I later carried out further research of a more formal nature in 2014 as the experiment to my Phd studies... 

How and why the gesture language was created.

Teacher and students at GestureWay course - early days
Where are they now? One of my teachers and class of students at early GestureWay course at the Shakespeare School, Nervion, Seville (year 2000).
(Were you there? If you recognize yourself or your children, please get in touch! I'd love to hear from you!)

As a teacher and English academy owner in Seville, Spain, in the nineties, my teachers and I were able to experiment almost as much as we wanted with my young learners and their English language training. Perhaps like many teachers, I began to feel that the approach of linear teaching of structures and vocabulary led to disappointingly slow acquisition of the new language. There was also the problem that stemmed from the obstacle brought about by the over-representation of the written word in the classroom. I wanted our students to speak English but published materials resorted to text as a basis for language input and eliciting for speaking skills development. Furthermore, reading and writing skills were presented as requiring similar amounts of training as speaking and listening skills. I felt I disagreed.

Primary school children in Spain from the age of seven or eight upwards can read quite competently in their own language (Spanish). Did I need to spend so much time with reading and writing in English, which shares a similar alphabet as Spanish, in classrooms that had as their main objective the teaching of communicative spoken L2? Steven Krashen states: "If a child learns how to read in one language, that child knows how to read, and that general ability will facilitate learning to read in another language" (Krashen, 1996:23). At elementary levels for young children where no familiarity with pragmatics or register is needed, one wonders at the term "skill" applied to reading and writing in the L2. Writing English at this age only requires the student to learn how to transcribe their L2 oral skills into text form. According to Asher and his initially text-reduced teaching approach, Total Physical Response, learners are very adept at transferring the L2 acquired through speaking and listening to reading and writing skills (Asher in Ellis 2008:849 and Asher 2009).

The Skeleton System in English teaching.

In 1998, I came across an interesting teacher resource book on using pictures in the English classroom by Andrew Wright, who mentioned an approach by a teacher/researcher William Chuckney (Wright, 1998). Chuckney used a technique called the "Skeleton System". This entailed sketching line drawings onto blank postcards. Each drawing was an iconic reference of a noun, verb, adjective, etc. By placing the cards along the bottom of the blackboard, I could get my students to utter sentences in a controlled way. Chuckney had a dictionary of some 150 of these symbols, which could be used to create a variation of sentences that the students could call out.

William Chuckney's Skeleton System

William Chuckney pictures for learning L2

Visual symbols to elicit English vocabulary and enhance recall.

I experimented with these cards in class, using as examples the illustrations in Wright's book, and discovered something interesting. Despite having another item to learn besides the spoken word (ie. the sketched symbol), students seemed to be recalling vocabulary items remarkably easily. The symbol did not double the difficulty to memorise but rather enhanced recall of it. The concept of actually adding complexity to items we want to remember may be something overlooked by many language trainers or even rejected on a systematic basis. Nevertheless, Craik and Lockhart (1972) argued that memory is a function of processing depth and that enhanced analysis and elaboration result in deeper and stronger memory traces and therefore longer lasting retention of information. Vocabulary learning, consisting of isolated words and translations, could result in abstract, shallow connections. Other researchers have drawn conclusions that suggest that mnemonics (Hulstijn 1997), visual aids and offering strong context to vocabulary (Kang 1995, Paribakht & Wesche 1997) serve to increase retention.

Even at that time, 1998, William Chuckney's book (1987) was out of print and I have never been able to obtain a copy. Therefore, I set to work to develop my own symbols sketched on card. I discovered I could use a "headword approach". In other words, a symbol for "friend" would also be "friendly"; a symbol for "go" would also be "went" and "going". There are also words that seem to be related: the symbol for the verb "sit" could also be "chair" or "seat". Students had to make decisions which was the correct version by the context in the sentence. I perceived this decision-making process carried out orally was helping students consolidate language items and the corresponding sounds. This is not a new idea, of course, and, among other sources, could be traced back to the Output Hypothesis (Swain, 1985) that suggested that learners will also need to produce the language so as to better identify gaps in their linguistic knowledge and rectify them.

The transition to the use of hand gestures.

Shot from class video of GestureWay course in Seville
Class using gesture (2000). Note overhead projector that showed picture relating to the story being gestured.

There were drawbacks to the Skeleton System. It was slow and laborious organizing the cards into sentences before the class began. To be able to combine several sentences, it was necessary to draw copies of the same symbol as words repeated. Cards had to be pre-ordered before the class and finding a place to arrange so many cards was awkward. Overhead projectors were the English teacher's most modern tool in those days and this device didn't solve the problem. I cannot recall exactly how the idea came to me to use hand gestures instead of cards. I suppose it was a logical step. Teachers usually gesture in the classroom and I imagine I was using hand gestures to explain the meaning of sketched symbols. A hand gesture can create a vast number of iconic symbols, which are immediately created and dismantled. I realized that it was not essential for students to have a complete set of drawn symbols on display to "read" a series of these icons if they uttered the words in chorus simultaneously with the production of the hand gestures. If sentences were short enough and reinforced by the teacher repeating the sentence aloud afterwards, students were able to call out and understand relatively long and complex sentences. This same system of eliciting the English language orally and in chorus in the classroom through gestures I still use today and call "Silent Sign".

Materials and sources for the early GestureWay classes.

Early gestures from Bimodal Communication.
Students gesture sign for "woman", "she" or "her"; one of the original signs from Bimodal Communication (Monfort et al. 1998).

I needed help designing the first gestures. I soon discovered that standard sign languages for the hearing impaired were not always a suitable resource. The hand signs did not always represent single words necessarily and were not necessarily related to spoken language. I then found a book on Bimodal Communication (Monfort et al. 1998). It offered a hand sign language for children with communication difficulties and corresponded with the syntax of spoken languages exactly - in this case Spanish. Most of the gestures were very iconic and presumably more memorable and the meaning often intuited by my students learning English - one can imagine the hand signs for "sleep", "aeroplane", "cup", "pen", etc. Another interesting facet of Bimodal Communication was its use of supplementary signs to show tense; a pre-sign to show future or the past placed before the sign for the verb, for example.

However, there was still a lot of adaptation to be made to these hand signs to render them useful for eliciting English in the classroom. I began to compile my own dictionary of gestures for English language learning (the current dictionary contains over 2,000 headwords, Bilbrough, 2018). Yet there still remains a small percentage of hand signs from the Bimodal Communication dictionary among the GestureWay compilation.

It was all coming together. I decided then to call this language presentation and eliciting tool "SignMethod" (and later SignSystem) and later still GestureWay*. I bought the complete set of L.A. Hill's books (1990) on graded stories/jokes for English language learners as classroom material. I handed out copies of the "Introductory Steps" of these books to my teachers and gave them a short course on the technique as I understood it then and we started out on a fascinating English language teaching adventure.

*My thinking on naming such an approach has changed recently. I consider the use of gestures as a tool not as a "method", "system" or "way". As a tool, teachers may implement it in the classroom in a didactic approach for teaching English that they see fit. The tool does not dictate the method but rather offers opportunities.

Article based on findings from Phd thesis (Bilbrough 2017).


Asher, J. J. (2009). The Total Physical Response. Learning Another Language Through Actions. Sky Oak Productions; 7th edition.

Bilbrough, M. A. (2017). A gesture-based approach to teaching English as a foreign language. Department of English philology, The University of Seville.

Bilbrough, M. (2018). A Dictionary of Gestures for Teaching English (update of unpublished work developed for Phd thesis 2016).

Chuckney, W. (1987). The Skeleton System, co-published by Pilgrims Publications, Friendly Press and Hellenic.

Ellis, R. (2008). The Study of Second language Acquisition, ed. OUP

Hill, L. A. (1990). Introductory Stories for Reproduction, OUP. (And the rest of this series).

Hulstijn, J. H. (1997). Mnemonic methods in foreign language vocabulary learning: Theoretical considerations and pedagogical implications. In J. Coady and T. Huckin (Eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy. (pp. 203-224). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kang, S. (1995). The Effects of a Context-Embedded Approach to Second-Language Vocabulary Learning. System, 23(1): 43-55.

Krashen, S. D. (1996). Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education. Culver City: Language Education Associates, California.

Monfort. M. Rojo, A, Juárez, A. (1998). Programa Elemental de Comunicación Bimodal, ed. Ciencias de la Educación Preescolar y Especial, Sexta Edición, (Madrid).

Paribakht, T.S. and Wesche, M. (1997). Vocabulary enhancement activities and reading for meaning in second language vocabulary acquisition. In Coady, J. and Huckin, T. (Eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: a rationale for pedagogy (pp.174-200). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S. and Madden, C. (Eds.), Input in Second Language Acquisition, 235-256. New York: Newbury House.

Wright, A. (1997) Pictures for Language Learning, CUP.

See article - GestureWay - Teaching English through hand gestures...

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