The most recent and most rigorous research I have carried out to date was the main experiment for my Phd thesis, which was defended at Seville University in 2017 with a Cum Laude evaluation. The research involved a state primary school in Carmona, Seville. The school was not a bilingual school nor had special programmes of extra English instruction. The usual school English programme comprised two lessons of 45 minutes per week from first year to fourth year then three lessons a week of the same duration in fifth and sixth years.
The experimental gesture course ran over one academic year and offered two one-hour classes per week.
. Students for the experimental group were taken from the fifth year only (nineteen enrolled on a first come first serve basis with no other selection procedure).
. Students from the control group were taken only from the sixth year (nineteen were randomly selected).
The rationale behind the control group being taken from the sixth year was that the experimental group would be receiving additional classes as well as their present classes and therefore would receive more hours of instruction than a peer fifth year control group. To compensate for this additional input of English instruction, the same number of students from the sixth year was chosen as a control.
Although uppermost in the mind of the author were considerations regarding speaking skill development and communicative abilities in English, a barrage of tests was eventually decided upon covering the four "skills": writing, reading, listening and speaking. A pre-test was devised to discover present L2 levels of both the experimental and control groups. The pre-test was carried out at the end of September 2014. The speaking pre-tests were carried out by the researcher in the school library and students attended in pairs by appointment. The set-up of the speaking tests resembled that of the Cambridge English speaking exam tests. The written pre-test on morphemic structures, a reading comprehension and controlled writing test, was invigilated by the school English teacher during normal English class hours. The next test session on all four skills took place at the end of the experimental course at the beginning of June 2015.
The students should be preferably sitting on chairs arranged in a semi-circle formation. During the experiment, there were desks in front of the students. This was not ideal as students tend to lean on them and the execution of some gestures can be hindered as the elbows are not free to move fully. Chair-attached fold-away tables would be the recommended set-up. Maxwell (2001) has her students sitting on the floor in haphazard formation, however, one wonders at possible loss of class control with such an arrangement. Furthermore, stone floors without carpets, such as are found in most primary schools in Andalusia, provide seating that would hardly encourage students to remain in their places for very long. With chairs organised in a semicircular shape, the teacher can more easily pinpoint the direction of an anomalous utterance made in chorus and thus identify the individual responsible.
Students should have no writing implements, books or notebooks to hand but these should be placed under their chairs (or desks). The rationale here is that learner attention should be focused towards the teacher and the board/screen for maximum attention and any objects in front of the children would result in distraction. Heads are raised and looking forward; learners should be encouraged to adopt the attitude that they have come to speak English rather than to write it.
At the front of the class is a screen, whiteboard or smartboard or some means to display or to project large pictures to the class. The language material is a text, available only to the teacher, which he/she is familiar with. Word for word memorisation is not necessary as the text may be displayed on a table or lectern in front of the teacher.
The materials used during the experimental course were short stories from twenty to 160 words in length (the longer texts for the latter stages of the course) or "chapters" of the same story creating a story serial that spanned over several classes.
The lexical base is composed of high-frequency words. Ultimately, mostly within the first two thousand most common words in the English language. Yet initial instruction starts with a smaller corpus based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) with adaptations to also include suitable language for children of this age group. Furthermore, simplified or what is termed as "pared-down language" by Maxwell (2001) is used to assist learners in comprehension and use of the L2 and for rendering communication easier by ensuring learners have suitable functional words to hand to be able to express common and necessary ideas.
I wrote the stories for the course with additional material selected from published graded reader books for children (based on the CEFR corpus) of this age group. I believe jokes with a punchline are ideal subject matter as the students are motivated to discover the humour behind the story.
In each class, it was planned that learners would receive gesture input exposure to approximately two hundred to three hundred words (stories and jokes) followed by a fluency production phase at the end of each class. Pictures were used as visual references. These represented the stories and allowed me to present new language to the class. The pictures were pre-drawn by myself or photocopied from the graded reader books to be projected onto a screen in front of the class.
I showed the students a picture on the board (in the experiment a projected picture from a canon connected to a laptop was used). The picture was representative of the story and contained references to items contained within the story plot. (As this experimental method description is also serving here as a general description of a tried-and-tested approach with gestures for teaching English, I continue the description with reference to "the teacher" instead of to myself.) The teacher points to relevant vocabulary items from the story and introduces all new words orally accompanied by gestures. Written vocabulary is not visible to learners during the presentation phase. Learners are asked to provide the utterances of words in chorus and all learners gesture in unison during utterance. The teacher should take a little time on pronunciation practice and choose individual learners or small groups of learners to repeat words. During more advanced stages, the teacher may encourage some spoken feedback on the lexis or content of the picture such as asking more in-depth questions about the picture in the L2.
Learners are required to associate each gesture with the meaning of the word at initial presentation. Thereafter, when the teacher performs the same gestures in front of the class, learners can focus on each gesture to interpret its meaning and utter the words. These actions place also emphasis on words and make them noticeable. Oral production is the result of a cognitive effort in recall of meaning and phonemic value as well as the act of pronunciation of gestured words.
After the brief presentation phase of just a few minutes, the teacher moves on to the Silent Sign phase. This phase is termed "silent" as it is the teacher who refrains from speaking and gestures only. The students also gesture and utter the words in chorus recalled momentarily in memory. A strong parallel of this feature of short-term recall in Silent Sign can be drawn from research on "phonological rehearsal" where possible language acquisition and memory benefits have been suggested (Baddeley 2007; Gathercole & Alloway 2008) and in young children (Messer 2010:32).
Group work (here in chorus yet with tacit and occasionally explicit interaction between learners) has been praised in the literature for the qualities it brings to the second language learning class (Pica & Doughty 1985 and Rulon & McCreary 1986). Jacobs (1998) listed a number of advantages of group activities in language instruction, the ones especially pertinent to Silent Sign are given here.
. Learner independence can increase as each student makes a decision about language and provides his/her own utterance according to that decision (whether or not remodelled on peer utterances).
. Anxiety and shyness can be reduced as all students are speaking together.
. Motivation and enjoyment can increase.
. Learning is enhanced as students are willing to take risks when working from within a group.
The teacher gestures the words and sentences of the whole story from start to finish with as few pauses as possible. In fact, the teacher utters the text also but only after the students have completed a phrase or sentence. This is to help learners better understand the global meaning of the full phrase. The teacher will also say words that need not be gestured such as people's names.
The main points to note during the Silent Sign process are listed here.
. All students speak together and in unison. A certain rhythm should develop naturally avoiding cacophony. Correct utterances as well as alternative and incorrect ones should preferably be audible to the teacher.
. Students who do not participate will be detected as they fail to gesture or speak. However, "idlers", it was observed, may just nonchalantly hand-wave and lip-move without attending to gesture meaning. Some individuals' failure to participate at certain times will be inevitable and could be due to many understandable motives: tiredness or distraction, such as may happen in any class with young children. From the teacher's point of view, however, it should be encouraging that such individual student "downtime" can usually be observed and addressed. Situations where student participation is seriously wanting should be handled at the end of the class or session so as not to disrupt the flow and dynamic of Silent Sign for the others.
. Students are reading headword gestures so must interpret these according to structural and semantic context. Correct alternative utterances are also plausible.
Activities introduced in the post Silent Sign phase do not suppose any new approach or innovation from production and fluency tasks used elsewhere in standard Communicative Approach foreign language teaching. However, the nature of such activities should be in accord with the focus on meaning and communication; a development of English through speaking skills such as fluency production. During the experimental course, learners were requested to carry out pair work or group work and re-tell the stories they had just heard. This was done via comic-strips or even keywords projected on the screen which suggested the order of events of the story and learners would then alternate one sentence at a time telling the story orally. Some written work was also done allowing learners to become more familiar with the test form of the new language they had learned orally.
Post-tests involved evaluation over the four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking with some explicit grammar tests especially on verb morphology in present and past tenses. No gesture approach was adopted during testing as the control group had followed a more traditional style course following a school English textbook and tests had to coincide with study materials control students were familiar with.
The criteria focussed on for assessment in post-tests which required degrees of fluency in English were linguistic items such as verb range knowledge or how many different verbs learners showed they were able to use and the use of linking words and sentence length. Poor spelling, unless the words were unrecognizable, was not included as a negative criterion. Another important criterion was the use of morphological markers: whether verbs are marked with pastness. Anomalies in past tense acquisition have been noted by Bardovi-Harlig (2000). Irregular verb forms are used in fluency production before regular forms and past continuous tends to appear after past simple. An analysis of production material should offer insights into learners' acquisition stages. For successive increase in past tense markers and decrease in adverbials during language development competency see Dietrich et al. 1995 in Ellis 2008:88-89.
Interestingly, the experimental group had not encountered past tense before the experimental course began - a language feature not introduced at their school until the sixth year. Past tense was thus introduced to them only through the experimental course. The control group, therefore, (6th year) were currently studying past tense during the same year as the when the experimental course took place.
The two fluency areas were the written composition (writing a story) and the speaking tests which involved an interview on general personal questions and the task of telling a story. Admittedly, the use of stories was much more prevalent in the experimental course than in the control group's English programme. Nevertheless, there was a comic-strip story which ran through the text book the control group used albeit not such a major focus of study. In Maxwell's study comparing Canadian "immersion students" studying French with her own AIM students, who also used stories as material, she argues against bias towards the AIM test-takers by quoting Cummins. "However, because stories are a familiar part of all children's lives, it was felt that this would be the most appropriate choice as basis for spontaneous speech on the part of students who were interviewed. According to the Common Underlying Proficiency Model (Cummins 1996), there is transfer of an underlying cognitive/academic proficiency, common across languages" (Maxwell 2001).
Despite much reduced exposure to reading and writing during the experimental gesture course the learners in this group produced significantly better results in the written composition than the control group when applying the above criteria. Had spelling been taken into account, the results may have differed in the accuracy in which verbs were written, for example. On the other hand, the experimental group were also receiving English instruction as part of the regular school programme so orthographic knowledge would have only been lacking in lexical items that were unique to the learners from the experimental course material. The areas where significantly more marks were awarded to the experimental group were in verb range and the number of different linkers used. Furthermore, experimental learners used more than double the amount of past tense marking than the control group.
A greater margin in the differences of performances were displayed during story-telling tasks. Learners listened to a pre-recorded story told in past tense and followed a comic-strip while doing so. They were then asked to re-tell the same story referring to the same comic-strip. This was an invented story learners had not heard before and both the voice of the recording and the original transcript were provided by a colleague so as to ensure bias was not introduced through experimental course learners' familiarity with my voice or language learned on the course.
It is a phenomenon of L2 production familiar to all long-term language teachers that however clear and recent a correct utterance in the L2 is delivered, the learner will only be able to reproduce that utterance within the boundaries of his/her interlanguage knowledge. It almost sounds odd that an elementary-level learner on hearing a simple phrase in the L2 and asked to repeat it orally, may render the phrase completely differently. This testing technique has been called Elicited Imitation Testing (EIT). Researchers such as Gass and Mackey, 2007; Ellis, 2005 and Erlam, 2006 have claimed that EIT may be a useful tool to reflect learners' interlanguage representation and it is EIT which is the rationale behind the testing approach I used during this experiment.
Again, findings showed that experimental students performed significantly better than the control group with more than doubled margins in use of past tense marking and a wider range and number of linkers and verbs. Experimental course learners were able to recognize and reproduce better the past tense marking from the story recording and reproduce the verbs and auxiliaries in past during their rendering.
In other parts of the test, there were no significant differences in results between the experimental and the control groups. The grammar test showed a slight advantage towards the experimental group but the difference was too small to draw conclusions as to superiority. Notable, however, was the fact that a fifth year group (experimental) did not perform worse than a sixth year group (control). The results of the listening test showed a slight advantage for the control group. The listening task was taken from the Cambridge Flyers test. The reasons for these findings are left to conjecture, however, it was true that the experimental group carried out no listening tasks of this nature during the course.
I suggest that the significant positive results in the communicative areas of the post-test were due to the richer lexical content provided by the stories and the use of gestures which made possible the input, learner comprehension and recall of this more ample and varied language. Language is made more salient to learners by the additional task of interpreting gestures and performing them. Gestures allow a more accelerated input of oral language due to the enhanced comprehension they provide. This, in turn, allows for a more rapid recycling of high-frequency language at the full sentence, communicative level. I suggest that improved language performance by the experimental group was due to the quality gestures possess to assist memory and recall of new lexis combined with the heightened exposure to recycled language thanks to the almost perfect comprehension learners can enjoy from the parallel presence of gestures together with the spoken word.
Article based on findings from Phd thesis (Bilbrough 2017).
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