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



Teaching English through hand gestures.

The importance of gesture in communication.

As English teachers, most of us use gestures in the classroom. In fact, we often go to great lengths to provide our learners with gestural references to assist in comprehension and convey ideas non-verbally. Without gesture, teachers would find it more difficult to communicate effectively with learners at elementary levels of the L2. It has been said that those teachers who gesture in the classroom are more successful than those teachers who are more static (Gullberg 2006). Gesture can be considered to embrace several areas of non-verbal communication. Here is an abridged version according to the classification by Poyatos, 2002.

Gestural imitation of words such as a nurse making a swallowing action to show a patient what to do with the medicine (intrinsic emblems).

swallow gesture swallow

The way we point to things to indicate what we are referring to verbally (deictics).

pointing gesture

We trace the outline of shapes of objects in the air or represent things by showing a recognisable outline (pictographs).

bottle gesture bottle

house gesture house

We make references to tense or time - past, present and future (time markers).


We refer to movement, velocity and how far things are from the speaker (space, pace and distance markers).

fast gesture quickly

far 2 gesture far

We imitate things that move such as the flight of an aeroplane (kinetographs).

aeroplane gesture aeroplane

We should also include facial expressions and body language in these categories. These can be "arbitrary" such as shoulder shrugs and rolling of the eyes, for example. These gestures can be unambiguous in a given culture yet researchers in gesture are often unsure of their iconic origins (Poyatos, 2002). However, a given gesture of this type in other cultures may mean something different. A Greek who nods his head, for example, may mean "no" whereas in the UK it is interpreted as meaning the opposite.

We, as human beings, probably need to gesture, whatever the situation - it's not just a useful tool for times when verbal communication is problematic. At least, this was the idea put forward by McNeill (1992) one of the founders of gestural studies. McNeill suggested that gestures that accompany verbal communication rather than being separate adornments constitute an integral process with speech in the communication process. Gestures may actually help us express ourselves better This may explain why we often gesture when speaking on the telephone even though there is nobody around who can see us.

Gesture in the foreign language classroom.

Researchers have been working with gestures in the classroom to explore any benefits they might provide in comprehension and retention of novel words. Tellier (2008), experimented with five-year-old French children who were studying English. She compared the capacity of recall when using gesture compared with pictures for presenting novel English vocabulary to learners. The experiment showed that the learners who employed gesture with lexical input demonstrated better recall of the meanings and improved production of the words. Tellier concluded that these findings are consistent with theories of multimodal storage of in memory.

Macedonia and Knösch carried out a later experiment in 2011 where they used both concrete and abstract nouns presented to learners through specially devised gestures. It might be thought that although we can easily represent gestures for words like 'drink', words like 'interest' prove more difficult. The researchers compared input of novel words accompanied by gesture with other input stimuli such as the audio and visual. The findings showed that those strategies including the use of gesture were more successful at producing enhanced recall of words and that furthermore, test-takers offered better results when using the tested words in novel sentence production. The investigators concluded that when encoding with gesture there is an increase in the complexity of the mental representation of the word thereby enhancing the depth of processing, making it easier to retrieve.

The kinaesthetic approach of James Asher's (1969) Total Physical Response (TPR) and how retention of language is increased by asking learners to carry out actions while using language is familiar to most teachers. Input of spoken target language phrases in the classroom is combined with actions performed by the teacher and the learners. Experiments that Asher carried out on TPR after differing numbers of course hours appear to have provided consistently better results when compared with student progress in language courses using more traditional approaches. In fact, few methodology studies have been so successful at providing such significant results (Ellis, 2008). Krashen was to praise Asher saying "the TPR results are clear and consistent, and the magnitude of superiority of TPR is quite striking" (1982:156).

The role of gesture and its ability to highlight abstraction such as tense aspect and modal auxiliary use has been explored by Lapaire in France, who worked with nine to eleven-year-old French children studying English. He has designed a glossary of gestures which represent the use of "might", "will", present perfect and other structures. He believes that a deeper meaning of language structures may be created through guided gestural intervention between the instructor and the learner. This intervention Lapaire calls a "co-verbal gesture replay", where gestures accompany grammatical content. Lapaire suggests that co-grammatical gesture allows learners to absorb the meaning of grammar without undergoing a conscious intellectual and explicit study. It offers an understanding which is both corporal and mental, concrete and abstract.

The Accelerative Integrated Approach (AIM).

The idea of employing a full artificial gesture code in foreign language classrooms has been explored. In Canada, Wendy Maxwell (2001) developed a gesture code and procedure she called the Gesture Approach (GA). Maxwell combined the gestures with production activities such as songs, dance and drama. Maxwell calls this method the Accelerative Integrated Method (AIM). The term "integrated" referring to classes of spoken language input which parallels corresponding iconic gestures combined with subsequent output production activities in the form of plays acted out by the learners. AIM is used to teach French in Canada as an alternative to the deficiencies Maxwell believes exists in the National Core French study programme; the official curriculum from the Ontario Ministry of Education. AIM has grown in popularity and has crossed frontiers. AIM has been adopted by some 3,500 schools across Canada to teach Core French programmes (Mady et al. 2009) and 100 schools in The Netherlands (Rousse-Malpat 2012).

There have been some studies carried out to explore the efficacy of GA within AIM. A small-scale study by Bourdage in 2014 collected quantitative data from AIM courses from eighteen students of eight and nine years of age in Canadian schools. A corpus of language usage was drawn up from oral interviews in the target French the students were studying. Bourdage found that the AIM group uttered three times more lexis in French during the interviews than the non-AIM group. Bourdage says that this demonstrated a higher level of confidence using French for the AIM group. Furthermore, from the corpus of lexical items collected from the interviews, it was found that French verbs, nouns and adjectives were used "significantly" more often by the AIM group (Bourdage 2014).

In a separate study in the Netherlands in 2012, Rousse-Malpat, from the University of Groningen showed that the AIM group of primary school-aged children in her study outperformed the peer control group (following a more traditional non-AIM course) on the majority of the testing criteria. AIM students used more subordinate clauses during the course than the control. Students also began to use tenses (present and past) earlier than the control group and also with more variation in their usage. Furthermore, they showed they were able to produce sentences with a higher average number of words and a greater number of different words overall. This statistic was recorded despite the non-AIM group studying a textbook corpus of 1000 different headwords compared to 600 for the AIM group and the latter exposed to less written French than the control. Interestingly, the AIM group showed a disproportionate increase in the number of errors during the initial tests made during the course. Then, this figure diminished rapidly by the final test when the AIM group total error figure fell below that of the non-AIM group. Rousse-Malpat explains these figures by quoting previous work done in the area by Verspoor and Behrends in 2011, which suggested that such findings demonstrate signs of dynamic development; the students are experimenting and are in the process of developing the language and consequently make errors. This, I believe, is interesting evidence that gives an insight into the implicit nature of learning experienced through a gesture approach.

Rousse-Malpat concludes that the AIM students scored significantly higher than the non-AIM group in general writing skills despite a predominantly oral focus on the target language in the classroom. AIM students learn words faster, she concludes, as the corpus is smaller and therefore there is more recycling of lexis and structures. Furthermore, it appears the more extensive interaction AIM students experience through gesture compensates for the lack of attention paid to the more traditional written exercises of the control group. Finally, Rousse-Malpat states in her paper that the ability of the AIM group to recognise and use more complex constructions stems from a greater exposure to more authentic and meaningful language (Rousse-Malpat, 2012).

Gesture research and language learning - an on-going project.

The above is a selection of research projects that have taken place in the area of gesture and foreign language acquisition. However, the investigation into this exciting subject continues and I will be mentioning other more recent findings in future articles on the GestureWay site. The following entry is a little about my own research into using gesture with primary school Spanish children learning English.

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

My first classroom research into gesture...


Asher, J.J. (1969). The total physical response technique of learning. Journal of Special Education, 3, 253-262.

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

Bourdage, J. S. (2014). Profil lexical à l'oral d'élèves de français langue seconde exposés à l'approche gestuelle AIM. Revue canadienne de linguistique appliqué, 17, 1, 78-100.

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

Gullberg, M. (2006). Some reasons for studying gesture and second language acquisition (Hommage à Adam Kendon) in International Review of Applied Linguistics, 44(2): 103-124.

Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Lapaire, J. (2013). "Gestualité cogrammaticale: de l'action corporelle spontanée aux postures de travail métagestuel guidé. Maybe et le balancement épistémique en anglais." In Langages revue trimestrielle, 192, Le vécu corporel dans la pratique d'une langue. ed. Larousse. Ed.: Armand Colin.

Macedonia, M., & Knösche, T. R. (2011). Body in Mind: How Gestures Empower Foreign Language Learning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(4), 196-211.

Mady, C, Arnott, S, & Lapkin, S, (2009). Assessing AIM: A Study of Grade 8 Students in an Ontario School Board. The Canadian Modern Language Review / La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 65, 5, 703-729 doi:10.3138/cmlr.65.5.703b

Maxwell, W. 2001. Evaluating the effectiveness of the Accelerative Integrated Method for teaching French as a second language. Master's thesis, University of Toronto (OISE/UT), Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and Mind. What the Hands Reveal about Thought. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Poyatos, F. (2002). Nonverbal Communication across Disciplines. Volume 1: Culture, sensory interaction, speech, conversation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Rousse-Malpat, A., Verspoor, M., & Visser, S. (2012). Frans leren met AIM in het voortgezet onderwijs: Een onderzoek naar de effecten van AIM-didactiek op schrijven in het Frans van brugklasleerlingen. Levende Talen, 13, 3-14.

Tellier, M. (2008). The effect of gestures on second language memorization by young children. Gesture, 8 (2008), 219-235.

Verspoor, M., & Behrens, H. (2011). Dynamic systems theory and a usage-based approach to second language development. In M. Verspoor, K. de Bot, & W. Lowie (Eds.), A dynamic approach to second language development: Methods and techniques (pp. 25-38). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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