GestureWay - how and why it 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, I was pretty much free to experiment as much as I wanted with my students and their language training. Perhaps like many teachers, I soon became disappointed and demoralized by the English textbook approach (a so-called "Communicative Approach") and found that progress among my students was unbearably slow. The problem seemed to stem from the obstacle brought about by the over-representation of the written word in my classroom. I wanted my students to speak English but published materials always resorted to text as a basis for language input and eliciting. Reading and writing skills were classified as equally important as speaking and listening skills. I felt I disagreed and wanted to minimise and control the extent text was used in my classes especially with children. I wondered if a non-text tool could be developed to present and elicit English words and phrases from the students.

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. He 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 didn't double the memory effort but enhanced recall of it. Even in those days, (1998) William Chuckney's book (1987) was out of print and I was never able to obtain a copy. 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.

The transition to the use of hand gestures.

Shot from class video of GestureWay course in Seville
GestureWay class (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 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 texts. 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 (2000).

I needed help designing the first gestures. I soon discovered that standard sign languages for the hearing impaired were an unsuitable resource. The hand signs didn't represent single words necessarily and were not remotely connected to spoken language. I then found a book on Bimodal Communication. 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 easily remembered and the meaning often intuited by my students learning English. You 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 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). 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). I bought the complete set of L.A. Hill's books 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.


Wright, Andrew, Pictures for Language Learning, CUP, 1997.
Chuckney, William, The Skeleton System, co-published by Pilgrims Publications, Friendly Press and Hellenic, 1987.
Monfort. M, Rojo, A, Juárez, A, Programa Elemental de Comunicación Bimodal, ed. Ciencias de la Educación Preescolar y Especial, Sexta Edición, (Madrid), 1998.
Hill, L.A. Introductory Stories for Reproduction, OUP, 1990, (and the rest of this series).

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