What Silent Sign reveals about output (inter-language).

Student telling story in English
 Student 1 tells story from comic strip.

The advantages of the Silent Sign tool regarding output.

Although experienced language teachers would expect their students to score higher in controlled written tests than fluency oral tests containing the same material, they often despair when students say things like: "He is go"; "He are going"; "He go"; etc. after performing well on written tests. I feel there exists a yawning gap in quality between written language produced during controlled tests and spoken output in fluency tasks. The Silent Sign input tool allows students to access quasi-fluency practice. It serves as an intermediary exercise before releasing students into fluency output tasks. Furthermore, Silent Sign provides the teacher with a more accurate indicator of the true inter-language ability of each student.

In this test I set up after just 50 hours of GestureWay (two one-hour classes per week), ten-year old students did a written gap-fill multiple choice test on the past continuous structure. Students performed well in general on the written test.

A few days later, the same students carried out an oral test. The students were asked to listen once to a story in the past that included past continuous utterances. Students were then asked to tell the same story immediately afterwards using a text-free comic strip as a memory aid to the story events. Up to this point, all quite conventional. However, in a non-Gesture course approach, the teacher would not have been able to predict oral test outcomes and may have expected quite good performances based on written test results.

Comic strip of story
Comic strip of Penguin Story

Over the same period, students received GestureWay classes including stories with past continuous. I noticed that many students were failing to produce the past continuous form correctly during Silent Sign. I could then make a successful prediction about the outcomes of the fluency tasks such as the oral exam. This student was one of the few (there were a few at least!) who correctly constructed the past continuous in some instances. We'll use as a reference point picture 4 of the Penguin Story (see comic strip above). In the original story, students heard "One day, Policeman Plod was walking along the street..."

Listen to student 1...

Below, I include a selection of other utterances from the same test with reference to picture 4. There are six versions here but only the last student managed the same utterance as in the story and an accurate one:

...was walking along the street...

Despite correctly uttering past continuous, Student 1 failed to use past simple in much of the rest of the story. Other students were more successful with past simple. Again, this was predicted during Silent Sign by students either continually correcting themselves (present to past) or, after prompting from the teaching, changing from present to past tense. This self-correction, as explained earlier, happens more frequently during Silent Sign (quasi-controlled input) and we should not expect it during output (meaning and plot objectives). Notice here how Student 2 correctly says in the past "saw", "said", "didn't take", "didn't enjoy" (though prefers present with the other verbs).

Listen to student 2...

Student 2 tells story in English
Though no gestures were used in this test, Student 2 signs some words to help express himself (here: "he/him").


Having a gesture code in the English language classroom provides the teacher with insights into the students' inter-language. The Silent Sign technique allows the teacher to delve into the recesses of the students' internal language systems and learn what they are probably capable of producing during output (fluency practice). Students during Silent Sign speak in chorus so this discovery process is relatively quick and it happens during standard instruction time. The teacher just needs to concentrate on individual students during choral Silent Sign for short periods or key moments to glean their inter-language knowledge. The advantage of this process is that the teacher is able to make a fairly accurate evaluation of student inter-language without getting involved in time-consuming individual oral testing. Or when he/she does so, testing is done with a clearer understanding of what the results will be.

A second advantage to using Silent Sign regarding output is that if the teacher can detect where weaknesses lie in form or vocabulary knowledge, more class work can be done in those areas. Written test results seem to prove misleading as an accurate guide to inter-language knowledge. One major reason for this is that during written tests the students have time to mull over answers and so apply logical thought, seek grammar patterns, etc. processes not available during the speech in real time.

Teacher feedback.

As a teacher, do you feel there is a barrier between you and the access to the real output level of your students? Do you have strategies to help you know the true inter-language level of your students? You can share your ideas on my Facebook or Twitter page.

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See part one of this article...

See next article - Form Correction and Explanations...