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



GestureWay - considerations on input and output in the English classroom.

The approach followed in this short article refers to my research procedure with primary school children studied during my Phd experiment on gesture. It does not suppose a definitive methodology simply the principal way I have been using gestures.

Two years of receiving classes with gesture (recording made in 2003).

My student, just nine years old, re-tells a story with the aid of pictures only (and some teacher encouragement) about "The Frogs at Home" based on a Gary Larson cartoon. Notice she failed to remember the word 'comfortable' but as she gestured it, I was able to remind her. This type of non-verbal communication is what prevents communication breakdown in the classroom. Normally, without the assistance of a pre-established gesture language, an elementary level learner would not know how to ask for help regarding a rather abstract word like 'comfortable'.

Not all students use gesture as much as this girl during fluency output - I tell them they can gesture if they want to. I get the impression, however, that gestures help her accuracy if not speed of delivery, which is possibly slowed by the combination of the two communicative modes. However, this is a classroom - a learning ground. We do not need to attempt to reproduce authentic communicative situations here. Kelly, McDevitt, & Esch 2009; Macedonia, Müller, & Friederici 2010; Allen 1995; Macedonia & Knösch 2011 have all argued and shown through experimentation that gesture, which is multi-modal, can enhance subsequent recall of words. It seems reasonable therefore, to allow learners to continue using gestures even during fluency tasks if it means strengthening mental links between meaning and foreign language lexical items.

Input and output - exposure and production of target language.

The importance of whether students need to produce language to acquire it was once hotly debated between Steven Krashen (1982) and Merril Swain (1985). Krashen developed the Input Hypothesis (1982), which suggested that through "comprehensible input" of the target language learners will receive sufficient linguistic information for production. However, "comprehensible" is key in this theory as Krashen states that the language we teach our learners must be comprised of fully understood content with a few new words so that learners gradually progress in their acquisition. Krashen even had a formula for this that he annotated as "i + 1", where i is known target language and 1 is a small amount of novel target language (Krashen 1982).

Swain's argument against the Input Hypothesis was that she believed, while recognising the importance of input, that output played an essential role in language acquisition. Firstly, output, or practice, provides learners with a linguistic environment where they focus on meaning, which should lead to an improvement in automated language production - essential for the fluency and fluidity in communication. Secondly, only through practice, especially oral practice, learners will find they need to think about the syntax of the language. It is interesting how we can listen to someone speaking to us and although we understand the message they convey, we are not necessarily aware of how they exactly expressed themselves (this is explained in the Elicited Imitation Testing technique or EIT). Similarly, we can read a page of text in a foreign language we know well yet not perfectly and understand all that was written yet if we are asked to produce certain phrases from the text word for word, we are unable to do so not because we forget but because we do not have sufficient knowledge of the L2. When we attend to incoming speech or read text, we search for meaning and in so doing either cannot or do not need to analyse the entire linguistic input. Swain suggested that through output learners realise there is a "gap" between what they are able to comprehend and what thay can actually express and therefore only though production is a learner required to make decisions about syntactic usage.

A third benefit of output is that it allows learners to test their hypotheses contained within their interlanguage. Learners make decisions about language and through production will chop and change word and structure choice often at the moment of speaking (or writing). This dynamic process helps learners to become more precise at expressing the meaning they wish to communicate while also improving the accuracy of the language form. Lastly, through responses from others, learners receive feedback, either implicit or explicit, about their output and how comprehensible and well-constructed their utterances are. This feedback can be especially useful when it comes from more advanced or native speakers (Swain 1985).

Nowadays, most English language teachers tend to believe in the adage "practice makes perfect" especially for the speaking and listening skills. It is this mindset that led to the adoption of the English teaching practice we call today the communicative approach, where students are called upon to become involved in fluency production activities with the assumption this will assist learners in the process of acquisition.

Input and output through gesture.

The procedure of eliciting full sentences through gestures in the form of utterances from the learners I have called "Silent Sign". With regards to the use of a consistent gesture code in the English classroom, I feel that the Silent Sign phase plays a powerful role in language acquisition as both an input and output approach. Comprehensible input is achieved through the presentation of meaningful gestures to the learners - each gesture corresponding to a target language word that learners are called on to interpret and utter. However, the input through Silent Sign is not just at the word level; words are combined into sentences and, reinforced by the teacher's oral reading back to the class of each sentence to facilitate contextualisation, learner comprehension is raised to a sentence and finally a full text level, such as a short story.

At the same time during the Silent Sign dynamic, learners are actively engaged in spoken output of the target language that draws on the benefits detailed by Swain (1985). Besides the interpretation of the meaning of the gestures presented by the teacher, learners must take decisions about morphological aspects in the L2. To understand how this works, let us imagine this sentence gestured during a Silent Sign story.


This is read in gestures as:

(singular masculine pronoun HE or HIM) + auxiliary DO/DOES + NOT + LIKE + GO + HOUSE.

The learner must read and interpret the gestures rendering the correct oral version. Input presented to the class in this way requires learners to take frequent decisions about the morphological items within each sentence. False starts, rethinks, internalised self-correction, constant drawing from inter-language knowledge and re-shaping it are aspects of output Swain believed essential for acquisition. During the Silent Sign phase in a gesture approach, these decision-making processes are taking place during meaningful output at a holistic language level. I have referred to this phenomena as "a glorified cloze test" where rather than single gaps in a written sentence that require filling, every word in the text is a gap to be filled .

30 hours of gesture classes with Silent Sign (recording made of experimental course in 2015).

Notice the students' (ten-year olds) self-corrections during this Silent Sign rendering of "Bill Mutley is going to die".

Visual for Story (displayed on classroom screen behind the teacher).

Output - syntax and plot control.

As I have said, Silent Sign allows students to make multiple decisions about morphology in the target language therefore Silent Sign shares some of the qualities of fluency output practice. Despite this, Silent Sign necessarily falls within the controlled practice bracket because of the absence of the learners' need to make decisions about syntax and plot control (what they are going to talk about). The student depends on the teacher to present the plot together with the correct word order (the teacher gestures a story). Students are spared from taking decisions on how to unravel the plot linguistically and order the words of each sentence. Owing to the absence of some features present in fluency output, I have termed the language environment that results during Silent Sign as a partial production environment (PPE). For this reason, my most recent approach has been to offer the students more opportunities to re-tell stories themselves so they can develop these skills during fluency output activities. I usually try for 70% input/output (Silent Sign) and 30% output (fluency practice through story-telling) in any one class. However, the percentage of fluency output activities should be controlled depending on whether our learners are ready to engage in fluency output. The considerations regarding readiness for speaking is covered in the section on the silent period.

input and output during silent sign
Diagram showing the partial production environment (PPE) created during Silent Sign with gesture
and its role within language acquisition. The complete production (CP) refers here to fluency production activities carried out in class.


I feel that strategies often adopted in communicative approach English language classes often fail to provide learners with sufficient comprehensible input of the target language. Published materials usually contain the linguistic items students need both in vocabulary and structures but a tool is missing to allow the teacher to transmit that language at a sufficiently accelerated pace to render large quantities of target language comprehensible at a meaningful and holistic level. Silent Sign empowers the teacher with a means to convey a input flood of L2 at almost the speed of human speech as spoken language and fully comprehensible within a meaningful context and where learners are more focussed on meaning than form. On the other hand, this same dynamic draws on our learners' interlanguage to encourage them to take decisions about the L2 regarding meaning and morphology which likens this approach to some aspects of fluency output.

Article based on findings from Phd thesis.


Allen, L. Q. (1995). The Effects of Emblematic Gestures on the Development and Access of Mental Representations of French Expressions. The Modern Language Journal, 79: 521-9.

Bilbrough M.A. (2017). Accelerating input and exposure in the English language classroom. IATEFL 2016 Birmingham conference selections.

Kelly, S. D., T. McDevitt and M. Esch. (2009). Brief training with co-speech gesture lends a hand to word learning in a foreign language. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24:2, 313-334.

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

Macedonia, M., Müller, K., and Friederici, A.D. (2010). Neural Correlates of High Performance in Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 4(3):125-134.

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

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.

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