A Gesture Solution to Increasing Spoken Interaction in the Classroom

by Mike Bilbrough


The following thoughts and comments are taken from the findings of classroom research on the introduction of gestures in the English language classroom for Spanish primary school children. Gestures were incorporated in an attempt to increase the amount of exposure and comprehension of spoken English without relying on the written word as a referent. 

One of the principal strategies we teachers usually use to facilitate the understanding of spoken language in the classroom is to include text. Text, that immense relief for so many comprehension issue headaches! It is a handy referent for detaching words from continuous speech. Learners can then fix them on the page and thereby render language more manageable. However, although they can copy down written words with ease and accuracy into their notebooks for later reference and revision, the tasks of perceiving those words from utterances and pronouncing them remain far more difficult to carry out with such precision. Indeed, it is not surprising that learners refer to text so much during an English language course that their reading comprehension often far exceeds their understanding at the oral and communicative level. I argue that the learners’ reliance on text as a referent for comprehension must diminish their potential for developing listening skills and for making sense of spoken language. Consequently, as speaking skills necessarily require auditory skills in the L2, progress in conversational and discourse competence can become entrenched. 

The Research Overview 

The studies were carried out over a period of 3 years in a private language academy in Seville and I was the principal teacher of these courses. The learners were Spanish primary school children aged between 8 and 11 following English language classes at the this academy (not IH). Groups of learners were placed into different courses depending on age and English knowledge with approximately 10 students to a class. 

Due to the reduced space available in this article, I have omitted references to the large body of previous theoretical discussion and empirical research that motivated my own adoption of this gesture approach as well as any in-depth descriptions of collected data during this classroom research project. However, a list of relevant references is available on request. 


My aims were to test the potential of an artificial hand gesture code at enhancing exposure to and improving comprehension of full-sentence spoken English and evaluate the implementation of the gestures in the classroom. No text or very little was introduced during the courses. It was thought that this gesture tool should be useful as greater understanding of oral L2 would presumably allow learners to focus more on the practice and development of speaking skills. The model should allow auditory comprehension of the L2 to advance rapidly and reduce the number of instances of communication breakdown in the classroom. 

The gestures used, mostly iconic in nature, I conceived and tested and a final draft, though never definitive, of a gesture dictionary was eventually drawn up (Bilbrough, 2010). 

Class Procedure 

The procedure was quite straightforward. I, the teacher, presented new vocabulary of simple short stories via relevant pictures displayed on the screen at the front of the classroom. Language was always presented orally with no written text but instead the chosen referent was the corresponding gesture that represented each word. The learners repeated the words aloud in chorus and all performed the gestures in unison with the teacher. The stories were mostly humorous and chosen for their attraction and interest to children of these age groups. 

These learners were not new to English but received regular English instruction at their local state primary school. They attended classes at the academy twice a week for forty-five-minute English classes. An estimate of language ability before coming to the academy placed these students within the levels of CEFR A1 to low A2 range. However, their communicative ability at the spoken level especially was mainly mostly functional and notional knowledge only. Although language knowledge varied according to the learners’ ages, they were usually only able to produce set phrases such as: I’m fine, thanks; my name is Paco; I’m nine years old; etc. This existing knowledge of English, though limited, did mean that learners were already familiar with simple vocabulary and basic structures and initially only needed to associate the words with their corresponding gestures. 

As the courses progressed, more extensive and previously unknown vocabulary was introduced. On occasion, some learners would perhaps only understand the meaning of a particular gesture the teacher presented without being able to recall how to utter that word. They required the assistance of their peers to cue these utterances for them. This was, I believe, an intriguing development of this approach – the way learners were capable, through gestural accompaniment, of avoiding communication breakdown during spoken language input of full sentences despite not yet having acquired that language. Comprehension preceded communicative ability. Moreover, what eventually happened was that I was able to elicit the language so that the learners uttered while I remained silent most of the time. Learners were “reading” gestures rather than reading written text. Contrary to text reading, however, they were interpreting meanings enhanced firstly by the gestures and secondly facilitated by the comprehension of context provided by the full sentences within the stories. 

Let us analyse more closely how this process works by considering an example sentence from a story that begins: “It was Monday morning and Jimmy was getting ready for school”. I gesture the words without speaking while the learners interpret and perform them and, where possible, they utter the corresponding words. (Figure 1 shows the gestures for this sentence as illustrations.) 

Fig 1 Mike Bilborough

Figure 1. Gestures corresponding to a sentence of a story (Bilbrough, 2010).

Learners gesture and utter in chorus and in synchrony so that they are all participating at the same time. Students generally uttered clearly enough in synchrony for me to understand individual words. Furthermore, I could usually distinguish individual learners’ voices within the group’s utterances. Where issues occurred of poor pronunciation or there were stoppages due to learners not knowing the spoken version of the gesture, I would intervene and correct or cue the word. Interestingly, where at least just one learner was able to utter any given word, all the others took the cue and copied. This meant teacher intervention was reduced and learner-led choral activity dominated. At the end of each sentence, I read it back to the students. The rationale behind this repetition is to provide the learners with the global meaning of the sentence. This technique is summarised below in Figure 2. The teacher (T) leads and the learners (Ls) immediately follow. 

  It  was  Monday  morning  and  Jimmy  was  getting  ready  for  school.   
T   G  G  G  G  G  U  G  G  G  G  G  R 
Ls      GU  GU  GU  GU  GU  U  GU  GU  GU  GU  GU   

Figure 2. G = gesture only, U = utterance only, GU = simultaneous gesture and utterance, R = utterance of previous sentence without gesture. 

Figure 2 is simplified and does not show any possible stoppages due to pronunciation issues or failure to recall utterances. Neither does it show how many of the learners are actually participating at any given time, a figure that may vary (assuming at least minimum participation) between one and all the learners in the class. 

Overall Impressions 

My impressions from this classroom research on gesture in the English classroom were on the whole positive. Learners were able to remember and recall several hundred gestures to carry out the choral activities described above. I felt the dynamic of the classes inspiring as learners were involved in uttering meaningful and holistic language in chorus – a feat difficult to reproduce without the assistance of gestures. Furthermore, reading from meanings (gestural cues) assures the teacher that learners understand what they are saying whereas when learners read text, the teacher cannot be certain they comprehend due to the phonetic clues provided. The choral dynamic also appeared to encourage the more timid and weaker learners to participate as they presumably felt less conspicuous uttering within a group. After some months, many learners were able to participate in subsequent fluency sessions where they individually retold the stories without the gesture prompts. The structures and vocabulary employed in these stories for the older learners (10 and 11 years old) entered the realms of upper A2 and B1 CEFR levels. 

Negative observations of this study include the intensity of cognitive participation during these sessions. Learners were used to speaking little in their school English classes and had previously copied language in notebooks to revise it later for examination preparation. The heightened oral demands and necessity to read from gestures sometimes led to loss of concentration and fatigue. As a result, I reduced somewhat the original extended versions of the stories for gesturing and included additional activities such as games to lighten the cognitive load of the English classes. 

Final Thoughts 

We, as teachers, need to improve comprehension of spoken language in the elementary level classroom without the constant presence of text. Gestures allow me to achieve this as they reduce communication breakdown brought about by utterances and serve to elicit L2 orally from learners. Over this research period, I noticed that improved comprehension at the oral level allowed for increased spoken language usage in the classroom. Such an increase should, hopefully, lead to faster and better L2 acquisition.                                                    

Author’s Bio: Mike Bilbrough holds a PhD in Language Teaching Methodology from Seville University. He has taught English in schools and academies in Andalusia for twenty-five years. He became interested in gesture for L2 acquisition in the late 1990s and has carried out extensive classroom research developing gesture techniques mostly with primary school children. He currently works at IH (CLIC) in Seville.

Bilbrough, M. A. (2010). Gesture Dictionary. A description of a gesture language for teaching English. (Unpublished book.) 

Bilbrough, M. A. GestureWay website. www.gestureway.com