The big list of classroom language with gestures

Summary: Nearly 100 classroom instructions and explanations that can be accompanied by gestures, with descriptions of how teachers can use their bodies.

By: | Audience: Teachers | Category: Teaching English | Topic: General

First Published: 29th Apr. 2019 | Last Edited: 2nd May. 2019

Use of the body is perhaps the most vital technique for making classroom language understandable and memorable, and is a great way of avoiding translation/ use of L1. This list illustrates that with ideas for specific gestures for some of the most common things that TEFL teachers need to say in class, in alphabetical order. 

  • “(Play for/ Speak for/ You still have) 1/5/10/… second(s)/ minute(s)” – hold up that many fingers, then maybe tap your (real or imaginary) watch or point at a clock
  • “(Ask me/ Talk to me/ See me) after the lesson/ after this activity/ after…” – put one open hand in front of you with all of the fingers facing the students, then move it up, to the right and then back down
  • “(Are there) any volunteers?”/ “Please put your hand up if you’d like to go next/ first” – raise one hand and look around the classroom, trying to make eye contact
  • “(Can I have your) attention, please?” – hold up one arm with your open palm facing towards the students and make eye contact, mime coughing, or clap your hands
  • “(That’s) better” – hold up two thumbs and raise them, smiling more and more as you do so
  • “Calm down” – hold out two arms with your hands open and your palms down, then move your hands up and down slowly
  • “Carry on”/ “Please continue”/ “Don’t stop”/ “Keep going” – turn one or both index fingers round and round in circles in front of your stomach, and/ or do the action that the students should do (such as taking cards from the table) over and over
  • “Close your books” – hold your open hands in front of you with the little fingers touching and the palms up, then twist the hands until the palms are touching each other
  • “Close your eyes” – hold your open hands at the sides of your head next to your eyes and slowly bring the thumb and fingers together as if you are pinching your eyes, then perhaps cover your eyes with your hands
  • “Come here” – hold an open hand up with your palm towards you and move all four fingers back and forth
  • “Congratulations”/ “Hooray”/ “You are the winner”/ “You won” – hold up both hands above your head as if you are holding up a championship cup, or pat yourself on the back with one hand
  • “(Listen and) copy the CD”/ “Repeat after the CD” – mime sound coming from the speaker to the students as if you were carrying it with both hands, then move the hands around in a circle to show repeating, and/ or put an index finger in front of the speaker, point it and then bring it towards your ear, continue down your cheek until you get to your mouth, then point outwards from your mouth
  • “Copy the action/ Hop when I hop/ … when I…” – do an action then raise both hands with your palms towards the students and do action again several times, perhaps standing in different positions each time and/ or facing in the same direction as the students are
  • “Cover (the right-hand page/ the bottom of the page/ etc)” – mime putting an open hand over something, then turn your face away from it to emphasise that they are covering it so that it is hidden from sight
  • “Deal (out the cards)” – mime dealing out a pack of cards to two or three people, holding the pack of cards in your left hand and taking and throwing the imaginary cards one by one with your right hand
  • “(I’m not sure) does anyone know (the answer)?” – shrug your shoulders and hold your hands with your palms up in a questioning gesture, then look around the class, trying to make eye contact
  • “Don’t copy/ cheat”/ “No copying/ cheating.” – mime looking over to what is written on the next desk and then show disapproval with crossed arms, a finger wagged side to side, an angry face, etc
  • “Don’t move”/ “Stand still” – move a little then suddenly freeze your whole body as if you were in the middle of running or walking and stay frozen in that position, preferably with your palms up in a “stop” gesture
  • “Don’t show (your worksheet/ etc)”/ “Keep… secret”/ “Hide your….” – hold up two open hands with your palms towards you, bring them close to your chest, then mime taking a peak at the palms without moving them (too far) away from that position
  • “Don’t (speak/ move/ stand up/ etc)” – do that action, freeze halfway through, then make a cross from your two arms in front of you to show disapproval
  • “Draw (a picture/ a circle/ …)” – mime holding a pen between your thumb and index finger and make random shapes in the air or on the palm of your other hand
  • “Everyone come here” – point both hands towards the class with open palms up then move the fingers back and forth together
  • “Everyone stand up” – put your two arms out palms up with the arms spread to surround all or most of the class, then raise both arms
  • “Final warning./ Yellow card./ Red card” – mime taking a card from your pocket and showing it to someone, perhaps before or after miming taking out a whistle and blowing it, and/ or writing their name and infraction in a notepad
  • “(The activity/ the game is) finished”/ “Time’s up” – start with your arms crossed in front of you with your palms down and move the arms outwards until they are in front of your hips, with palms still down, like the baseball “safe” gesture
  • “Fold (the worksheet/ the piece of paper/…)” – hold two hands in front of you with palms down and index fingers touching along their lengths, then slowly bring the two palms together with the index fingers still touching (like an upside-down “close your books” gesture)
  • “Good/ Good job/ Good work/ Well done” – hold one thumb up
  • “Great”/ “Excellent”/ “Wonderful”/ “Perfect”/ “Very good” – hold both thumbs up, hold your thumbs up higher than for “good” and/ or clap your hands
  • “Hands on your head/ Hands on…” – move your hands slowly to the position that you want students to, then either repeat or keep your hands there until all the students have copied
  • “(Do… for/ This is your) homework” – mime the roof of a house over your head by touching the tips of the fingers of both hands above the top of your head with your elbows either side of your head, then mime writing in a book
  • “(Work) in pairs/ (You and you) work together” – point towards a pair of students and bring your hands together, then repeat for as many other pairs as you can, or make a chopping motion between students who shouldn’t work together then bring the two palms together between the two students who will be a pair
  • “Lay (out) the cards face down (across the table)” – mime turning an open hand from palm up to palm down at least four or five times, maybe touching the table or the other hand with the palm down hand
  • “Listen (to me/ to the CD/ to this student/ to your partner)” – cup one ear with a hand and face the ear in the right direction, or draw an imaginary line from the source to the ear with a flying index finger, e.g. pointing/ flying from a student’s mouth to their partner’s ear
  • “Look (in your book/ at the whiteboard/ at the screen/ etc)” – point your index fingers towards your two eyes and then point those fingers at the thing that they should look at, or put your hands under your eyes with the index fingers pointing forwards in front of your eyes, then move those fingers towards the thing that they should look at
  • “(Say…) (more) loudly/ louder”/ “I can’t hear you”/ “Shout (out)” – cup a wide-open mouth with two hands
  • “Make a circle”/ “Stand in a circle” – hold your open hands in front of your chest with your palms towards you and move the arms away from each other and forwards then further forwards and back together again to make a big circle
  • “(This is/ Don’t be so/ The writing is/ The picture is) (very/ a bit) messy.” – hold up one hand with the index finger and thumb pinched together as if you are holding a pen and then move it around randomly in large gestures, perhaps looking away from the imaginary pen to show not paying attention
  • “Mingle”/ “Move around the room” – hold up two index fingers and move them around randomly, sometimes crossing in front of each other
  • “Mix up the words/ The words are mixed (up)” – point to two of the words and move those two index fingers so that they cross each other
  • “Move (from here) to…” – hold two hands in front of your shoulders with the palms facing each other about 40 centimetres apart and move them in the same position up and then to the new position, as if you are moving a box there
  • “(You are/ That was) almost right”/ “nearly right”/ “(Good try but) not quite right”/ “So-so”/ “Could be better” – hold out one hand with the palm down and twist your wrist back and forth, or half hold up a thumb and then put it back down again
  • “Not yet”/ “Wait for it” – hold up two open hands with the palm towards the students, and perhaps move the hands a little backwards and forwards, perhaps slightly crouching as if you are getting ready to sprint
  • “One more time”/ “(Please) try again”/ “Have another go” – hold up one index finger vertically to mean “one (more time)”, or hold up one index finger horizontally in front of your chest and move it in a circle away from and towards your body
  • “One point” – move one finger down vertically as if you are drawing a line on the board, or hold up one finger and then give a victory symbol such as holding up both fists
  • “Open your books” – hold your palms together as if you are praying and open your hands with the little fingers still touching until both palms are facing up
  • “Open your eyes” – hold your hands at the sides of your head near your eyes with the thumbs pressed against the (straight) fingers, then slowly move the thumb and fingers away from each other, and/ or touch your eyelids and hold them open with your index fingers and thumbs
  • “Pardon?”/ “I beg your pardon!”/ “Can you repeat that?”/ “(Can you say that) one more time?” – look confused and cup your ear, and perhaps hold up an index finger or turn a finger round to mean “one more time”
  • “(Change the present to the/ You need the) past (simple) – put your hand in front of your chest then move it back behind your head
  • “Pick up (your chair and move it…/ your pens)” – move an open hand down to the (real or imaginary table), pinch the thumb and finger or fingers together as if you grabbing something, move the closed hand up, then leave it in the air
  • “Pronounce…”/ “Say…”/ “Speak…” – move one index finger backwards and forwards from your lips, or move the fingers and thumb of one hand towards and away from each other like moving the mouth of a hand puppet or miming the beak of a duck
  • “Put the tables together/ Put the… together.” – point both index fingers towards the two things and then move the fingers together until they touch each other along their lengths
  • “Push your chairs/ tables/ chairs and tables back against the wall” – stand in the middle of the room and mime pushing things with both hands in every direction away from the centre
  • “Put your book/ pen/ pencil/… away” – make an imaginary bag opening by putting your left hand on your left hip, then mime picking things up and putting them through that hole
  • “Put your pen/ the dice/… down” – hold your thumb and finger or fingers together as if you are holding something, move that slowly and firmly down to the (real or imaginary) table, move the fingers apart as if you are releasing that thing, then move the open hand back up
  • “Quick(er)/ (More) quickly” – move one hand slowly in circles away from and towards your body and then move it in quicker and quicker circles
  • “Quickly”/ “I’m waiting!” – cross your arms, make an angry face and/ or tap your foot, or mime doing the action quickly
  • “Quiet please/ Shh./ Stop talking please./ (Read/ Move/…) silently” – hold up one index finger vertically in front of your mouth, pinch your index finger and thumb together and move it across your mouth as if you are zipping it shut, or cover your mouth with both hands
  • “Read (the text on the board/ these three sentences)” – make an imaginary book out of your touching open palms and move your eyes right and left across it, perhaps also moving your head to emphasise the movement
  • “Read… out loud” – move your hand across the board or a (real or imaginary) book and move your mouth at the same time, perhaps moving your head up and down to look at first the book and then the people you are reading out to
  • “Read quickly” – mime holding a book with both hands and move your eyes quickly right and left and down the imaginary text (not pretending to point at the words in the text, as that looks more like reading slowly and carefully)
  • “Read (more) slowly (and carefully)” – mime moving your index finger slowly across the page and/ or looking closely at the book
  • “Ready, steady, go”/ “On your marks, get set, go” – crouch down like you are on the starting blocks then get up at “go”
  • “(Listen to … and) reply (to…)” – move one hand from the source such as their partner, the teacher or the CD then move the same hand back in the other direction
  • “Roll the dice” – hold up one hand palm up, cup the hand so that the fingers are nearly touching the hand, shake the hand, then open it palm down, then look excited or disappointed depending on what number the (imaginary) dice shows
  • “Scan the text (for this word/ for the numbers/ for…) – mime holding a book and move your eyes and head round in circles in front of it as if you are searching for Wally in a Where’s Wally picture, perhaps also moving one finger in a random way as if you are squiggling on the page
  • “Show (your worksheet/ your picture/ your writing/ etc) to…” – hold both hands up with your open palms towards you, then turn the hands so that they are facing to the side or forwards
  • “Shuffle (the cards/ all the cards/ the pack of cards)” – make lots of different exaggerated shuffling cards gestures, perhaps starting with flipping the two halves of the pack together on the table with your thumbs and finishing with shuffling in the air
  • “Slower/ (More) slowly” – move your hands up and down slowly with the palms down, or mime running very slowly
  • “Sorry, I don’t understand (Japanese/ what you are saying)” – cup one ear, frown, then make a questioning gesture with shoulders and arms
  • “Stand up” – hold one arm perpendicular to your body with the palm up and raise the hand (see above for “Everybody stand up”)
  • “Stand in a line”/ “Line up” – hold both arms out straight in front of you with your palms facing each other about 50 centimetres apart, as if the students were going to stand between those two lines
  • “Stand in two lines/ three lines/… lines” – hold both arms straight up with your palms facing each other and bring the arms down to show where they should stand between, take a step right or left and do the same to show where the next group should be, etc
  • “Stick… (in your book/ on…)”/ “Stick… to…” – mime rubbing a glue stick on something and turning it over and smoothing it down then trying unsuccessfully to pull it up, pretend to lick something and do the same, or just put your two palms together and mime unsuccessfully trying to pull them apart
  • “Stop (writing/ speaking/ playing the game/ etc)” – hold up one or two open hands with your palm facing away from you
  • “Stop for a moment/ Take a rest/ … and we will try again”/ “Time out” – hold up one open hand vertically with your palm facing sideways and hold the other open hand on topic of it horizontally with the palm facing down to make a letter “T”, or mime your whole body stopping and suddenly relaxing
  • “Stress the first/ second/ third syllable”/ “Pronounce the first/ second/ third syllable more strongly”/ “Put the stress on the first/ second/ third syllable” – as you beat out the syllables with the fist of one hand on the open palm of the other hand, raise the hand higher and bring it down more strongly on the stressed syllable, or as you count out the syllables by raising your fingers one by one, raise the hand higher when you count out the stressed syllable
  • “Swap seats”/ “Swap chairs”/ “Switch places” – point to one person with your right arm and the other person with your left arm, then cross those two arms, or point at the two people with the index finger and middle finger of one hand and twist the hand so that which finger is pointing at which person changes (if they are sitting next to each other)
  • “Take any card (without looking)” – Look away from your hand and mime taking one card, then turn your head forward again and mime turning over the card to look at it
  • “Take out your book/ your pen/…” – make an imaginary bag out of a curved arm by putting your left hand on your left hip, put an open right hand inside that space, close your hand while it is still inside the imaginary bag, bring a closed hand out, then mime looking at that thing, putting that thing in front of you and then releasing it
  • “Take turns”/ “Student A, (then) Student B, (then) Student A, (then…)” – hold up a curved open right hand and move it as if it is jumping over to the left, then mime a curved open left hand jumping over to the right, etc
  • “Time to go”/ “That’s the end of the lesson” – wave goodbye, or mime walking towards the door
  • “Time’s nearly up” – tap your watch or the place where your watch would be
  • “(That’s) too bad/ That’s a shame/ That’s a pity./ Better luck next time./ Never mind.” – let your shoulders dip and look disappointed, and/ or pat yourself on the head
  • “Too loud”/ “(Say…) (more) quietly” – cover your ears or put your index fingers into your ears, and/ or move your open hands up and down with the palms down in a similar gesture to “calm down”
  • “Try to remember…”/ “(Try to) memorise…” – tap the right part of your forehead with your right index finger about three times quite slowly and quite hard
  • “Turn around” – hold up one open hand with the palm towards the students and turn it around so the back of your hand faces the students, or do something similar with both open palms facing each other, turning them around each other so the back of the other hand then faces the students
  • “Turn over a card” – hold an open hand in front of you with the palm close to the table, then turn the hand over so that the palm faces the ceiling
  • “Underline…” – draw a line with the index finger of one hand near the bottom of the other hand, near the little finger
  • “Use the words/ phrases/… on the board” – mime grabbing the words off the board, then perhaps putting them on the page or putting them in your mouth and then taking them back out
  • “Walk (slowly/ quickly)” – walk on the spot, or move the index finger and middle of one hand like legs (with the rest of the hand representing the body and head)
  • “Work in groups”/ “Everyone from there to here in one group” – make a circle in the sky around a group of students, by drawing a circle with one finger or by curving both hands around them after cutting between them and the next group at both ends, or make a cutting motion between that group and neighbouring ones and then bring the two palms together at the middle of the group
  • “Write (on the board/ in your book/ on the worksheet/…)” – pinch the thumb and index finger of your writing hand together as if you are holding a pen between them then move them up and down and right as if you are writing joined up
  • “You can look at your cards (but don’t show them to your partner)” – hold both hands with the open palms close to your chest as if you are hiding something, then move them up in front of your face, keeping the hands very close to you all the time

Copyright © 2019

Written by Alex Case for

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