How to use body language and gestures in EFL classes
Summary: An overview of gestures and other body language in English classes, including games and other teaching activities
Bringing gestures and other body language into your English language classes is incredibly useful and also very fun. This article gives ideas on how to do, including some of my all-time favourite EFL activities.
There are four main uses of body language and gestures in EFL classes:
- Teaching cultural differences related to body language (including gestures from other countries that they might not be familiar with, and gestures that they use which could be misunderstood or offensive elsewhere)
- Teaching students body language that will help with good communication more generally (such as gestures that can be used with typical presentation phrases to make the meaning clear and keep the attendees’ attention, and good and bad body language in job interviews)
- Getting students to use body language and gestures to learn other language (grammar, vocabulary, functional language, phonics, pronunciation, etc)
- The teacher using gestures and other body language to control the class, explain the activities, elicit language, etc
For all of those four uses of body language, you’ll need to make sure that you can think of mimes which are easy enough to mime and guess the meaning of. It’s also best to have a plan B in case students can’t understand the suggested mime or can’t think of a mime themselves.
How to teach international body language and gestures
How to present international body language and gestures
When planning a lesson or lesson segment on international body language, the first thing you will have to do is choose which gestures etc to mention. Ones which are generally most useful to include in lessons include:
- Taboo body language and gestures
- Alternatives to gestures that are used in their country but aren’t much understood elsewhere
- Gestures which also have useful matching language (a sweeping hand gesture to go with “Please go ahead”, etc)
- Gestures from countries which are particularly interesting or relevant to your students, e.g. the UK and/ or USA if they use a lot of media from those countries
There are lists of suitable British gestures, American gestures and taboo gestures for such activities on this site, and a suggested list of the top things to present in an article on this topic. To make an easy to start to the activity, I would mix these tricky ones with universal body language such as shrugging for “I don’t know”. This would also mean that you could start with one of the practice activities below without needing a separate presentation stage, and in addition it would make it clear to students that they can use some or many of the gestures that they already know.
How to practise international body language and gestures
International body language and gestures guessing games
Students look at someone acting out gestures, listen to explanations of the meanings, and guess what country all those gestures come from. You can also do the opposite, with students being told the country, being shown the gestures and then guessing what each gesture means (in that place). Both of these activities also work well with written descriptions of the gestures, especially if students know or you want to practise body vocabulary such as “index finger”.
International body language and gestures bluff
This is a more complex activity that demands a bit more thought. Students look at a gesture and hear something about its meaning and use in a particular country. They then try to guess if all that information is correct, and if not which part (the gesture, meaning or country) is wrong (e.g. that there is a very rude gesture in Greece, but that it is not what was shown to them). The same thing also works well with written descriptions of the gestures, locations and meanings, in which case you can ask students to change some information before they play the bluffing game with their partners.
How to teach body language and gestures for effective communication
As mentioned above, I most often teach body language for presentation skills, teaching students gestures and phrases like an open palm held out with the fingers pointing towards someone with “Please go ahead” for presentation Q&A stages. I also often bring up the topics of:
- Good handshakes
- Good eye contact
- Good sitting and standing position (not slouching, but also not sitting too straight and so not looking too stressed, etc)
- Table manners
This is also particularly useful for classes studying job interview skills, but is also useful in classes studying social English topics such as meeting and greeting people, and taking guests out for dinner. In all these cases, this topic links in well with the topic of international differences in body language and gestures that is mentioned above. Some of the topics below such as teaching requests and offers also fit in well.
How to present and practise body language and gestures for effective communication
The easiest and most fun task for this point is spotting bad body language and gestures. For example, I often get my students to read out their presentation introduction after being given a roleplay card saying something like “Stare hard at one person the whole time” or “Keep your arms crossed”. These can be mixed up with some extreme versions of good ones like “Use lots of (meaningful) gestures”. After spotting what extreme thing is being done, students can then discuss which are good, bad or so-so.
Getting students to use body language and gestures to learn other language
Body language and gestures can be used to present and practise many kinds of language, including grammar, vocabulary, functional language and phonics. I’ve used this in every kind of class from toddlers to engineers, and it works surprisingly well with serious topics like IELTS, technical English, medical English and business English. This is because it helps to keep tired students awake, adds variety to the classes, makes the language memorable, and makes it clear when students don’t really understand the meanings. However, if students might be resistant to miming, you might need to think about:
- Checking that the actions won’t be particularly embarrassing
- Choosing mimes which can be done sitting down, e.g. with hands representing the person doing the action
- Doing it in small groups
With all of the possible language points, the most obvious thing to do is for students to watch a mime and shout out language that matches it, e.g. shouting out “Turn up” if they see someone pretending to turn a volume knob and then blocking their ears and/ or turning around and then pointing up. You could also ask them to write down suitable sentences. You could also ask them to watch two mimes and say both things in the right order, e.g. “Narrow. Small” if your students sometimes mix those two words up.
The other obvious activity is for students to listen to and/ or read some language and compete to make a suitable mime. Points could then be given for the first suitable mime and/ or for the best mime.
With both of those basic activities, students could also be asked to say some language that comes afterwards, e.g. saying “Nice to meet you” and then “Nice to meet you too” after a mimed handshake.
It can also be useful to just drill the language while everyone does the mimes, e.g. miming along to a song or copying the actions in a picture book such as Head to Toe by Eric Carle. Hand puppets also work well with young learners, although you’ll need to think even more carefully than usual about what gestures will and won’t be possible to make and guess.
Using body language and gestures to teach vocabulary
Miming works for almost any typical young learner vocabulary set, such as:
- appearance vocabulary (thin, fat, ugly, tall, beard, curly hair, etc)
- classroom vocabulary (eraser, ruler, etc)
- clothes (hat, socks, etc)
- daily routines (housework, morning actions, etc)
- feelings (happy, sad, etc)
- food (peeling a banana, picking and eating grapes one by one, etc)
- household vocabulary (TV, fridge, etc)
- transport (plane, train, etc)
With a bit of thought, miming can also be made to work for less obvious points like family, e.g. with students bending over and stroking an imaginary beard for “grandfather”. This works particularly well if the mimes are introduced for the first time while you are using a picture book, song or chant, and then the mimes are later used on their own for further practice. You can also get students to interact with real things in the classroom (pushing a desk for “push”, etc), interact with pictures such as posters on the classroom walls (catching a picture of a bird for “catch”, etc) and/ or just using their imaginations (doing a peeling gesture to represent “banana”, etc).
Mimes can also work really well with adults and/ or more difficult language. For example, for phrasal verbs like “get on with someone” and “fall out with someone”, students could mime the meaning of the phrasal verb and/ or the literal meanings of the words that make it up (taking something for “get” and putting one hand on the other for “on”, as well showing a friendly and animated conversation for “get on”). This also works for idioms and dependent prepositions more generally. The number one use for me is to teach trends language, with students both drawing the line of a graph in the air and miming other meanings of the language, e.g. miming a plane falling and a line going down quickly for “plummet”. It is also good for vocabulary revision with mixed sets of words and phrases which have come up over the last few weeks (as long as you double check they can all be easily mimed, as suggested above).
I often mix miming with other practice, e.g. miming common architecture compound nouns and then doing a matching exercise to see how well they remember the things that they were just miming. This also works well with students miming pairs of opposite words like “hot” and “cold” from a list and then seeing how well they remember those opposites.
Using body language and gestures to teach grammar
There are other articles on this site on Using Body Language and Gestures to Teach Grammar and on TPR Grammar Games more generally, so here I will just write about combining grammar with other language points.
Putting vocabulary, descriptions of international gestures and descriptions of good and bad body language etc into sentences like “You are going to sunbathe”, “You are apologising” and “(When I said stop) you were looking above people’s heads” can give context, add useful collocations, practise previous grammar points and/ or lead on to new grammar points. The three tenses used here (Present Continuous, Past Continuous and going to) are the most flexible to use in this way, but students could also mime a string of actions for other students to guess with narrative tenses such as Past Simple.
Using body language and gestures to teach functional language
Although this is much less common than with vocabulary and grammar, gestures are a perfect way of eliciting, teaching and practising phrases like “Please help yourself” and “Here you are”. This is particularly useful for situations in which the gestures themselves will also be useful, such as socialising and presentations. It also works for:
- Active listening (e.g. ones showing surprise such as “Really?”/ “No!” and ones asking the other person to continue such as “Go on”/ “Tell me more”)
- Checking/ clarifying (“Can you repeat that?”, “Can you speak a little more slowly?”, “Sorry, I didn’t catch that”, etc)
- Classroom instructions
- Directions (“Turn left”, etc)
- Discussion skills such as turn taking, inviting other people to speak and filling silence while thinking of what to say (interrupting with “Can I come in here?”, etc)
- Meeting people (“Here is my business card”, “This is my colleague John”, etc)
- Meetings and negotiations (“I can shake on that”, “Let’s meet halfway”, etc)
- Preferences/ Likes and dislikes
- Requests, orders and offers (“Can I have a cup of tea?”, “Please raise your arms” and “Please help yourself”, etc)
- Restaurant and bar phrases (for guests, hosts and staff)
- Small talk (“I like your new haircut”, etc)
- Starting and ending conversations (“Do you have the time?”, “Is this seat free?”, “Well, I’d love to talk more but I have a meeting in five minutes, so I’ll email you later”, etc)
- Telephoning (“Please hold the line”, “Just a moment”, “Can I read that back?”, etc)
- Travel English (“Please put your check in luggage on the belt”, etc)
As well as miming phrases with those functions, you could also mime situations where those phrases are suitable, e.g. miming being lost to elicit “Can I help you?”, “Are you lost?” or “Are you looking for…?”
The most difficult part of making a list of phrases for one of the functions above is making the phrases distinguishable from each other just by miming. To do so, it is probably best to include different mimable vocabulary in each functional sentence, e.g. bill” in “Can I have the bill?”
Including idioms can also make functional language phrases both more memorable and more mimable. For example, the negotiating phrases “Let’s meet halfway” and “I’m going to have to stand firm on this” are both much easier to mime and more memorable than the seemingly more straightforward phrase “Let’s compromise”.
If you put all the phrases with one function together and accept any of them as equivalent, you can also include miming of many other functions for example:
- Complaints (“I’m not very happy with…”, etc)
- Getting people’s attention (“Excuse me”, “Can I have your attention, please?”, etc)
- Sympathising (“Never mind”, etc)
I often combine most or all of all the functions mentioned in this section in a functional language review activity. Strangely, there is no good gesture for thanking in English, but I often ask students to think of a gesture for “Thank you for…” as a trick question and/ or to lead onto the topic of cultural differences.
Using body language and gestures to teach phonics
Although it takes a bit of thought and doesn’t usually work with the usual phonics lists from textbooks, it is possible to think of a mime for all English phonics, including useful ones that are not in the alphabet like “ch” (e.g. a church shape made out of two hands together with just the index fingers up).
Using body language and gestures to teach pronunciation
There is another article on this site on this topic including detailed teaching tips for most of the pronunciation points that students are likely to have problems with, so this section just gives more general tips on how to use you’re a finger or fingers, hands, arms, face or whole body to elicit, explain and practise individual sounds, minimal pairs, number of syllables, word stress, sentence stress, and intonation.
Uses for particular parts of your body include:
- putting one index finger vertically in front of your mouth, making sure that your tongue touches it when you pronounce the “th” in “three” or “the”, then wiping it on your sleeve to show that it got wet
- pulling the sides of your mouth wide with your two index fingers to show the mouth position of “ee/ ea” in “feet” (in contrast to “i” in “fit”) and “s” in “saw/ sore” (in contrast to “sh” in “sure/ shore”)
- flipping one hand at the side of your mouth up and down to show the movement of your tongue for “l” in “leap” (in contrast to the unmoving hand for “r” in “reap”)
- beating out the syllables like a conductor with one arm, including a bigger and longer movement for the stressed syllable
- screwing up your face to show the disgusting meaning of the “er/ ur/ ir” sound in “bird”
- moving your body back and then forward as you raise your hand to show the sneezing situation of the “ch” sound in “cheese”
These uses can be generalised as:
- showing the position and/ or movement of your tongue, lips, etc
- showing how other things interact with your mouth
- showing situations in which you make that sound
As with pronunciation practice more generally, it is often best to contrast two sounds and therefore two actions, e.g. putting your fingers around your throat and moving the hand from side to side to show a voiced sound but keeping your hand still for an unvoiced sound (the “b” in “ban” versus the “p” in “pan”, etc).
Generally the first time I use these gestures is to explain pronunciation to the students, e.g. during error correction. I then get them to copy the gesture as they copy my pronunciation, and perhaps use it again to help them in practice activities such as a pronunciation maze. I then also use the same gesture in future classes to show them that they are pronouncing something wrongly and give hints as to how they should be pronouncing it.
Using body language and gestures to explain and elicit language
A good gesture or two from the teacher can make language easier to understand and more memorable, and can also help distinguish between different language that might be confused. For example, showing the meaning of “On the other hand” by putting up one hand up palm up, putting the other hand up palm up and then moving the two hands up and down like old fashioned scales helps to show the fact that “on the other hand” is used to weigh up two sides of argument, and usually leads towards a conclusion such as whether it is generally a good or bad thing. This helps to distinguish it from other similar expressions like “In contrast”, which could be shown by making different shapes from your right and hand left to show the “big difference” meaning. Other language that can be contrasted in this way includes:
- “like” (licking your licks and smiling) and “want/ would like” (reaching out towards something while looking longingly)
- Present Continuous (doing a single action non-stop and/ or turning your hand round and round in a circle while you say “swimming swimming swimming”) and Present Simple (repeating an action many different times and/ or pointing at points along an imaginary line that represents your life as you say “swim” “swim again” “swim again”)
- passive (reacting when something happens to you such as holding your leg in pain for “I was kicked”, etc) and doing an action to something else (e.g. kicking the table)
- personal pronouns like “I” (pointing towards the person or a picture with your index finger) and possessive adjectives like “my” and/ or possessive S like “John’s” (pointing a cupped hand at someone or a picture to show possession)
- the different uses of imperative for offers like “Please take a seat” (an open palm swept around the room), orders/ commands/ instructions like “Please sit down” (very strongly pointing with a strict look on your face) and begging like “Please forgive me” (kneeling down, making praying gesture and looking imploringly)
- Past Simple (doing a sequence of mimes, perhaps stepping forward between each one) and Past Perfect (stepping backwards between each mime, perhaps doing the same mimes as with Past Simple but in the opposite order)
- Past Continuous (doing an action non-stop until something interrupts it such as a student saying “Stop” and/ or turning your hand round and round as in Present Continuous) and Past Simple (doing a quick action such as tripping up, perhaps to interrupt the Past Continuous action, and/ or pointing quickly into space just once)
- “a/ an” (holding up one finger and looking round the class at all the options) and “the” (pointing at one specific thing)
You could also try to mime the wrong version, e.g. miming squeezing through a long but narrow house for “my house is narrow” if your students say that when they mean “My house is very small”, or miming eating a bite of one hamburger then a bite of the other before coming back to the first etc to show what is wrong with the possible but unlikely sentence “I’ve been eating two hamburgers”.
Another useful gestures for contrasting meanings is putting an open palm higher and lower to rank language. This can be used for:
- adverbs of frequency (with “almost always” higher than “usually”, etc)
- modals of possibility/ probability
- adverbs of degree
You can also rank quantifiers combined with gradable and extreme adjectives, something that could alternatively be shown just by miming the same adjective more and more extremely, e.g. shivering more and more for “slightly cold”, “fairly cold”, “very cold” and “absolutely freezing”.
Perhaps the most common gesture to contrast meanings is pointing behind your head for “past”, in front of your chest for “present” and far in front of you for “future”. This is comparatively unambiguous, but doesn’t allow you to do much more than contrast those three things. Once students understand that, you can do the same with your left being past, in front of your belly button being present, and your right being future, perhaps turning your back to your student if seeing it your way round would be confusing. This then allows you to show times like “from the past to the present” for Present Perfect and contrast “tomorrow” and “the day after tomorrow”.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily contrast them with each other, gestures can also be used to show different future forms such as opening a (real or imaginary) diary, flicking through it and pointing at a page for Present Continuous for future arrangements (“I’m going for a drink”, etc), reaching out longingly for future desires, and clicking your fingers, slapping your head and/ or quickly changing what you are doing for will for spontaneous decisions (“I’ll use this stapler”, etc).
Some language such as “will for predictions” is unsuitable for miming, but you could mime something to elicit it, e.g. getting students to predict the consequences of the action that you are miming (“You are swimming in the sea. You will catch a cold”, etc).
Gestures can also be used to present and explain useful English teaching jargon such as “collocation” (threading the fingers of two hands together).
Using body language and gestures to give classroom instructions and control the class
As well as teaching language, the teacher can use their body to get students into groups, stop bad behaviour, praise good work, etc. Other uses include:
- showing time limits
- showing what to do with books, worksheets, reading texts, etc
- showing what to do while listening
- showing what to do with what is on the board
- giving homework instructions
- organising students into pairs, groups and teams
- moving students around
- explaining the rules of games (turn taking, how cards should be manipulated, etc)
- getting volunteers
- controlling noise, speed, excitement, etc
- congratulating/ showing who was successful
- showing that something is wrong
- starting the activity
- ending the activity or class (tidying up, saying goodbye, etc)
There is a big list of suitable phrases and gestures for all these uses on this site.
To make the gestures more effective and also teach language, you could get students to say what you want them to do before they do it, e.g. also putting their fingers on their lips, saying “Quiet please” and then shutting up when they see you make the “sh” gesture. You can also do the opposite, meaning using the phrases without the gestures from then on and getting students to make the suitable gesture when they respond. To make this more likely to work and to really teach the language, you can include classroom language in classroom activities such as Good and Bad Behaviour Mimes (miming putting up your hand, chewing gum etc to elicit imperative forms like “Don’t chew gum”).
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