Using body language and gestures to teach grammar
Summary: Ways for teacher and students to use their bodies to present and practise grammatical forms such as tenses, modal verbs and passive voice
Although it is more common to talk about other techniques such as timelines and example sentences, I have found that good use of the teacher’s and students’ bodies is one of the best ways of eliciting, explaining and practising tenses and other common grammar points. This article gives some hints on how the teacher can use body language and gestures to get suitable language from the students and show what it means, and then how students can use their bodies to really learn the language and show if they really understand it or not, arranged by language point. There are also related articles on the site about TPR grammar games and using body language and gestures to teach English more generally.
Using body language and gestures to elicit and explain grammar
The two major techniques for using bodies in the presentation phase are to use a gesture to try to get the right language from students and to use a gesture along with a verbal explanation to make the explanation easier to understand and more memorable. For example, to elicit Present Continuous you could ask “What are you doing?” (perhaps holding an imaginary phone to your ear to show the context for such a question) and then miming walking until students say a suitable answer. For explanation, I tend to say “I’m walking walking walking walking” and continue that action and/ or turn one arm round and round continuously while I explain the present action/ action in progress meanings of this tense. There are detailed explanations of possible uses of the body to explain many more grammar points below.
Using body language and gestures to practise grammar
The most common activity below involves the teacher or a student doing an action and the other students trying to write or (usually) say a sentence that matches it, e.g. saying “You’re going to write on the blackboard” if they see someone slowly raising their arm to the correct position to do that thing. To contrast confusing grammar points, the teacher or a student could also do two contrasting mimes for students to say both of. For example, you could do two different mimes to get the people watching to say “I hit the table. I was hit by a baseball” to practise passive voice.
Mimes are possible with real things in the classroom, pictures of things and totally imaginary things. Miming being or interacting with imaginary things is the most fun and has the biggest range of possible language, but careful thought will be needed into what students will be able to actually think of and mime.
A nice variation is for students to guess something connected to the gesture instead or as well as the actual gesture, e.g. guessing “You’re going to go on holiday” if someone mimes packing a suitcase or predicting that “It will break” after guessing that the mime was “You’re going to karate chop your ruler”. Similarly, students can try to elicit responses to the mimes such as “I’ll bring you some scissors” if they mime being unable to open some packaging. That can also be made more personalised, e.g. guessing “You get up before seven o’clock” after guessing that the mime is “You’re getting up”.
An even simpler activity is for students to rush to do the right mime to match the sentence that they just heard and/ or read, perhaps with points for the best and/ or quickest mime. This can also be done as simple drilling without any competitive aspect, e.g. students saying and miming “There are three fingers on my shoulder” together. Another non-competitive version is for students to pick and put together words (from the board or on cards) to make things that they want their partner to do such as “An elephant is drinking”.
Miming can be made more fun by getting students to do physically challenging things like balance on one leg and jump and touch the top of the door frame. Another nice challenge is to think of, say and act out many different actions for a prompt, e.g. doing and saying “I can cook with a saucepan”, “I can make music with a saucepan” and “I can wear a saucepan as a helmet” if the prompt is “saucepan”.
A popular variation with young learners is versions of Simon Says, in which students should only respond in certain circumstances. Perhaps the best version is students only copying the mime and sentence if both match, e.g. only miming falling off a bicycle and saying “I can’t ride a bike” if they see and hear that, but not reacting if the mime is someone successfully riding along the street. To involve more thought, you could also ask them to only copy the sentence and/ or mime when it makes sense, e.g. with “A snake can swim” but not with “A snake can play golf”.
Although I have only found two uses, you can also get one or more students to do an action and get other students to rank it, e.g. getting three students to mime “old” and ask the others to rank them as “old”, “older” and “the oldest”, or deciding if a student’s mime is “fairly disappointed”, “very disappointed” or “absolutely devasted” for gradable and extreme adjectives.
The sections below explain how to use these activities for specific language points, starting with tenses.
Using body language and gestures to teach tenses
Perhaps the most common use of gestures to elicit and explain grammar is using one hand to show “past”, “present” and “future” by putting it behind your neck for “past”, just in front of your chest for “present” and far in front of you for “future”. The only problem with this is that moving further back and forward in time can be a (literal) stretch. Although the meaning is more ambiguous, you can do the same from left to right, with just in front of your belly button being “now”, left of that being the past and right of that being the future. This also makes it easier to show stretches of time such as the “from the past to the present” meaning of Present Perfect. You can also demonstrate past, present and future by stepping backwards and forwards. This is probably the best way of demonstrating Past Perfect and times like “three days ago”, but students (and the teacher) can easily lose track of where “now” is unless you put something on the floor in that position.
Using body language and gestures to teach present tenses
Using body language and gestures to teach Present Continuous
Present Continuous is the perfect tense to use miming with, given that its basic meaning is an action in progress. It is also helps that Present Continuous isn’t used with (often unmimable) state verbs. In fact, this tense matches body language and gestures so well that you can revise it every time that you use miming to practise vocabulary, functional language, cultural differences in body language and gestures, etc. It can also be used to prompt such language, e.g. students guessing “You are coughing” and then offering “Would you like a glass of water?”
To show the present meaning of Present Continuous, you should make sure that the action is in progress as you say or elicit the sentence, e.g. jumping non-stop until students say “You are jumping”. For some actions such as “get up” that will mean doing them very slowly, as repeating these kinds of actions will make it look like the kind of habit/ routine that needs Present Simple.
Another possibility is to freeze mid-motion, e.g. standing in a position that looks like you have pressed “freeze” on the video to demonstrate or elicit “You are running”. However, you should make sure that you don’t make gestures that look like the action is in the future. For example, there is no point trying to freeze “You are jumping”, which will look more like “You are going to jump” (see below). Especially with verbs that are more difficult to mime, it is also useful to just repeat the verb (“sleeping sleeping sleeping”) as you turn your hand in circles to show the non-stop meaning of this tense.
When getting students to do mimes to practise Present Continuous, you should also make sure that the (continuous or frozen) action goes on until the other students have said the correct sentence. Apart from getting them to guess or do the mimes you say or write up, the best activity is probably a version of Simon Says where they only do the action and/ or say the sentence if what you are doing and saying match, keeping still if you say “I’m brushing my teeth” when you are miming brushing your hair, etc. For students with more language and imagination, getting them to brainstorm, say and act out as many different Present Continuous sentences as they can with a verb and/ or object that you give them is also great, producing sentences like “I’m eating an apple” and “A snake is eating a mouse” for “eat”.
Using body language and gestures to teach Present Simple
Present Simple is much more difficult to demonstrate, elicit and practise with use of the body. If you want to mime it (perhaps to teach verbs that are commonly verbs in the Present Simple tense like “get up”), you should make sure that you do the action, stop and do it again at least twice to show the repeated action/ habit meaning and to contrast it with the non-stop action in progress meaning of Present Continuous. For example, to demonstrate “I go to bed” you should demonstrate lying down on the pillow, stand up straight again and then repeat those two actions at least three or four times. In contrast, “You are sleeping” would just be someone lying with their head on their pillow non-stop. To make the contrast clearer, it’s best to include a time with the Present Simple sentence and mime, e.g. putting your finger in your mouth and moving it up and down then pointing at your watch and holding up seven and half fingers to show “I brush my teeth at half past seven”.
Miming for Present Simple works much better with simple “is” and “are” sentences like “It is a bird” and “They are spiders”.
Using body language and gestures to teach adverbs of frequency
Using a single open hand with the palm down and moving it higher and lower can be a good, simple ways of eliciting and explaining how to rank “sometimes”, “often”, “usually”, etc. You can also use the other hand to show that ones like “rarely” and “seldom” have (approximately) the same level and/ or how close ones like “always” and “almost always” are to each other.
Using body language and gestures to teach Present Simple and Continuous
The contrasting gestures above (repeated action vs non-stop action and/ or turning your finger round and round in a circle) are very useful for demonstrating the differences in meaning of the two present tenses, and for eliciting example sentences. They aren’t really suitable for students to do, but instead you could get students to guess what Present Continuous action is being mimed (as that is the most natural tense for actions) and then ask them to make a true Present Simple sentence using the same language. For example, they could say “You are using a computer. Office workers use computers” for actions related to jobs, “You are ordering the bill. English people order the bill that way” for cultural differences, and the personalised version “You are brushing your hair. You brush your hair every morning” for everyday actions.
Using body language and gestures to teach past tenses/ narrative tenses
Using body language and gestures to teach Past Continuous
After Present Continuous, this is the most natural tense to use miming for. To show the contrast with that other continuous tense, with Past Progressive you will need to make sure that you and the students continue the action for a while and then stop before someone says the matching sentence, e.g. walking and then stopping to elicit “You were walking”. I tend to get the people watching to shout “Stop” when they think they can guess and then to say “When I said ‘stop’, you were…ing (…)” Alternatively, Past Continuous can be combined with other Past Simple actions like “When you hit the table, you were jumping”. Although it takes some imagination, the teacher or student can also mime sentences from a list such as “When I was walking down the street, a bird pooed on my shoulder”.
The teacher can also use gestures to explain the contrast between Past Continuous and Past Simple by making circles with their hand as they repeat the Past Continuous action (“Walking walking walking” etc) and then chopping down once with one hand to show the single Past Simple action that interrupted it.
Using body language and gestures to teach Past Simple
The meaning of this tense is too simple to have a gesture that particularly shows its meaning, but it can be contrasted with Past Continuous, Present Perfect etc by chopping down in front of you a little bit further right each time as you say “I got up. I got dressed. I ate breakfast”.
To elicit and practise the language after the initial presentation, a nice activity is to do a string of actions and then test students’ memories of what happened in what order. This can be done either by asking them to list as many things as they can or by asking them questions like “Did I touch Juan’s desk?” and “What did I sit on?”
Using body language and gestures to teach Present Perfect
The fundamental meaning of Present Perfect is best demonstrated by keeping your right hand in front of your belly button to show “present” and moving your left hand left and right to show the different past starts to the period being talked about, with an extreme stretch to the left meaning “ever” (because it means your whole life) and two hands almost touching to mean “just”. This can be contrasted with Past Simple by stopping a single hand somewhere to the left of your belly button to show “I saw her yesterday”, etc. Hands can also be used to demonstrate the difference between “since” to mean from a point in time (by pointing with one finger to show that point and then moving right from it) and “for” for a length of time (by counting as you make the space between two hands bigger and bigger, e.g. saying “for one month, two months, three months”).
There are no particularly good miming games for “Have you ever…?” etc, but you can contrast tenses by getting students to guess a (finished) mime with “You smoked a cigarette” and then try to make a true sentence about the person who did the action such as “You have never smoked”.
Using body language and gestures to teach Present Perfect Continuous
Gestures are a really good way of demonstrating the difference between “I’m tired because I’ve been cleaning windows” (e.g. saying “cleaning cleaning cleaning” as you do the action over and over, then wiping your forehead) and “I’ve cleaned three windows” (e.g. brushing your hands off and looking satisfied after you have done that action in three different places). It is also great for showing the silliness of sentences like “I’ve been making three sandwiches”, which would mean working on all three sandwiches at the same time. This contrast can be made into an activity for students where they mime the sensible and silly sentences and so work out which tense is more likely in each situation in real life. Alternatively, they could choose and mime only the sensible ones, also thinking about the grammar while they are guessing what is being mimed.
It can also be really useful to get students to use Present Continuous and Present Perfect Continuous together, to show the general meaning of the continuous aspect and so what the two tenses have in common. This can be done by students guessing “You are blowing bubbles” in the usual way, and then say how long that person has been doing that thing (“You have been blowing bubbles for about 90 seconds”, etc), with the person continuing the action until a correct second sentence has also been said (and therefore the length of time ticking up all the time until then). You can also use the hand turning round and round gesture to demonstrate the meaning of both tenses.
Using body language and gestures to teach Past Perfect
Past Perfect is perhaps the best tense to teach by stepping or jumping backwards, e.g. saying and acting “I ate my dinner”, jumping back to say and act out “Before that, I had already got changed” and the same with “Before that, I had drunk a beer”, etc. This could be changed into some kind of game where students jump forwards or backwards before each mime to get students to guess in Past Simple or Past Perfect, perhaps asking them to mime true information about yesterday that way.
A range of narrative tenses can be practised with a more complicated version of the list of actions game explained above. The teacher or a student does a chain of actions such as opening the door and kicking the wall. They then test the class on their memories of those actions with questions like “Had I picked up the book when I stared at Fred?”
Using body language and gestures to teach future tenses
The easiest future form to teach with miming is “going to”. This works for both going to for future plans and for going to for predictions with present evidence. You can do this by miming the actions leading up to something such as crouching down ready to jump or pretending to put chalk on your hands for “You are going to jump” and “You are going to do rock climbing”. To make the future meaning clear, the teacher or student should make sure that they don’t start the actual action.
This can be extended to show the difference between going to for future predictions with present evidence and will for future predictions without present evidence, e.g. by miming the going to mime and then students predicting what might happen afterwards, as in “You are going to kick the table. The table will fall over”.
To show predictions of different levels of certainty such as “could possibly”, “may/ might”, “may well/ might well”, “probably will”, “almost certainly will” and “will”, you can simply lift your hand higher and higher as you go up the ranking. The 50/50 meaning of “may/ may not” can also be shown with the so-so gesture of wrist with the palm down. “Definitely will” actually has the same level as “will” but is just more emphatic, so you can show this by miming banging your fist on the table as you strongly stress every syllable of “definitely will”.
It is more difficult to mime the difference between going to for future plans and will for spontaneous decisions, but you can show the latter by slapping your forehead, clicking your fingers, suddenly turning around etc to show that an idea has just occurred to you. You can also get students elicit “will” sentences like “I’ll carry it for you” by miming not being able to lift something and “I’ll show you (how to do it)” by looking confused while they look at a remote control.
With younger and lower-level classes, perhaps the most common contrast to come across is between “I like…” and “I would like…” I tend to show the latter by reaching out towards something and/ or drawing an invisible thought bubble in the sky with one finger, whereas with “like” you can just show yourself eating and enjoying the ice cream, etc.
Using body language and gestures to teach other grammar
Using body language and gestures to teach passive voice
As suggested above, passive voice is best done with the teacher or students miming contrasting sentences like “I hit a baseball. I was hit by a baseball” for the other students to say both of in the right order. After a few direct contrasts like this, it is probably best to continue with two unconnected sentences, one of which is in its usual active form (“I drank some tea” etc) and one of which is usually passive (“My handbag was stolen”, etc).
Using body language and gestures to teach countable and uncountable nouns
The fact that some things are countable and others are uncountable can be shown by counting chairs by pointing at them and/ or showing the number on your fingers, then showing the impossibility of counting air by trying to do so by pointing at atoms in front of you. Alternatively, you can pretend to rip bits of someone as you show how impossible it is to decide how much bread is “one bread”, etc. However, neither of these work for things which you could count but are grammatically uncountable such as “rice”.
You can also show amounts of uncountable things by making amorphous shapes of various sizes with your hands in the air as you say “some”, “quite a lot”, “a lot”, “so much”, etc. You could probably make this into a miming game where one person mimes and other people guess “a little salt” and “three bananas”. To make this more challenging and more fun and to increase the amount of miming, I would ban holding up fingers to show numbers for countable sentences, instead insisting that they do the action that many times.
Using body language and gestures to teach comparative and superlative
A typical mistake with this grammar point is to use gestures to teach superlatives on their own, which may well lead to students confusing “very hot” and “hottest”. Instead, the teacher and students should always mime “hot hotter hottest” in order every time, getting more extreme with every mime. The same dangers exist with putting a hand higher and higher to show “interesting more interesting the most interesting” etc, although you can reduce possible confusions by keeping the other hand in the basic position to show that you are comparing, and by not reaching as high as you can for the superlative (so it doesn’t look like “absolutely fascinating”).
A variation on the usual miming games that works well with this point is for one person to just mime the basic adjective (e.g. “tall”) and then the other people to say and mime the more extreme versions (stretching higher and then even higher as they say “taller, tallest”).
Another possible game is to get three students to do the same mime and get the rest of the class to classify them as “happy”, “happier”, “the happiest” depending on what they think about the comparative extremity of their mimes.
Using body language and gestures to teach gradable and extreme adjectives
Unlike comparative and superlative adjectives above, I would generally just put my hand higher and higher to demonstrate the ranking of “slightly tired”, “rather tired”, “very tired”, “extremely tired” and “absolutely exhausted”, with the last one being my hand stretched as high as possible while standing on tiptoe.
Using body language and gestures to teach modal verbs
The most common modal to mime is can and can’t for ability, for example by showing yourself swimming for “I can swim” and drowning for “I can’t swim”. Simon Says works particularly well for this point. For modals of obligation, permission, etc, it is easiest to show negative ones like “You can’t/ mustn’t/ aren’t allowed to…” by crossing your arms, waving an index finger from side to side, etc. Strong positive verbs like “(really) must” can be shown by pretending to poke someone in the chest or by banging one fist on an open palm, but weaker ones like “should” are more difficult to mime. No obligation and permission phrases like “You don’t have to…” and “You can… (if you like)” can be shown by a sweeping arm “Please go ahead” gesture, a shrug, thumbs up, etc.
See the will section above for modals of possibility/ probability like “may well”.
Using body language and mimes to teach imperative
The mimes just above for the modal verbs “must”, “mustn’t”, etc can also be used for “Please be on time” and “Don’t run”. At the practice stage I like to get students practising with verbs that I will use in later classroom instructions like “Make a circle” and “Don’t show your partner”.
Using body language and gestures to teach question formation
To elicit and practise questions with verbs before the subject such as “Do you like cheese?” and “What time do you get up?” I tend to make a questioning gesture with my arms, face and/ or shoulders for the auxiliary verb, with a different gesture showing the meaning of the wh- word before that if there is one. For example, I look under the table, make a question gesture and then point at the flashcard of a mother for “Where is your mother?” or count on my fingers, make a question gesture and then point at a student for “How old are you?”
Using body language and gestures to teach determiners
One finger pointed up as if you are starting to count can be a great way to remind students not to miss out the tricky grammar word in “It’s a cup” and “It’s an orange”. To contrast this with “the”, you can pretend to point at one particular thing to show the “one particular thing” meaning of the definite article. This can be contrasted more clearly with the “any one is okay” meaning of “a/ an” by holding up one finger and looking all around the classroom at all the possible alternatives, or by pointing at all the suitable things.
Using body language and gestures to teach personal pronouns and possessive adjectives
You can easily demonstrate, elicit and practise “I” by pointing at yourself, “You” by pointing at one student and “We” by making a circle around everyone in the room. “He”, “She” and “They” can be demonstrated by pointing at other students, but this is confusing if you are eliciting from the whole class, as it just looks like “you” again. Instead, I would point at pictures of people or just point at a space where other people could be, drawing a circle around several pictures or imaginary people for “They”. For some reason I always point right for “he” and left for “she”, which has no logic at all, but at least means that eliciting is easier once students have memorised the pattern.
To elicit and practise “My”, “Your”, etc, I just use a cupped hand to show possession, using a (rather rude) index finger for the “I”, etc pointing to make the contrast very clear.
Using body language and gestures to teach have/ have got
As with possessive adjectives above, I tend to use a cupped hand to show possession, with the hand held close to my chest to show “I have (got)…” This is particularly good for contrasting “have (got)” with “I want/ would like…” (reaching for something far away) and “I like…” (enjoying seeing or interacting with such a thing), especially if you keep your face quite neural for “I have (got)…”
Using body language and gestures to teach prepositions
Due to lack of preparation I often end up demonstrating prepositions of position with one fist and one flat palm, but to be honest students often get confused which hand the subject is, especially if I’m demonstrating “on” or “under”. It’s therefore probably better to use a pencil, eraser etc and then place it on, in, under, etc your hand. The same thing also works for prepositions of movement like “over” and “through”, perhaps done with a whole arm as the object instead of a single hand.
More abstract mimes include hugging for “with” and tapping all your pockets for “without”. Such mimes can also be used to elicit and practise colocations such as dependent prepositions and phrasal verbs, perhaps by miming both the overall meaning and the meanings of the individual words, e.g. an “It’s finished” gesture for the overall meaning of “wrap up” and then wrapping a present and pointing up for the individual parts of that expression.
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