Teaching pronunciation through body language and gestures

Summary: How teachers and students can use their bodies to make English sounds easier to pronounce and remember.

It might seem silly to talk about using your body to teach and learn pronunciation, given that you can hardly pronounce without using your lungs, vocal cords, tongue, lips, jaw, etc. However, this article gives tips on using other parts of your body to illustrate what your tongue etc should do. Parts of your body that you can use this way include:

  • a finger (e.g. putting one index finger in front of your mouth to show the “Quiet please” meaning of “sh” in “sheep”)
  • a hand (e.g. rapidly opening a fist and spreading your fingers to show plosive sounds such as “p” in “pan”)
  • an arm (e.g. beating out the syllables of a word, with a much more dramatic up and down motion on the stressed syllable, or waving a hand up and down more dramatically to show extreme intonation in “No???? Really???”)
  • your face (e.g. screwing up your face in disgust to show a typical time when we make the sound “er/ ur/ ir”)
  • your whole body (e.g. miming a really dramatic sneeze, including leaning back beforehand, to illustrate the sound “ch” in “chess”)

To put all that another way, this means you can use almost any part of your body to demonstrate and help produce stress, intonation or individual sounds. The sections below explain how to do so in more detail.


Using body language and gestures to teach stress and intonation

Teachers probably use gestures most often to demonstrate stress, e.g. to contrast “an INcrease” with “to inCREASE”. Perhaps the most common way of doing this is by pretending to hit a drum and hitting the stressed syllable with a longer and harder stroke than the others. Other possibilities include:

  • actually hitting your other hand only on the stressed syllable (only “hitting the air” for the other syllables, e.g. air hit, air hit, air hit, hit your hand, air hit for “communiCAtion”)
  • opening up the hand more and opening up the hand less (pinching all the fingers together and then opening it up in a kind of flashing gesture, with the fingers really spread apart for a stressed syllable, e.g. big flash, small flash, small flash for “COMMunist”)
  • raising your hand on the stressed syllable as you count off the number of syllables (e.g. first finger up, second finger up as you raise your hand and then third finger up with the hand back down for “unUSual”).

Another common use of body language is to show intonation. I agree with those who say there is little point trying to teach actual intonation patterns, especially to those like me who can’t even tell if a musical note is going up or down. However, it can be useful to wave an arm up and down more extremely to show more extreme intonation (to show interest, politeness, etc) and, conversely, to keep a hand flat to show little range in intonation (to show lack of interest, etc).


Teaching English sounds with body language and gestures

For sounds, you can use parts of your body such as your hands to show:

  • the position and shape of parts of your mouth such as your tongue (e.g. moving a hand to show the flap of a tongue for “l” in “lap” and keep a hand still to show the tongue not moving for “r” in “rap”)
  • the position of the sound in your mouth (e.g. pointing through your cheek to a point near the front of your mouth for “ah” in “heart” and pointing through your cheek further back for “er/ ir/ ur” in “hurt”)
  • what the air coming out of your mouth is doing (e.g. pointing towards and away from your mouth as you make a long “f” sound in “foot” to illustrate the air coming out continuously for as long as you like)
  • typical situations in which you might make that sound (e.g. making a pose such as a peace sign as you smile widely and say “cheese” for the “ee/ ea” sound in “please”)
  • reactions of objects to those sounds (e.g. an open hand pretending to be a piece of paper that moves when you say “p” in “piece” due to the air suddenly blowing out of your mouth)

In all of these cases, I would concentrate on what helps the students recognise, pronounce and remember the sounds, rather than trying to accurately reflect where the sound is actually being made in the mouth, the real position of the tongue, etc. Note that all of these will also need verbal explanation, as students are unlikely to understand that a hand means your mouth getting smaller etc unless you tell them so.

If possible, it is best to contrast two gestures as you contrast two sounds, e.g. miming blowing up a balloon as you say “f” in “fanned” but miming breathing on your glasses and then rubbing them on your shirt as you say “h” in “hand”. This works with just about any sounds that you might contrast with minimal pairs, for example:

  • “ar” in “far” (putting your head back and opening your mouth very wide as if the doctor is going to look down it at your tonsils) and “er/ ur/ ir” as in “fur/ fir” (screwing up your nose and face in disgust and flinching away from something revolting)
  • “O/ oh” as in “foe” (putting a half-opened hand next to your mouth with the tips of the fingers pointing forward and bringing the finger tips together as your mouth nearly closes as you pronounce the two sounds in the diphthong, or mime looking surprised) and “or” as in “for/ four/ fore” (make a small circle from the tips of your fingers by pinching your fingers nearly together that is about the same size as your mouth when you pronounce “or” and move it back and forth to and from your mouth as you pronounce the sound for a very long time, or mime thinking for a long time as you say “ooooooooooooor…”)
  • “p” in “pan” (put your open hand in front of your mouth with your fingers down and move the fingers away from your mouth as if they were a piece of paper being blown, preferably after showing the real effect with a piece of paper) and “b” in “ban” (hold your voice box/ Adam’s apple between your thumb and first two fingers and move the hand quickly from side to side when you make the sound to show the voice being used/ the vocal cords vibrating)
  • “r” in “ramp” (put an open hand horizontally next to your mouth with the palm down and don’t move the hand while you make the sound) and “l” in “lamp” (put an open hand in the same palm down position and move the fingers up and then quickly down as you pronounce the sound to show the tongue flicking)
  • “sh” in “sheet” (put one vertical index finger in front of your mouth to show the “be quiet” meaning and/ or pinch all the fingers of one hand nearly together to make a circle from the fingertips to show the shape and size of your mouth) and “s” in “seat” (mime disapproving of something on stage, perhaps also making a thumbs down sign, or put your index fingers in the right and left corners of your mouth and stretch your mouth wide with them)
  • the first sound of the more French-sounding version of “genre” and the middle of “television”, “pleasure”, etc (move an index finger back and forth over and over as you pronounce the sound for a long time) and “dj” in “judge”, “jam”, etc (pinch your fingertips together as if you are squeezing something between them and then quickly pull the fingers apart as you make the sound, in a kind of firework gesture)
  • “ee/ ea” in “been” (move your index finger back and forth as you pronounce the sound for a very long time, stretch your mouth as wide as possible with your index fingers or mime posing for a photo with a wide smile) and “i” in “bin” (move your head sharply forwards as you make the short sound or mime posing for a photo without a smile)
  • “w” in “wan” (nearly pinch your fingertips together, leaving a circle of fingertips pointing forward to show a circular mouth) and “v” in “van” (nearly make a fist but dig the nails of the fingers into the thumb to show the position of your teeth on your lip, leaving a space in the middle of the hand)

More general contrasts include:

  • Hold your Adam’s apple and vibrate your hand to show a voiced sound (“g”, “d”, v”, etc) and then hold your Adam’s apple but don’t move your hand for the equivalent unvoiced sound (“k”, “t”, “f”, etc)
  • Hold your mouth in position with your hand when you move back and forth between a voiced and unvoiced sound pair (“ch” and “dj”, etc) to show that the mouth position doesn’t change
  • Hold your hand in a position and/ or shape that represents parts of your mouth and don’t move it when you switch between a voiced and unvoiced pair (“s” and “z”, etc)
  • Move a finger away from your mouth and back to your mouth at least three or four times to show a long vowel sound (“oo” in “loose” etc) and move your head quickly forward, and/ or beat down quickly with one hand to show a similar short vowel sound (“u” in “put”, etc)
  • Make an explosive gesture with one hand by suddenly opening the fingers (like a sped-up flower opening) to show a plosive sound (“p”, “b”, “dj”, etc) and move a finger back and forth as you extend the similar non-plosive sound (“f”, “v”, the middle sound in “leisure”, etc) as long as you can

 Other useful gestures include:

  • digging the finger nails of the index finger and middle finger your right hand into your left hand to show your top teeth touching your bottom lip (in “f”, “v”)
  • biting your hand to show the same thing

Specific sounds that you can demonstrate but which don’t have clear contrasts with other sounds and gesture include:

  • “ch” in “cheese” (putting your head back and opening your mouth as if you are about to sneeze, then putting your hand to your mouth as you enact the sneezing sound and action)
  • the two “th” sounds in “three” and “the” (putting one vertical index finger in front of your mouth touching your lips, make sure your tongue comes out far enough to touch your finger as you make the sound, then wipe the wet finger on your shirt, trousers, etc)
  • “ow” in cow (move your finger quickly away, grab it, and make a pained look with your face, to show the “ouch” meaning)
  • “s” in “same” (a snake gesture with one arm, as that animal both has a name starting with that sound and makes that sound)
  • “t” in “teach” (waving a finger from side to side to show the “tut tut” meaning)
  • the schwa sound in “er” in “computer” and the unstressed version of “at” (let your chin relax and drop and your mouth droop as if you are miming a very stupid or intoxicated person, plus maybe wobble your chin to show how loose and relaxed it is, then pronounce the sound without tightening up your face)
  • “br” in “brace” (mime driving a car while making a typical kids’ impression of a car noise)
  • “gr” in “grace” (growl like a dog, showing your teeth, perhaps contrasted with a dog saying “gl” in a way that is very unlikely to scare anyone)


Using body language and gestures to practise pronunciation

As well as using the gestures above and getting students to copy them as you elicit, present and correct word stress, minimal pairs, etc, you can also continue to use them during practice activities. For example, if you are doing a minimal pairs game such as Stations (getting students to run and touch two walls with different sounds written on them), you can accompany the first few prompt sounds and words with gestures and then mix up using just the sounds with using just the gestures.

The body language above can also be used to elicit the right pronunciation during later error correction, e.g. just flashing up your hand with the right stress pattern after someone says a word with the wrong stress.

Copyright © 2019

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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