Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hands and Fingers or Sign Language in the EFL Classroom

There are times when words are not enough. There are times when no matter how hard we try we cannot put our message across. In the EFL classroom such situations take place pretty often, especially if you are teaching young learners.

Most of us know that miming is an extremely useful tool for eliciting, presenting or practising new vocabulary. To become good at that requires time, conscious effort and possibly a pinch of talent.

Sadly, some teachers reject the idea as they are afraid to look and act silly in front of their students. My advice – give it a try!

Some basic ideas on how to use hands and fingers in the ESL classroom involve:

Pointing to objects, students, yourself meaning this/that/you/me etc

• Pointing back indicating past, pointing forward indicating future, pointing to the floor in front of you meaning now, at the moment

Thumbs up for ok, thumb down meaning not ok, wrong

Shaking your hand sideways meaning so-so, not really, give it another try

• Showing time’s up using both hands, making a T

Clapping meaning bravo, well done, good job

Holding your head in different ways meaning tired, I’m having a headache (e.g. because students talk too much)

• Putting a hand close to your ear as in Chinese whispers meaning speak louder, I can’t hear you, repeat

Waving your hand meaning Bye bye, Hello

Raising a hand to indicate that you expect the same from the students

Shaking a pointing finger meaning you’re naughty, don’t do that, I don’t like that

• Moving hands to mime certain nouns or actions – a car, rain, playing the piano, smoking

• Presenting adjectives - big small, long short, heavy light

• Using fingers to show a number or while counting, numbering, listing

Alternative ideas for using hands:

• to indicate word stress (e.g. vegetable has 4 syllables and the first one is stressed. Holding your palm as if you were knocking on the door, ‘knock‘ the air four times opening your fist for the stressed syllable as in Oooo. Make sure you do it from right to left as the students have to see it from left to right)

• to show intonation by making waves (rise, fall, rise fall, fall rise, level)

Alternative ideas for using fingers:

• to show a number of words in a sentence, syllables in a word and to correct students’ utterances. If a student forgets to use a word in a phrase, show him/her the number of words using fingers with one finger missing.

• holding fingers together to show contractions (e.g. 1st finger I, 2nd finger AM, two fingers held together I’m)

• making the scissors gesture may indicate that too much has been said and something has to be cut out

Why is it worthwhile to consider using these techniques?

• They make students remember things easily as they give them the opportunity to visualise and mime (perfect for learners with the visual and kinaesthetic learning styles)

• They reduce Teacher Talking Time

• They may be used while eliciting

• They provide alternative ways of error correction, indicating stress, showing contractions, intonation

• They might help you create good rapport with the students

• If students are at a loss for words, miming can put them back on track

• They may help teachers express themselves more effectively

On a final note, make sure the gestures you want to use do not have negative connotations in a country you teach in. Taking learners’ backgrounds or age into consideration also plays an important role. Whatever you do, do not be afraid to experiment. In the end, experimenting is a vital part of the learning process.

* Some of the ideas presented above might sound too ‘Silent Way-ish’ to some of you. My aim though is not to advocate this method but to take the best of what it has to offer.

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