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Content Type3
TitleThe Grammar at Hand: Looking at Gesture in Language Learning and Teaching

Keli Yerian directs and teaches in the Language Teaching Studies MA Program at the University of Oregon. She has extensive experience working with teacher candidates in both undergraduate and graduate university programs, and has taught ESL/EFL in the US, Europe, and Africa. Her research interests are in teacher professional development in language and interaction, most specifically in the use of gesture in language teaching and learning.

Imagine you are speaking in a second language and can’t remember how to say a verb in the past tense. What would you do? Maybe you would say it in the present tense with a small wave of your hand over your shoulder to show the action is ‘behind’ you in time. Maybe your teacher had used this gesture in this way. This small movement might help you finish your story without fumbling for words. Or it might jog your memory, or even elicit the missing information from your listener.

Communicating in visible interaction involves much more than language, at all levels of proficiency. Our bodily orientation, stance, gaze, and hands are resources that allow us to indicate, describe, evaluate, and create, functions language teachers are already very familiar with. And unlike cell phones or other external resources, our hands are always, well… handy!

Research on language and gesture has blossomed in the last few decades, revealing the important functions of gesture in all domains of second language acquisition and instruction. Some of this research has focused on how gesture can facilitate learners’ understanding of grammar. For example, Kimura and Kazik (2017) show in detail how a learner adopts her English teacher’s use of a circling gesture to show progressive aspect, while moving her hand laterally to evoke a timeline that the teacher had drawn earlier on the board. In other words, she spontaneously combined the notions of ‘past’ and ‘progressivity’ using elements scaffolded by the instructed setting. Similarly, Peltier and McCafferty (2010) videotaped four Italian classrooms with teachers who frequently used gestures, and showed that many of their students spontaneously mirrored these gestures in ways that seemed to build L2 identity as well as proficiency.

What does this mean for language teachers?

  1. Engage your body in teaching and encourage your students to engage theirs. Include games, simulations, and projects that allow learners to embody the L2.
  2. Observe yourself, observe your students. Research shows that less experienced teachers tend to look less at their students than experienced teachers, and gesture both less and less meaningfully (e.g. see Tellier & Yerian, 2018). How transparent is the meaning of your gestures when teaching lower levels? How consistent? How natural are your gestures at higher levels? How are your learners using gesture to help process meaning or co-construct meaning with others?
  3. Be explicit with students about the meanings of key gestures. Some gestures that seem fully transparent to you may be confusing to learners from other languages and cultural backgrounds. That small wave over your shoulder may not mean ‘in the past’ to everyone!


Kimura, D., & Kazik, N. (2017). Learning in-progress: On the role of gesture in microgenetic development of L2 grammar. Gesture, 16(1), 126-150.

Peltier, I., & McCafferty, S. (2010). Gesture and identity in the teaching and learning of Italian. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 17(4), 331-349.

Tellier, M. & Yerian, K. (2018). Mettre du corps à l’ouvrage : Travailler sur la mise en scène du corps du jeune enseignant en formation universitaire. Les Cahiers de l’APLIUT, 37(2).

SourceCASLS Topic of the Week
Inputdate2018-09-24 11:43:39
Lastmodifieddate2018-10-16 07:18:04
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Publishdate2018-10-15 02:15:03
Displaydate2018-10-15 00:00:00