How long should GestureWay courses be?


Three years of GestureWay (recording made 2003).
This eleven-year old student re-tells story learnt through Silent Sign.
This student and the others in his class moved up to Secondary with competent levels of speaking and listening skills in English (B1/B2).

Summary of what a gesture code brings to language learning.

Before discussing how long we should use the GestureWay tool in the English language classroom, we will summarize what the benefits are of working with a gesture code. Gestures in the English language classroom help the teacher to do the following.

1) Transfer meanings of words to hand gestures so as to later elicit language from students at any time.
2) Maintain meaning and understanding in the classroom even though communication is at a spoken level and there are no or few written clues.
3) Facilitate oral input of further new vocabulary and structures thanks to enhanced understanding.
4) Allow students to practise spoken English for a greater proportion of class time and so develop speaking skills faster.
5) Oblige students to make multiple decisions during intensive input about spoken English vocabulary and structures at the sentence level (Silent Sign).
6) Accelerate input of new and recycled language orally during English classes through speed of delivery and instant recognition of the hand gestures, their meanings and sounds.

As we can see, all the above points are concerned with facilitating comprehension of spoken English in the classroom. In elementary courses of English where a gesture code is not used, the written word is necessary for comprehension. Words provided in the written form help students "visualize" the foreign language. Without writing words on the board, spoken English for beginners is very difficult to understand and follow. Without the "writing tool" students cannot assimilate the sounds or separate one word from another.

In one way, GestureWay is similar to this "writing tool". Both tools allow students to visualize words. The huge difference being that gestures remove the phonetic clues that writing provides and ensure students produce the sounds from their own inter-language knowledge. Furthermore, when students "read" the gestures, they must also interpret them; conjugate verbs and construct parts of speech. Raw gestures are like "Red-Indian speak" - just head-words that the students are called upon to render into correct English. Writing, in comparison, is a passive phonetic transcription of spoken language that makes few calls on a student's inter-language. Interestingly, a learner of English can read aloud a written sentence in the target language and not understand a word.

When gestures are no longer required to input English in the classroom.

If a gesture code compensates for the absence of comprehension in the spoken foreign language, it follows that once a point is reached where students are able to understand sufficient spoken language unaided, gestures are no longer needed. A time comes when the teacher can explain new vocabulary and structures in the target language and students understand and are able to give feedback, ask questions and dialogue with the teacher and peers using purely their listening skills. In my experience, this happens around the B1 to B2 level; though I refer to a B1 where students can manage this corpus fully in fluent (if not always accurate) utterances.

The longest GestureWay courses I have given have been of three years. Students who started at seven years of age and finished at nine or ten had a lower fluency ability than those who started at eight or nine and finished at eleven or twelve. This is probably due to more mature cognitive skills and metalinguistic awareness among the older students. The GestureWay approach as I have explained it here should start from seven years old onwards. Younger learners could well flounder trying to interpret raw gestures of this type.

However, though at the moment I can offer no personal experience on this, learners could start with gestures from pre-school and into early primary. The nature of the gesture input I believe should be different from the video examples you have seen on this site. Less metalinguistic skill can be insisted upon so gestures would be more literal, representing non-abstract words, child collocations, simple set phrases and accompanying songs and chants.

Epilogue.

As a teacher, my interest in the use of gestures for English teaching has primarily been with children in mind. (However, I have carried out courses with adults and very successfully.) I live in Spain and am concerned how, after six years of Primary School, children move up into Secondary and begin English again almost from scratch at eleven and twelve years old. It's as though the serious stuff begins in Secondary and until then teachers can do little more than teach some basics. Although this attitude may be fine for most other subjects, for second language learning we are missing out on an enormously receptive and responsive period if we fail to train children at the Primary ages. Using a gesture approach for teaching English during the Primary years means we can send students to Secondary having broken the intermediate barrier with a competent communicative B1/B2 level of spoken English.

Teacher feedback.

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 See next article - The Origins of GestureWay...