When I tell people that I teach English as a second language, their inevitable first question is, “Oh, what languages do you speak?”
I always answer the same. English. I suppose the average person has a difficult time understanding how to teach a foreign language without using their students’ first language, but we ESL teachers know is not only possible but often preferred. Teaching in English only does require some special skills, however. Not everyone is suited to it. Those who are comfortable teaching this way tend to communicate through more than just words. Actions are a big part of communicating with students whose first language you do not speak, and they come into play more often than many people realize. Here are four times I find acting out for my students is effective.
4 Times You Should Be Acting out for Your Students
Giving Instructions and Feedback
It might seem strange to give instructions without the use of spoken language, but it’s really quite useful in the ESL classroom. You probably do it without even noticing. Think about the phrase “repeat after me.” Odds are, you make a motion with your hand to reinforce your message, perhaps making a circle to indicate students should repeat what you say. Or think about when a student only gives a partial answer. Do you ever simply look at that student, maybe raising your eyebrows or nodding indicating that the student should continue talking? These are nonverbal means of communication. If you find that you already do them, that’s great. You are helping your students without even realizing it. If you don’t already use them, think about ways to communicate what you want to say without words, and then use those motions consistently. That way students may recognize the physical clue even if they don’t understand the verbal instructions. At first. Eventually, they will learn the phrases that go along with the motions, but until then they will still be able to follow your directions.
I’ll admit, when I first started teaching English as a second language the idea of letting someone look into my mouth as I pronounced words was very strange indeed. But once I got past the initial discomfort, I realized just how useful this practice is. Sometimes English students cannot hear certain sounds, or they cannot distinguish two sounds from each other. A lot of this struggle comes from their first language and the sounds that compose it. And if you have ever tried to learn a second language, you may have experienced the same struggles (especially if you have attempted to speak in a tonal language). When your students can’t hear the difference between sounds or words, it helps if you let them see the difference between the two. Showing them how you position your mouth and how you move the muscles there can be the difference between ignorance and understanding. It’s good, too, if you can overemphasize your movements and if you teach them the anatomy of the mouth and how it plays into English pronunciation. Most of all, show your students the motions you are going through when you make certain sounds, and they will likely have all they need to correctly produce the sounds themselves.
Defining Unfamiliar Words and Terms
What’s the best way to help students understand the difference between strolling and marching? Act it out for them! Perhaps the most common context under which ESL teachers act out is for defining new vocabulary. For most nouns, a picture is a great way to help students understand what you are talking about. But for verbs, it’s a different story. You can try and put an action into a picture, but a lot of times the drawing just falls flat. It is much more effective to just show your students what the action looks like. True it’s not possible for every new word you will teach your students, but there are plenty that you can demonstrate, and you don’t have to be skilled at acting. Moreover, when you act out new vocabulary for your students, you can expect the same from them when you do vocabulary reviews. Charades is a big hit among my students, and we often use the game to review words before a test or at the end of a unit.
Demonstrating Appropriate Cultural Behavior
Body language does not cross cultures. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture may cause great offense in another. That is why it’s good for you to show your students appropriate (and inappropriate) behavior in your culture. Culture is important because even though most people cannot define their own culture, it is deeply ingrained in who they are. Inappropriate cultural behavior, even when it’s unintentional, can cause big problems. It’s your job as teacher to show your students the appropriate way to act. One big cultural expectation, and one that may not occur to you or your students, is that of personal space. Personal space is the distance we like to keep between us and someone else near us, a conversation partner for example. Personal space is not the same in every culture. I remember how put off I was when I first moved to China because people I didn’t even know were brushing into my shoulders and back. That’s because I am from the U.S., and for us two feet is the appropriate distance to keep between ourselves and other people. Have you ever had a conversation with a close talker who you instinctively stepped back from? I have literally seen people move from one end of a room to the other, unknowingly, because one speaker had a smaller idea of personal space than another. Show your students how much space to leave between themselves and someone else when they speak. Another important element of body language is teaching your students to give a good handshake. Americans like handshakes to be firm but not crushing, to have some movement but not keep shaking forever. Teach your students this as well, and do it by acting out a handshake worth copying. These and other cultural aspects will become a part of your students’ knowledge best if you simply act them out.
Not all great teaching comes through the words you speak.
Sometimes actions make the best teacher of all. Don’t be afraid to act out for your students in these and other ways. You may find that what you do in the classroom is sometimes far more important than what you say.