A couple of years ago, we wrote about kinesthetic grammar, and to our surprise, it became our most popular post by far. Apparently, many teachers are searching for ways to physicalize the classroom experience, but there seem to be few resources for grammar specifically. While we had written the article on a whim after having fun with a few classroom experiments, the worldwide interest in activities that got students up and moving made us curious. Is a kinesthetic approach to grammar pedagogically sound, and could we do more of it?
After doing a bit of research, we discovered that the answer is yes and yes. A quick review of neurolinguistics research confirms what many educators and philosophers have guessed, that the body plays a role, not only in communication but also memory, recall, and even cognitive processing.
One way this happens is through emotions, which are reflected in physical postures and expressions. Another is gesturing, which “offloads” some of work by allowing the body to help with the thinking. (An easy example is counting on our fingers.) Studies cited by multiple authors show that students who use gestures remember more than students who don’t.
Still another is through mirror neurons. Otherwise known as empathy neurons, they allow our brain to experience other people’s intentions and feelings even if we have a different point of view. We gather this information through the eyes and ears so that we might perceive feelings such as enthusiasm or disapproval. More importantly, mirror neurons are also powerful in retention and recall. One study found that simply watching someone perform an action aids in storage and retrieval.
These findings explain why drama and improvisation are such powerful tools in learning, and why including non-verbal signaling is important in conversation practice. There are goals, tactics and expectations that people have when interacting with others that go far beyond the literal meaning of words. In fact, our non-verbal communication is often more trustworthy! People are uncomfortable when they don’t perceive the intention behind the words so language learners who speak in a monotone are at a disadvantage in social situations. This is reflected in a quote by a student who participated in a process drama activity led by Miriam Stewart:
I am not me in English…In Portuguese I am funny, I am smart, in English I am disconnected. Body is one thing, brain is another. I translate the words but they are just words, no feelings. No me. Today is the first time I feel like me in English.
Guy Cook writes about these interpersonal dynamics in Language Learning; Language Play by describing language use as game-like in that it involves both cooperation and competition. Sometimes we use language to bond, support, encourage, or share. Other times we might use language to intimidate, persuade, or exclude. It goes without saying that body and voice are important instruments in navigating these dynamics.
The result of all this research has led us to believe that we can enhance our students’ classroom experience, build skills, and increase knowledge while delighting them with socially relevant activities. For the past year, we’ve been gathering and testing different ways to bring kinesthetic grammar into the classroom, and we are pleased to say that our latest book, 60 Kinesthetic Grammar Activities, will be out this spring from Alphabet Publishing.
Throughout the process of researching and writing, we’ve learned that kinesthetic grammar is useful at the practice stage because it offers a window into developing language. When students struggle to place themselves on a cline, it’s clear they are not sure about meaning. When they perform an action, they reveal their degree of fluency, whether it is through multiple uh, uh, uhs, or incorporating target language easily. (Often confidence is accompanied by jokes and laughter.)
The gold standard for grammar activities is an integrated and meaningful activity such as acting out verbs or adverbs, but games, drawings, and experiences that allow for a meta-cognitive processing of grammar are also useful. The following are a few abbreviated examples from the book that give an idea of how embodied learning can be applied in the grammar classroom.
- Adverbs of frequency: Post adverbs of frequency around the room. Then read a sentence and have students move to the adverb of frequency that best fits them. Here are a few examples.
How often do you . . .
- stay up all night?
- Eat in a restaurant?
- Check your messages during class?
- Modals of advice: Divide the class into two groups. Tell them you need help making a decision. Then instruct one half to think of reasons for saying yes and the other half to think of reasons for saying no. Then have each group line up face to face with enough space for you to walk between. As you walk, tell each side to use the modals to try and persuade you with advice. After you’ve completed your journey down the “alley,” you decide which side has the stronger argument and announce your decision.
- Should I get a puppy?
- Should I join a gym?
- Should I become a vegetarian?
- Possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns: Have half the class leave the room. Invite the remaining students to bring an item to the front and leave it on the table or desk. Then have the others come in, select an item and try to return it to the owner by holding it up and asking questions to different people in the classroom.
A: Is this your water bottle?
B: No, I think it’s hers?
A: Is it yours?
C: Yes, it’s mine.
- Present simple subject/verb agreement: Have students stand in a circle. Say I like + a noun that represents something you like e.g., “nature.” Toss the ball to another student. Tell that student to recall what you like, e.g., She likes nature. Then student A must add something they like and toss the ball to a third student, B, who must recall what student A likes, reiterating with the same shift for subject verb agreement. Participants continue to toss the ball so that it travels around the room. The student receiving the ball only needs to repeat the immediate previous student. That way, the game stays lively, and everyone remains alert.
A: I like nature
B: She likes nature. I like salsa music
C: He likes salsa music. I like soccer.
- Compound sentences with and, but, so: Create a 3-headed monster by having three volunteers come to the front. Pick a comfortable theme such as family (or whatever you are working on). Student A says a sentence, e.g., “My mother is nice.” Student B says a connector, e.g., “but.” Then C must say a sentence that logically follows. E.g., “My father is strict.” Or, “Sometimes she is too nice!” Make sure the last sentence logically follows. Continue the activity with new volunteers rotating through the positions and providing corrective feedback as needed.
A: My brother loves cars.
C: He goes to a lot of car shows.
Cook, Guy. Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Rizzolatti, G. & Sinigaglia, C. Mirror Neurons and Motor Intentionality. Functional Neurology. 22(40. 2007
Savage, Alice & Ward, Colin. 60 Kinesthetic Grammar Activities. Alphabet Publishing, 2020. (In press)
Skulmowski, A., & Rey, G. D. Embodied learning: introducing a taxonomy based on bodily engagement and task integration. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 3(1), 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-018-0092-9 2018.
Stewart, M. I am not me in English. Power point presentation. https://epale.ec.europa.eu/en/resource-centre/content/drama-language-learning-embodied-language, 2019
Thornbury, Scott. The Body Remembers. Teaching Times (TESOL France) La Rentrée, 2013.