+01 424 645 5957

+39 347 378 8169

+01 424 645 5957

+39 347 378 8169

Gestures in Teaching English

How To Teach English


Careful what your hands may say!

Imagine you’re in a TEFL class and a student is speaking and they say something which is wrong.

The obvious mistake a new teacher makes is to stop them there and then, interrupt them, and correct them. But this is bad teaching on a number of levels not least because by interrupting the student the teacher is breaking the flow. It’s the verbal equivalent of tripping someone up. It’s jarring and thuggish.

Instead, you can use a Gesture, a simple sign which is far less brutish and which tells your student that they’ve made an error and perhaps they should stop and think about it.

This article, then, is all about using gestures in TEFL teaching; it’s about how to introduce them, how to use them, and – importantly – what not to do!

Teaching Gestures

To begin with, gestures need to be learned and you should bring them into play carefully during your class. There’s usually no need to actually teach gestures as such, but by repetition and continual use your class will soon pick them up.

Suppose you want a simple “stop” gesture. The obvious sign is holding up your hand like a police officer at a road crossing.

Initially you may want to give the gesture and say, “stop a moment please,” along with it. Then once the class have understood and are used to it, give the spoken command much more quietly along with the gesture. Then finally start using the gesture without the spoken command.

It’s as simple as that.

Useful Gestures

There are a few obvious gestures: nodding for yes, shaking the head for no, shrugging the shoulder for maybe and so on. You probably already use them in your class even if you don’t know it. But here are a few more gestures that teachers often use. You can use your own, of course, and adapt these as you see fit.

take it back a tense

Jerk your thumb over your shoulder back behind you. It means “take the verb back a tense” so if a student says:

* I go to work yesterday.

* an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence shows it’s ungrammatical

Just jerk your thumb back for them to say:

I went to work yesterday.

all together now!

Left hand cupped behind left ear; right hand cupped behind right ear. Use this to get the whole class saying something chorally.

To select a single student you can point. (But be careful here, in some countries pointing is considered rude; you might have to look at and nod to a student to let them know it’s their turn to speak.)


Forefinger against the lips of course!

close/not sure/try again

Perhaps stroking the chin thoughtfully or waving your fingers like seaweed in a slow current.

say again/repeat

wave the finger forward as if you’re winding something up

the rocky salute

Raising your fist into the air a la Rocky when a student gets the answer right!

Be Careful

Some gestures which are perfectly innocent in one culture are offensive in another. Check before you start gesturing to make sure one of your tried and tested gestures won’t be misconstrued by the class and result in angry complaints and pistols at dawn!

Remember the stop gesture above? Well in Greece this could be construed as rude if you splay your fingers so it’s best to avoid it there!

For a list and demonstration of bad body language and gestures, see the link below.

Useful Links

Body Language‏‎ & Insulting your Students – a quick look at what NOT to do in class.

How to Speak to English Language Students – if you do need to speak to your class, this is how to do it.

Teacher Talking Time‏‎ in TEFL – why it’s important to speak less in your TEFL class.

Related Articles

ICAL TEFL Resources

The ICAL TEFL site has thousands of pages of free TEFL resources for teachers and students. These include: The TEFL ICAL Grammar Guide. Country Guides for teaching around the world. How to find TEFL jobs. How to teach English. TEFL Lesson Plans....

read more

6 Tips to Make your ESL Classes More Effective

Teaching is undeniably a challenging job, in fact many consider it one of the most difficult careers you could choose. Nevertheless, being a teacher is an enriching experience. Through quality education and effective teaching methodologies,...

read more