Physical stories

This week I started working with a new group of children in the Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. It’s taken a while to set this up and I was really pleased to be finally going ahead because it seems that Azraq so far hasn’t had the publicity or the resources that the Zaatari camp has been given. Unfortunately the internet connection between us was so weak that in the end we had to give up. I was trying to do a kind of physical story with the children with three students at the front miming with me as I was telling it, but the picture and the sound kept freezing which meant that I couldn’t find out their names and couldn’t really use language to connect with them at all. In fact the brief moments when there was enough internet for them to see my gestures and imitate them, was the only time that I felt there was any kind of communication at all between us.

I’ve always been a big fan of using mime in face-to-face teaching, particularly with young learners at low levels. If we’re teaching English as a means of communication then the use of gestures and other forms of body language by teachers and learners is a useful way to break down constraints on communication brought about by differences in linguistic ability (or also, in this case, problems with technology!) Because of this I think it’s a good activity for building relationships in a new class.

Here’s a video of the same activity with a group of 25 students in Zaatari a few weeks before –incidentally also the first session with the group. After telling the story with three people miming, the students took it in turns to come up to the front and show an action from the story, which I then tried to guess. I had planned to do this with just a few people but it seemed that everyone was really keen to have a go.

 

The children in the video clearly enjoyed doing the miming a lot, but physicalisation of language isn’t just about fun. Scott Thornbury in The Learning Body puts it like this (Thornbury, 2013 p70) ‘..gesture seems to facilitate thinking, and, by extension, learning. We have already seen (with regard to learning verbs of movement) how gesture, by physically embodying cognitive structures, serves in the learning of their associated linguistic representations.’

Gesture is also a powerful aid in helping learners to retrieve those structures later. Noice and Noice’s (2006) research into how actors learn the lines of plays found that they often break the text down into single units of meaning, known as ‘beats’. Using movements and physical gestures which were appropriate to the meaning of each beat at the time of memorization really helped the lines to stick. Interestingly, it was not always necessary to retrieve the movement in order to retrieve the line that it represented. This ‘stickiness’ can last an awfully long time. About 25 years ago I spent a brief spell at drama school in Denmark and had to act in plays in Danish. Recently a friend in Denmark sent me the script of a play I’d been in. After such a long time I couldn’t still remember all of my lines of course, but what was interesting was that as I read the script, many images of my fellow actors, and particularly how we had moved when rehearsing came flooding back to me.

My brother, Mike Bilbrough, a teacher of English in Spain, has used the idea of gesture as a retrieval mechanism to great effect, developing a complete approach to language teaching with his Gesture Way. In this video, a class of ten year old Spanish learners of English can be seen recalling an entire story using gestures adapted from sign language.

So over to you! Do you use mime and gesture in your classes? Can the ideas of the physical story work in the classes that you teach?

References

Noice, H., and T. Noice (2006) What studies of actors and acting can tell us about acting and cognitive functioning. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/cd/actors_memory.pdf

Thornbury, S (2013) The learning body in Arnold, J. and Murphey, T. Meaningful Action; CUP p62-78

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26 thoughts on “Physical stories

  1. Really impressive, However I think there is no need to translate every single word as gestures and body language can directly associate the English language with its meaning. I will share this with the English teachers in the area, Big thank you.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Rida and for starting the ball rolling on this. Yes, when I watched the video I was thinking the same thing. I think you’re right that they could work out pretty much all the meanings without translation and this would probably be a richer learning experience for them. Whether to translate or not is an interesting issue, isn’t it? Too much and the students end up not listening to the English. Not enough and maybe some students end up feeling frustrated because they can’t understand. I’ll be posting about the issue of translation later on. It’s great that you’re going to share my blog with the teachers you train in Palestine.

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  2. Really it is a very nice experience .For the kids it will be unforgettable . I wish we could have such sessions with our kids here in Gaza . This kind of learning suits the kinaesthetic learners along with the auditory and visual ones .Total Physical Response suits our young learners >>> Lots of progress Mr. Nick Bilbrough

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I’ve been doing physical stories with the kids I work with in Gaza too. Of course, like most things I’m trying to do online, they could be done much better by teachers on the ground in Gaza who work in face to face settings with a class of students. I think it would be a good idea to develop a bank of stories which could be used in class in this way for teachers. Would anyone be interested in helping to develop this?

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    1. Yes – I think you’re right Alaa (See my previous reply to Rida above). I wonder if the translation happens sometimes because it’s important for the teacher who is with the kids to have a role too. It must be disempowering sometimes for the teacher to have someone coming in from outside and ‘showing off’. I do think this is a potential drawback with online teaching. Of course if a teacher uses a physical story on her own in a face to face setting then he or she knows instinctively whether translation is necessary or not.

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  3. This is a wonderful experience that worth sharing! In fact,I agree with Ms. Rida regarding limiting the role of translation while miming. What I really like was the idea of using ‘Beats’ in memorizing lines which could be a helpful technique for our learners in learning drama at advanced level. All in all, I enjoyed reading this piece of writing which is an authenic documentation ; every single word of it. It is well written and touching. I hope your endeavours will thrive in the end and one day you will be able to share your experience with all the marginalized children around the world.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Heba. Yes, I think the idea of using ‘beats’ is a good one and it ties in very nicely with the ideas of the Lexical Approach, because it breaks the language down into multi-word units of meaning, rather than seeing each word as a separate unit. Another good technique for learning lines which we can borrow from the actors’ toolbag is the idea of having a prompt. The students work in threes. Two people play each of the two characters in the dialogue and the third person looks at the text and helps them out by supplying the next word if they get stuck. In fact this technique can also be used to help learners memorise some of the short texts in English for Palestine with the students working in pairs. Have you ever tried that? I know some people don’t approve of learning texts by heart but, as long as they understand what they are memorising, I think it can be a great way of building up a bank of known language in the students’ heads.

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  4. Thanks for your effort . I think most of our messages are conveyed through body language .communication will be much more easy when accompanied by miming so Yes I do agree with Rida ,no need for translation .It will be better if they repeat your words with miming in a parallel way .
    I always use this way in presenting and revising vocabs , and also in role play . It’s so useful to give ss a chance to move , act and give gestures . This keeps them motivated ,energetic and involved and new language is strongly sticks in their minds which helps longterm learning

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  5. Thanks for your comment and suggestions Abeer. I like the idea of using mime in roleplay activities and would love to see that happening in a real class. Can you give an example of how you do that?

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    1. Thanks Mohammad. There is a strong link between storytelling and movement, and between teaching and acting, isn’t there? Do you think all teachers would feel comfortable ‘making a fool of themselves’ like this in front of the class though?

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  6. That’s awesome. It’s an amazing experience for the kids and it tackles most of the learning styles preferences. It also triggers their imagination. I think it would be highly effective if the kids interacted among each other. I mean a kid mimes the expression and the other kids guess it. Overall, I loved they way. All the best Mr. Nick.

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    1. Hi Islam. Thanks for your suggestion of the kids miming the expressions to each other. I think that would be a great way to follow up the activity. I think you’ve identified another drawback of online teaching which is that it’s difficult to set up closed pairwork (and impossible to monitor it). When you’re in the room with the learners I guess you instinctively know when they are ready for some pairwork and can go round and make sure everyone’s on track.

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  7. Hi Nick,

    Nice to see that you’re still working actively in the region. I echo the sentiment of the others regarding the translation. I love that after all your experience with teaching, you haven’t forgotten how useful miming and gesturing can be. It’s something that’s hammered into teachers in a lot of initial training courses, but that some forget about or downplay with time. It’s one of the reasons I try to teach a beginner class a couple times a year. Beginner classes never fail to remind me of how useful miming and gesturing are.

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  8. Hi, thanks for your comment. That’s interesting what you say about teachers downplaying the use of mime and gesture as they become more experienced. Why do you think that is? Is it because it’s seen as something that is not serious, or not ‘academic’ enough?

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  9. Mime is fundamental in language learning. But it’s hard to find a satisfying tale that can be told entirely through mime. Translation/mixed language storytelling combined with mime is excellent with beginners and all levels. Miming together helps with the understanding and remembering of vocabulary related to actions – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPIqbd0smDc

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    1. Thanks very much for your comment ‘Someone’ 🙂 Yes, not many stories can be told entirely through mime and I guess that those kind of stories wouldn’t be that useful in terms of language learning anyway. I remember seeing a storyteller in Birmingham a few years ago who was very physical in the way that she told stories. She was jumping around all over the stage and miming absolutely everything that came up in her story. Apart from it being exhausting to watch, I was also aware of the fact that I didn’t really pay much attention to the words she was saying because her mimes told the story on their own. I think we can also be too physical in the way that we use gestures as teachers. I think it’s good to use gestures (even exaggerated ones) at the beginning to accompany classroom instructions, like ‘Stand up’ ‘Work in pairs’ etc, but I also think it’s good if teachers can quite quickly move away from using them, or at least condense them, so that the learners start noticing the language. I like what’s going on in this video of my brother’s work in Spain, where the student is telling a story using gestures, but they’re in a reduced format – almost hinted at. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxsrxrTZTF0
      I really like the way this happens too in the story of ‘The Jaguar and the hare’ that you linked to.

      Interesting your point of view about the use of translation in storytelling. So what would say to those who have commented here saying that translation isn’t necessary if the mimes are clear?

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      1. I would say that in this particular context of online storytelling where Internet connection and equipment may be restricted that it is best to do whatever works.
        I would agree, however, that the teacher in the classroom might try standing next to the projected image or screen and echo your mimes and English phrases and translate only where necessary?

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  10. Hi Nick,
    Season’s greetings…..😊
    Hope you’re well as you are always doing very well.I’ve been thinking since long to appreciate you.You’re a brilliant
    trainer and a talented person.I’ve attended your workshop and learned a lot.Your great services for
    Humanity are quite
    impressive and prove
    that you’re a good man
    by heart.
    “Let whoever think
    whatever…just keep
    doing good…”
    I must say, “Good job”.
    As far as language is
    concerned we can teach
    it by miming, expressions and body gestures without the translation.As a teacher I’ve used it to dramatise different stories along with the background soft music which has been pretty good. Another thing that mime and guess would be a good learning game especially for introducing objects.A teacher should be an actor at the same time but not everyone feels comfortable being so.Even a good actor may not be a good teacher….
    You’ve changed your
    status to self employed.
    Does it mean that you
    aren’t working for British Council any more.
    By the way…..
    Belated,
    🎅🎆🎁🎀🎂🎉🎄🎇🎊🎅🎍
    MERRY CHRISTMAS
    And
    A HAPPY NEW YEAR….
    🎅🎆🎁🎀🎂🎉🎄🎇🎊🎅🎍
    It has been my pleasure meeting you….
    Kind regards,

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    1. Thanks for your comment ‘Pakistan’. I’m at a disadvantage as I don’t know your real name. It feels kind of strange to be addressing a whole country 🙂 I like the idea of using background music with mime. I guess that’s another way to encourage children to create images in their minds, which I think is a powerful catalyst to learning. And you’re right – mime is an excellent way of introducing objects, not least because it means you don’t have to carry truckloads of realia into class 🙂 Have you ever played the game with kids where they have to mime giving a birthday present to the next person to them in the circle? The person receiving the present decides what it is and mimes accordingly. It’s very engaging to watch.

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      1. Hi Nick,
        You’re most welcome….😊
        Yeah, I did arrange a mime game for the teachers’ Christmas Party, it was mime and guess the gift present in the stockings and the winner could definitely get that.I’m considered an excellent writer, director and organiser for recreational activities.So, I often use innovative, new and different ideas which are always unique as the others appreciate.It’s not a self-praise but reality.People at my institution always look forward to seeing my presentations.Being a teacher trainer I’m still applying the pedagogical methodologies learned from you Sir.
        God bless…..
        Best wishes….

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  11. Hi again…..😊
    I know it’s quite funny to address the whole country.You can call me a Unique Pakistani at the moment…..😊

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  12. I think that teachers use mime and gesture spontaneously without being aware that they’re using this technique. They do that when they teach new items, introduce grammatical points or even when they give instructions. Actually, it works quite well when teachers give instructions. I may ask my students to do something, it needs only one or two students to understand and act which will cause the rest of the class to react accordingly 🙂

    I had a very nice experience with one of my students. At the end of each unit, I sometimes ask students to do some activities in order to practise the vocabulary and structures they’ve studied in the unit. A student offered to do an activity to fix her mark in a previous exam 🙂 She wrote “What do you usually do on Fridays?” on the board then she gave some students cards of some verbs. They had to mime and gesture what’s written on the cards while the rest of the class had to guess and produce a full sentence in the present simple tense.

    With young learners, we may use none verbal communication to teach verbs or adjectives, for example. This is very important, not only to convey the meaning but also to use imagination creatively which is a very nice way to keep students more attentive and able to recall knowledge.

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    1. Yes Amal, you’re right about teachers using mime and gesture subconsciously. Sometimes this carries over into the the world outside the classroom too. My wife is always making fun of me because I tend to use certain gestures to illustrate meaning, even when I’m talking to her. So if for example I’m saying ‘It’s in the cupboard’ I might do a gesture to show what a cupboard is (even though my wife knows this perfectly well!) These gestures are beyond my conscious control and I think they’re a result of too many hours spent teaching English to language learners.

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