Sunday, September 1, 2019

To gesture or not to gesture (to provide spontaneous correction in language teaching) Part 1

A new study by Nakatsukasa (2019) demonstrates that using simple gesture to correct grammar (use of the 'ed' past tense) may not work. Amen to that. Signalling with a deictic/metaphorical gesture as the instructor recasts (repeats) the piece of language correctly when there is a error--and not requiring any kind of response from the learner--and furthermore still expecting some kind of meaningful uptake or noticing is . . .well . . . silly, but good to see that proved conclusively.

From the study:

"When the participants did not use the past tense in the obligatory context in two tasks, the researcher consistently provided recasts with or without gestures (pointing back over shoulder with thumb) immediately following the participants’ utterances, depending on learners’ assigned conditions."
Now that, in principle, sounds like a pretty good signalling technique, one which I have seen used "repeatedly" over the years by teachers (Hudson, 2011). But . . .

"For the VR condition (verbal recast w/o gesture), the researcher provided recast only verbally, putting her hands down next to the side of her body to avoid gesturing."

Now, does that (standing motionless w/hands at sides) sound like anything close to natural teacher behavior/gesture? Really? I have got to see a video of that!  In fact, I’d really have to see a video of everything that went on, to make sense of the study.

"In addition, the researcher tried not to stress any part of the recast in either condition to keep consistency."

Wow. How could you provide anything close to effective, meaningful feedback without stressing the part of the defective sentence or phrase that is being corrected?

"In all the instances, learners had the opportunity to modify their output; however, production of modified output was not enforced in the present study, to keep the flow of interaction and the saliency of feedback as equal as possible across conditions."

Not requiring at least some minimal "embodied" verbal response to such a gesture seems about as disembodying as you can get! Apparently, it was.

The research on the use of simple recasts, as Nakatsukasa points out, is pretty clear that they are, for the most part, not worth wasting your time on. So, "pointing out" a basically ineffectual recast with a disembodied gesture is supposed to make it more effective? It didn't. Surprise.

This is an important study, however, in that it represents quite accurately, I think, the way in which many researchers and practitioners view the place of gesture in language teaching, or even human communication for that matter: "add ons" that can be understood out of context and disembodied (not demanding a corresponding physical response in the body and mind of the other--the learner, as if gesture can be understood independent of the meaningful interaction in which it occurs.)

Something of a “How not to” guide of sorts.

What then is the "right" embodied and contextualized way to use gesture in teaching? Thought you were never going to ask! See Part 2, The right (haptic) way to use gesture in (at least) pronunciation teaching. Forthcoming, shortly!

Nakatsukasa, K. (2019). Gesture-enhanced recasts have limited effects: A case of the regular past tense, Language Teaching Research (11)1-29.


  1. Have had several offline comments already on this one! One, that the final "ed" past tense ending is also for some of those learners a morphophonemic problem, related to L1 pronunciation system interference, etc. Another, that use of gesture, done right, is such an interpersonally rich and engaging--and crazy at times--process that to extract out just the gesture, itself, for study makes no sense at all. In Part 2 next week I begin by addressing that perspective for the first time on the blog. Can't wait!!!

  2. Use of gesture is in many ways analogous to use of verbal repetition (See Thornbury's "R for repetition" note:, and just as problematic. Will use "rich repetition" (effective!) in Part 2 as a point of departure.