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Gestural language acquisition - down under!

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Jen McKinney interviewed on ABC Radio National’s ‘Lingua Franca’ programme

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Radio National ‘Lingua Franca’ – Maria Zijlstra
Saturday 17 September 2011 3:45PM
Bodily gesturing can visually and kinesthetically represent language and is made use of in sign language but also, and successfully, as an adjunct in language teaching. Jenny McKinney explains the underlying pedagogical and linguistic principles for the gesture-based teaching program, the Accelerative Integrative Methodology.


Maria Zijlstra: I’d like to welcome Jenny McKinney, a teacher of languages other than English, to tell about the Accelerative Integrated Methodology which is a gesture-based method for language learning, and for which she is licensed as the chief presenter for Australasia, where it’s used in some 600 schools, as well as [in] thousands more all over the world.

Invented by the English-speaking, LOTE-teaching Canadian, Wendy Maxwell, the Accelerative Integrated Methodology, or AIM (along with other methods that use gesture in second-language teaching) has been demonstrated to get improved learning because—it’s theorised—gesture is not only an integral part in the human cognition of language but that also—it’s claimed—gesturing somehow assists language cognition, making it easier.

Jenny McKinney: Yes, it does, that’s right! I mean, research into the use of gesture has been taking place for decades. Kendon and McNeill are the foremost scholars. And first of all, I suppose, we should think about what gesture is. When I talk about gestures I talk about intentional movement with the head, the nose, the chin, the foot, the mouth, the fingers and the hand.

Spontaneous hand gestures that co-occur with speech obviously add new meaning. You’ll know if I want to emphasise a certain word because my gestures will move in time, in rhythm to my own voice. I will stress certain things. And I might show you that I’m not happy with certain things with my hand gestures.

Maria Zijlstra: Yeah, or by just ever so slightly shaking your head as you did then.

Jenny McKinney: That’s right! They regulate conversation so, if I am beginning to decide that I don’t want to say any more, you’ll probably see me withdraw a little bit, or if I’ve got something to say I’ll move forward. So they actually are an innate part of our communication.

As far as gestures and learning go, much research has been done and many experiments have been done into gesture and learning. In fact Goldin-Meadow (she’s at the University of Chicago), she refers to the use of gesture in learning as lightening the cognitive load; that gestures do actually, in fact, make thinking easier.

Maria Zijlstra: So, what you’ve got then with the gesture is that you’re augmenting or supplementing the sound of the words, and giving me a visual cue—so there’s another mode, another way of communicating—as well as a kinaesthetic, a movement thing that I’m not only watching but I’m understanding as another way of your communicating.

Jenny McKinney: That’s right. I mean, speech and gesture are actually symbiotic. One, really, doesn’t exist well without the other because, as you watch me, I am conveying meaning to you through many channels, not just through my voice. So this is exciting for language learning because one of the main things we need to do when we’re teaching another language is convey meaning to our students in as many ways as we can, and using the kinaesthetic, the visual, the rhythm, obviously that’s going to add meaning to our learners.

So Pennycook, another scholar, he suggests that gestures are in fact essential to language learning, and that they should be both the vehicle and the goal of language classrooms; that they should be included in every primary facet of language learning.

Maria Zijlstra: And, Jenny, you reckon that gesturing physically in the classroom has another benefit in that it improves listening skills because it improves kids’ focus on you.

Jenny McKinney: Absolutely. I mean, we know that gestures enhance comprehension, they aid in the retrieval of information, they motivate learners, they increase achievement levels, they represent grammatical structures, and they support different learning cells. And they can also highlight learning gaps in students, so we can actually work out what kids don’t know by how they use gestures.

Maria Zijlstra: You mean there’s a gesture that indicates ‘hey, I don’t know what to say now’, or…?

Jenny McKinney: Okay, well, if I’m kinaesthetically representing a sentence to my students and they are responding, I can see what they are missing out from the gestures that they may not use and the sounds that they may not make. So it absolutely will show us what they don’t know: they may miss out a part of a negative form, or they might miss out a part of a future tense or they might miss a gender or an agreement, and I can see that from how they are kinaesthetically representing the language to me.

Maria Zijlstra: Right! So, as a teacher then, you can cross-correlate on this multimodal level as well, the knowledge and the learning.

Jenny McKinney: Absolutely, yes.

Maria Zijlstra: The other thing about this method that’s so striking, in comparison with the more traditional kind of textbook based learning, is just how social it is. I mean, there are some videos that I’ve seen of kids learning and they’re all sitting there waving their arms around and swaying and they’re all into it together, they’re kind of joining in. And, in fact, as a teacher you liken it, I know, to being the conductor of a choir.

Jenny McKinney: That’s exactly right! Look, the Accelerated Integrated Methodology uses gestures in a very multi-sensory visual kinaesthetic way—obviously maths logical because we’re trying to create patterns with the students—and many more types of learners relate to that way of teaching because obviously we’re hooking into many different intelligences there. It’s not just the traditional learning of language through the ear and out through the pen. We’re actually kinaesthetically representing the language, the kids are hearing it, they are doing it, and they’re actually producing the language out of their mouths as opposed to onto paper.

Maria Zijlstra: And their motivation, because I reckon that a lot of the time when you’re in a classroom or when you’re learning something and, if you’re struggling with it, then having your interest promoted by being in a group, being engaged, there’s a kind of a bonding that seems to occur in this way of gesturing that—I think you’ve said too—that it helps to ‘create a shared sense of social—symbolic, physical as well as mental—space’. That’s how you describe it.

Jenny McKinney: That’s right. If you think of children, students learning a language, to put yourself on the line when you’re learning a new language and every time you say something or write something you usually make a mistake, it’s a very humiliating subject to take on. And if we’re all doing it together then there’s a very secure feeling that we’re going to do this together and we’re going to succeed together. This is one of the things that sets AIM apart from other programs, traditional textbook approaches, because—as we know—the problems in traditional textbook approaches would be that the students experience a low oral and written output, low morale, lack of retention of language from year to year, a lack of understanding grammatical structures, obviously low interest and minimal engagement.

And AIM certainly confronts many of these issues, predominantly because of the way it’s scaffolded and set out. It’s a verb-based as opposed to a noun-based program; people want to talk about what they do, what they’re doing, what they did, so they need lots of verbs to do this. Once they’ve got the verbs, the nouns can be naturally acquired and hung on these structures that we have made very solid. And that, in turn, develops confidence, fluency and a sense of achievement that I can actually use this language.

AIM is also a very inductive approach, so we don’t do the traditional ‘now we’re going to teach the past tense’. We actually use all the grammar and develop patterns before we explain what the grammar actually is. So my prep children would be able to use the past tense, without knowing that you use this form of the verb and that ending. They just want to say that they spoke or they did or they went, and so they learn that, whereas in a traditional program we might save the past tense for teaching in year eight. It makes it very arbitrary to children to learn language in that way. We didn’t learn our first language that way and we certainly don’t learn our second language as effectively that way.

And also the context that we use that is so engaging, is the storying—we snake in, out and around storying—and that means that we can use raps, stories, songs and we can incorporate information technology to present the language in a very repetitious way. What we’re actually doing is repeating all these structures again and again, these patterns, and trying to make them not get tedious.

Maria Zijlstra: Yeah, having fun with them. You use a lot of music.

Jenny McKinney: We use a lot of music, we use a lot of stories, we use a lot of rhythm and rap to try and get these structures in these students’ heads.

Maria Zijlstra: It’s sort of almost performative, isn’t it? Or, not ‘almost’; it is, yeah!

Jenny McKinney: It is, and I suppose it comes back to how many pages of the book can you remember? None. But how many songs can you remember, how many raps and rhythms can you remember? And I will often just start with a couple of gestures, a grammatical rap or, if we’d had a mistake in the class, I can correct them by incorporating a song or a rap that they have sung many, many times over, and in fact what they are doing is actually self/peer-correcting with the use of the raps and the songs that we have learnt in class. So it’s a very vibrant, colourful class! It’s certainly not little rows of children with little rows of words in my classroom, it’s more like a veritable laboratory of sign language and mime.

Maria Zijlstra: How long have you been using this method? When did you start?

Jenny McKinney: I started in 2004, and I was actually on maternity leave and I was working at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar at the time, and my principal saw this and said, ‘Jenny, you’re going to love this, you have to go up to Brisbane and see Wendy Maxwell in action.’ And I did, I went to see her and—as a fate has it—I was staying in the same hotel as Wendy and I got the same cab with Wendy, and I got to know her very well, and came back to Melbourne, instantly implemented AIM from prep right through to year eight—it’s still running at that school very successfully—and I have never looked back.

For me, as the head of a department at a school where the students were lacking motivation, the parents were complaining—I would always hear, ‘Madame McKinney, why doesn’t my daughter speak fluent French? She’s been learning French for six years at the school and can’t say a word or understand a thing.’ I was also working with teachers who were also a bit fed up with putting in all the efforts that they do into preparing classes and not getting the outcomes that they expected. So for me AIM put out all those fires. The staff I worked with were happy, the students were engaged and happy, the parents were reporting that their children were speaking languages around the table because we use this high-frequency language and, of course, it changed the lives of the teachers and the students at my school.

I suppose what is key to the success which I haven’t focused on right now is the fact that AIM uses—obviously it’s verb-based and it uses gestures—but what is key, and what sets it apart from any other program, is that it uses what we call a pared-down language, which is a high-frequency language that we recycle over and over again using all these different activities. I liken this to, I used to walk into my French class and I would have the whole language on a tray that was spilling over and I’d put it on the table and that is what we would work with in a class. And now—with my pared down language, my high-frequency AIM language—I have a nice little noodle bowl of 750 words which I recycle over and over again, and it has made the language very manageable. And it is the pared-down language in conjunction with the use of gesture that packs this enormous punch as to why AIM is such a successful program.

Maria Zijlstra: So it gets the vehicle moving and then you can add all the other bits later.

Jenny McKinney: That’s right, the gestures are successful by themselves, and probably the high-frequency vocabulary is successful by itself. But, symbiotically, this relationship between the pared-down language and the gesture is what makes our students develop this critical fluency so rapidly, so that they can function solely in the classroom in the target language, they can comprehend what I say in the target language because we’re using this pared-down language that they become very, very familiar with extremely quickly.

So within three weeks of me teaching my kids—and this is from prep right through—they will be able to use 20 to 25, 30 maybe verbs, we can put that into a question form, we can use positive responses, negative responses. You know, ‘can I go to the toilet, can I take my hat off, can I put my shoes on, can I put the book on the table, can I go to my music lesson’, all those things that they would usually say in English are said in French. And not only that, ‘can I eat my apple’, can be transferred to ‘can I eat my pizza, can I eat tomorrow’. All of a sudden you see that the nouns really are secondary to the structures that we are putting in place to develop this critical fluency.

And so AIM has been developed now in Spanish, in ESL, and here in Melbourne we are developing a Mandarin version which is taking off. I’m so pleased that Mandarin teachers have latched on to this fun way of teaching in their classrooms and that they are teaching from a communicative aspect where they are developing high-frequency phrases so our children can actually speak Mandarin very quickly.

So it is developing in a number of languages. And when you think that languages are seen as the door to the world, the daughter cultures and countries and jobs and links with other nations, we are finding it difficult to keep those doors ajar in Australia.

Maria Zijlstra: Jenny McKinney is the director of Hearsay Language Learning Downunder, providing professional support for language teaching using the Accelerative Integrated Methodology, and to which you can find a link on the webpage for this week’s Lingua Franca, via

Original interview on the Lingua Franca site >>


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