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It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

[Editor’s note: Little Miss Sunshine is a second-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens.]

As any family with Italian heritage can tell you, speaking with your hands is practically a necessity. I come from a long line of hand-talkers; we simply cannot get our point across without using our hands. In fact, growing up in my family if you wanted to tell your cousin to “shut up” without getting in trouble, you would say “Sit on your hands!”

If you couldn’t use your hands, you couldn’t speak.

This habit of talking with my hands followed me into adulthood. When I began teaching, I continued to speak in this manner, using my hands to explain things that my words could not. I was surprised when one of my English as a second language (ESL) professors told me that there have been studies that have shown that speaking with your hands can actually help English language learners create meaning. According to Dr. Smith Johnson, ESL students use hand gestures as descriptors to help them understand the main idea of a sentence, even if they don’t know all of the English vocabulary in the sentence.

When I heard about this study I knew that I had found my calling in life! I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, but finding out that there was actually a teaching job that was enhanced by one’s ability to talk with her hands made ESL a perfect fit for me. In college I learned how to use my hands to enhance my lessons, and when I became a self-contained ESL kindergarten teacher last year, I was able to see firsthand how my hand talking helped my students create meaning.

Recently I started to notice that students in my predominately Chinese-speaking, ESL kindergarten class started to use their hands when speaking to one another. I didn’t think much of it until I asked one of my students, Tiffany, to translate for me.

A new student from China who spoke not a word of English recently joined our class. This little boy has fallen asleep in class almost every day. I asked Tiffany to tell him that we do not sleep in class and that when he gets home he can sleep.

As Tiffany began to translate my words into Chinese, I watched how her facial expression changed. She put her hands on her hips, then in the air, then on her head! Everything about the way that she was speaking, including her inflection, was strikingly similar to the way that I speak. The whole experience was surreal.

It occurred to me that Tiffany didn’t learn to speak that way from her family; she learned to speak that way from me! I knew that as an ESL teacher I was teaching my students to speak English, but what I never realized was that I was teaching my students how to speak. Tiffany taught me a valuable lesson that day. She taught me that sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

I decided that maybe it’s time I sit on my hands, and understand that just because we are not teaching a lesson at a given moment, it doesn’t mean our students stop learning. Everything we do and say to our students is being absorbed. We must be aware of this fact before we teach them something we never meant to.



  • 1 Oponki
    · Jan 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Little MissSunshine,
    I really loved reading the experience that you have had with your ELL students. I have to agree that gestures really help students understand the message even when its in another language. Also, I agree with the fact that students mimic on “how you say” a message. I had a similar situation in my first grade classroom. I had that “Whoa!” moment where I had to step back and reflect on how students not only learn the content area information from teachers, but they also learn the small little things in life,such as gesturing, as well. I love forward to reading more of your articles in the near future!

  • 2 merrill carinci
    · Jan 4, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    VERY helpful point of view!