Center for Language Studies

Movement and Technology in the Communicative Language Learning Classroom | May 17, 2015

Introduction | Screen-centered classrooms?

Many university level language acquisition courses emphasize the role of technology both in and outside the classroom. Incorporating technology increasingly produces creative and effective lesson plans for accessible to all types of learners. Many technological programs offer images, sound, and writing, binding many types of input and output together with speed like never before.

But how often is a language learning classroom becoming a screen-centered classroom rather than student-centered? How often is incorporating technology reduced to a PowerPoint presentation guiding the class day after day? Are students glued to their chairs? Following the inciting question of Shafaei (2011), is teaching language without the body teaching language?

These questions are not particularly new ones, yet there is not a lot written on movement—aside from nonverbal communication—in the classroom within second language acquisition scholarship. Even pencil and paper or textbooks present the problem of media-based classroom settings. My intention with this paper is not eliminate the media that have greatly enhanced the communicative approach, but rather to present movement as a medium for learning as well. There is a lot of potential in the human body to acquire a second language, which I hope to present here (including also unusual source material), leaving the question open to further research and practice.

Part 1 | The Benefits of Movement

            Let’s start small. Movement does not necessarily have to mean that students must get up from their chairs. Instead movement connects mind and body together, creating rhythms that reinforce mindfulness and presence in the language learning process. In Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Brian Massumi elaborates upon the process of reading as one folded within movements and gesture: “Enfolded in the muscular, tactile, and visceral sensations of attention are incipient perceptions. When we read, we do not see the individual letters and words. That is what learning to read is all about: learning to stop seeing the letters so you can see through them” (p. 139). Attention in the classroom is one component of a so-called good student, but attention can take on many different forms that oscillate within the body’s responses to outward-projected activity. Attention should not be thought of as a stable state, but rather the quality of coming back to a stable center from distraction. We can think of distraction as fundamentally built into attention. Massumi writes further,

All of this equally pertains to inattention. Distraction, too, is accompanied by characteristic, self-referential actions: scratching, fidgeting, eyes rolling up or around in their sockets as if they were endeavoring to look back in at the brain. Every predominantly visual activity is an economy of attention and distraction, often with a pronounced tendency toward one or the other pole (2002, p. 139).


We can think of movement as a tool for students to check in with their own attention. In the language-learning classroom we can use the economy of attention and distraction to magnetize the students toward the pole of attention, cultivating bodily movement for self-awareness.

Another component of movement includes cognitive mapping. Using shapes and symbols around the classroom can reinforce learning. A study completed on “The use of path integration to guide route learning in ants” shows that discrimination is an important part of cognitive mapping. The researchers placed different shapes in a maze, and the ants had to effectively learn which shapes led from the feeding site to the home site. They were able to create vectors from one to the other with shapes (Schatz, et. al., 1999). This information can be used in a classroom setting. The students can use vectors of movement that take them through a variety of vocabulary and grammar that map onto their everyday lives. For example, the classroom can be symbolically set up as a house to describe daily routines, or as a market to learn vocabulary for traversing city businesses. Like the ants, the students can learn via “path integration” to help them navigate through the unfamiliar landscape of a second language.

Gestures and cognitive mapping are not metaphors. I think we can relate the ways that movement can potentially be integrated into the classroom following a lot of the research that has been conducted on yoga and neuroscience in recent decades.[1] Studies show that even changing your posture slightly can lift mood and raise awareness. Movement techniques can certainly add a positive boost to the classroom everyday.

Not only does movement enhance the classroom environment, but nonverbal communication can increase sociolinguistic linguistic competence. Movement is a communicative ability that produces coherence and cohesion in interpersonal interactions (Gregerson, 2005, p. 51). Even though not all movement can lead to effective communication, knowing how to move to express can be an important part of cultural competence as well. Ekman and Friesen describe four different types of gestures for effective communication: illustrators, regulators, emblems, and affect displays. Illustrators are the natural movements that accompany speech, communicating the meaning and context of a verbal message with hand gestures, smiling, and frowning. Regulators refer to the body language cues that serve to control turn-taking in conversation and organizes interaction patterns. Examples include physical gestures, changes in gaze direction, eye contact, and proximity between bodies. Emblems are nonverbal behaviors that intentionally transmit a message. These are the most subject to change meaning from context to context. Examples include nodding affirmatively or negatively, the O.K. sign, and thumbs up or down. Affect displays express emotion, such as laughing, crying, and posture. By thinking of these forms of nonverbal communication as expressive movement inherent in every communicative instance, we can encourage language learning that tessellates with learning communicatively with technology. The next step is to think about how to diffuse these movements deliberately with technological engagement in a classroom setting.

Part 2 | How Technology Can Incorporate Movement

So, how can we integrate movement with technology at the same time so that media and bodies are not seen as separate entities in the communicative language-learning classroom? (Especially when just using just movement or technology alone in the classroom already presents a challenge!) We can first start to think about the technologies that are already popular in second language acquisition classrooms and how each of them can incorporate movement.[2] These suggestions are a platform to continue thinking about how to use technology and movement together, often incorporating and combining more than one technological tool. Most of these suggestions apply to the beginner level of language learning.

  • Blogs: Blogs encourage students to develop long-term (or at least semester-long) threads of ideas. Blogs are also a great place for students to keep track of what inspires them. An idea for including movement in a blog format is for students to look at any movement art that within the country or culture of the spoken language. They can use the blog to describe the movement in a variety of writing formats: poetry, email, letter, newspaper review, or creative prose. Students can also replicate each other’s movement according to their peers’ language.
  • Digital Storytelling: Digital Storytelling can create comics, animation, cartoons with digital platforms. Students can use these platforms to describe movement through storytelling, portraying characters moving.
  • Discussion Threads: Discussion threads utilize the online platforms provided by the university to connect students outside of the classroom. Students can use a discussion thread to explore topics more closely. For example, students can each share one nonverbal cue that interests them on the discussion thread. The next day in class, the instructor can hand out cards with one of the cues on each card to each student. Throughout class that day, the student must incorporate as that nonverbal cue as much as they can. It can turn out to be very entertaining, but keep control that the cues are positive!
  • E-Portfolios: E-Portfolios are an exciting way to share students’ work widely, so it is important that students create work in the language-learning classroom that they can be proud of. Students with artistic propensities can share the work they make with descriptions in the target language. Students that write poetry or any other form of creative expression can experiment and share in the target language. Students that feel they do not want to express creatively in their native language may actually find it freeing to create work in another language!
  • Mapping Software: Mapping software, such as Google maps, correlates physical movement to an interactive image. Students can explore with direction words and navigating through foreign cities.
  • Presentation Tools: Presentation tools are, in my opinion, the greatest limitation of movement in the classroom. Students are expected to sit and fix their eyes upon the screen and respond when the screen tells them too. But, as we know, presentation tools, like PowerPoint, Prezi, and SlideShare, are incredible for visual learners. It is important to have slides that encourage breaks for group work activity and movement in between slides with visualized input. If students see vocabulary input for restaurant etiquette or grammar practice with modal verbs, the next slide could prompt a dynamic activity where students move around and talk to each other.
  • Video Hosting: Video hosting, like Vimeo or Youtube can develop students’ ideas in visual time-based film formats. The possibilities are endless: short films, video diaries, stop motion animation, dance, documentaries!
  • Videoconferencing Platforms: Videoconferencing platforms connect students with other classrooms. Students can use videoconferencing on smartphones or iPads to exchange tours of a building in the target language within their university with another university.
  • Wikis: Wikis facilitate online collaborative class discussion and organize topics. A way to incorporate movement is to have students create a wiki for traveling abroad to a country in which the language is spoken. Each topic in the wiki can include student’s photos and videos for how to interact in that country with the corresponding verbal language.

There are also physical computing technologies that inherently can require movement and haptic interaction.[3] These are bit harder to access, but are becoming increasingly more available at universities. These require a bit more knowledge to use. Here is a list to explore using in the classroom; some of these ideas are from Martinez and Stager (2013):

  • Arduino
  • CAVE
  • Dance Dance Revolution
  • LEGO engineering
  • Lilypad Arduino
  • Oculus Rift
  • Processing
  • Sony Eyetoy
  • Theremino
  • X-Box Kinnect


Coda | Movers, Makers, Communicators

            Part 1 explored how movement can be beneficial affectively and how focusing on the intricacies of the affective atmosphere in the classroom can enhance learning. Part 1 also elaborated upon how sociolinguistic competence and cultural competence includes gestures, movements, and affects. The classroom and the cultural context can be seen as nested realms to explore movement. The classroom can be seen as a creative lab to experiment with movement and technology together. Part 2 suggested technologies, activities, and tools to help foster the classroom as a meaningful context to learn a language creatively.

If instructors only use technology to keep the classroom seated and postures slouched toward the screens, they are not investigating the full potential of appealing to the many facets of language learning and communication. Technology and movement can enhance all the competences in language, if the activities are designed appropriately. By using the body to both move and express nonverbal communication—along with the effective speech, listening, reading and writing—students can communicate meaningfully in the classroom and in the world.


Arndt, H., & Janney, R.W. (1987). InterGrammar: Toward an integrative model of verbal, prosodic and kinesic choices in speech. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Butler-Pascoe, E., & Wiburg, K.M. (2003). Technology and teaching English language learners. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Allyn and Bacon/Pearson.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1972). Similarities and differences between cultures in expressive movements. In R.A. Hinde (Ed.), Nonverbal communication (pp. 297-312). London: CUP.

Gregersen, T. (2005). Nonverbal cues: Clues to the detection of foreign language anxiety. Foreign Language Annals 38(3), 388-400.

Gregersen, Tammy S. (2007). Language learning beyond words: Incorporating body language into classroom activities. Reflections on English Language Teaching: Vol. 6, No. 1 (pp. 51-64).

Igoe, Tom; O’Sullivan, Dan (2004). Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers. Premier Press.

Kellerman, S. (1992). I see what you mean: The role of kinesic behaviour in listening and the implications for foreign and second language learning. Applied Linguistics 13(3), 239-258.

Knapp, M., & Hall, J. (2006). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. Pennycook, A. (1985). Actions speak louder than words: Paralanguage, communication, and education. TESOL Quarterly 19(2), 259-282.

Martinez, Sylvia Libow & Stager, Gary. Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 2013.

Massumi, Brian. (2002). Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press.

McNeely, Ben. “Using Technology as a Learning Tool, Not Just the Cool New Thing.”

Schatz, B., S. Chameron, G. Beugnon, & T.S. Collett, “The use of path integration to guide route learning in ants,” Nature 399, 769-772 (24 June 1999)


[1] See for example: Sat Bir Singh Khalsa & Jodi Gould, Your Brain on Yoga (RosettaBooks: 2012). Rick Hanson, Buddhas Brain: Practical Neuroscience Happiness (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009).

[2] Columbia University has a great online resource listing different technologies for both teachers and students: “Technology Resources for Language Teaching and Learning”

[3] See also: Igoe, Tom; O’Sullivan, Dan (2004). Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers. Premier Press.

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