Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 30, 2020
By Nicholas McKay

Embodied pedagogy

Embodied pedagogy can work wonders in the ESL classroom.

But what on earth is it? And what are the benefits?

Embodied pedagogy explained

When undertaking my Master of Teaching, my area of academic interest was embodied pedagogy.

In short, it's about using the human body as a learning tool. This is very similar to the drama classroom.

Having used this practice in the classroom before, I can confidently say that this teaching method works.

The power balance changes

In many classrooms, students have next to no power. The teacher tells students what to do, and they carry out the instruction.

Embodied pedagogy is about giving power back to the students.

The classroom rarely allows for the use of prior knowledge. Embodied pedagogy changes this.

Students know their own body best. Through this tool, they can appreciate learned experiences, which shape who they are.

A little bit of history

A century ago, educational scholar John Dewey proposed that students ought to use all of their bodily senses to learn, including touch, taste, sound, sight and smell.

Although drama, dance and physical education classes often capitalize on these senses, this rarely happens in English.

Many years later, Noam Chomsky and Dell Hynes discussed similar theories in regard to second language acquisition.

Tasks related to embodied pedagogy often involve authentic use of the target language, including role plays, practice interviews and social tasks.

Not all students will immediately appreciate this teaching method, especially if they have been sitting in chairs for the past 15 years. However, I guarantee, you will not regret these practices.

The dilemma belittling embodied pedagogy

Despite a century of discussion, little has changed in the typical classroom.

Students continue to sit in rows, in very teacher-centered environments.

This is especially the case if you're teaching English in China, where the teacher rules supreme.

Some may argue, why change a system that has clearly worked all this time? The point is, it hasn’t.

Not every student works well in a teacher-centered classroom. Many educators, it seems, take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching, rather than accepting every student as an individual learner.

Though some students appreciate ‘chalk and talk’, the same cannot be said for students who learn kinaesthetically or visually.

In most classrooms, the teacher is positioned as the all-knowing expert. When using embodied pedagogical practices, this stereotype is thrown on its head. I’ve met teachers who, due to this, are concerned their authority would be challenged.

Some teachers to this day refuse to adopt technological practices in technology-rich environments. Something similar is happening with embodied pedagogy.

I’ve interviewed at schools where, the mere mention of using the human body to help students learn has sent the panel into a state of shock. You’d think I said something obscene considering their responses.

The truth is, adopting practices like these are very easy. Also, they strengthen student connections and understanding. The major issue is they change student-teacher relationships.

The benefits of embodied pedagogy

I was in a Year 10 class once, where trying to engage students in a discussion was next to impossible. Disabling a nuclear weapon, with only three seconds left to spare, would have been easier!

To save face, most students kept quiet. I informed students that making mistakes was part of the learning process. I also said asking questions was perfectly acceptable.

I might as well have dressed up in a panda costume for all the good it did me. So, I used an activity, called 123, instead.

Students sorted themselves into pairs, and were asked to count to three. Example: Student A: 1, Student B: 2, Student A: 3, Student B: 1, Student A: 2, Student B: 3.

The process was continuously repeated, and students were required to gradually speak faster.

Inevitably, learners would make a mistake. When they did, students were asked to celebrate it. "Yay! We stuffed up!" they would cry, while jumping up and down.

In so doing, they learned mistakes were part of the learning process.

Embodied pedagogy gets students out of their chairs, and moving around.

If you ask me, it seems some teachers are raging a private war with students’ bodies, making sure they never move an inch from their seat for the entirety of a lesson.

Embodied pedagogy is fun and relaxing. Moreover, teachers go from being the class leader, to the facilitator and participant. In this sense, the relationship is equal.

If teachers are willing to put themselves in vulnerable positions, then students will be equally willing to follow. In so doing, they will not feel embarrassed to participate.

At the same time, students can experience a moment of self-exploration. By using embodied pedagogy, learners will have the opportunity to reinvent themselves and the language, whilst generating individual meaning.

Putting it into practice

The ESL classroom is often very teacher-centered. That being said, there’s no reason why embodied pedagogy should be avoided.

I remember one group of students I taught. Most of them would rather be trapped alone on a desert island than speak in the classroom.

An oral presentation was on the horizon, and I was concerned they would experience difficulty.

So, I separated students into pairs, giving each group a Shakespearean sonnet. I asked each pair to read their poem, face to face and back to back. Then, each student read from across the room, walking towards one another as they spoke.

Following this activity, I asked the groups to analyse the themes, storyline and characters of their sonnet. I then asked students to come to the middle of the room where I had placed some prop cards.

These included a teddy bear, a car, a mug, a love-heart shaped necklace, a ring, a dog, and many others.

Choosing a card, students wrote a short story on their own about one of the characters. Learners incorporated the prop into their tale. Upon completion, students read their story to their partner.

Students would then choose a sentence from their poem. Using gesture, and their prop, they would devise a short performance, and show this to the class.

In undertaking this task, every student gained confidence with speaking. They used their imagination, and appreciated the maturity placed upon them. Learners also acquired understanding of a Shakespearean poem.

Embodied pedagogy is flexible too

Now, you wouldn't want to teach Shakespeare to little kids in China. But this method of teaching is flexible and could also be applied to:

  • Warm-up activities (games which have pertinence to the lesson)
  • Stories (whereby students act out difficult sections)
  • Job interviews (where one student asks questions, and the other answers), and
  • Role playing social situations (ordering food, asking for directions, etc).

What do your students really need?

So, the next time you print off worksheets or choose an activity from the textbook, please ask yourself, is this really what my students need?

It seems worksheets occasionally become the crutch teachers use in exchange for creativity. ESL teachers should not fear allowing students the opportunity to be creative. After all, this is how students learn best.

Though written tasks can build knowledge, they often provide students with no relevance for using the target language.

I hope you liked my blog about using embodied pedagogy to transform your ESL classroom. I've also written a blog about the Whoosh! exercise which can help students understand the main parts of a story. Please have a read!

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