A group of students playing charades

ESL Gestures: 5 Key Ways to Use Gestures and Mime to Liven Up Your ESL Classroom

As an ESL teacher, it’s imperative that you keep your energy level high and always continue being creative to keep your students inspired (and awake). One unorthodox method that I use is mime and gestures. I know—at this point, you’re either cringing or scared, right?

Well you shouldn’t be. From my personal experience, miming and gestures work wonders in ESL classrooms.

Read this post to learn five fun and effective ways you can use gestures in your next ESL class.


1. Use Gestures to Give Directions

Gestures could make the difference between your ESL beginners getting what you’re trying to express or not. Visual cues really help things “click” in a student’s brain.

For example, perhaps a word sounded familiar to one student but she couldn’t remember the meaning well—speaking the word while making a descriptive gesture will help her brain make the connection between language and action.

Additionally, it’ll also help your students acquire new vocabulary as it’ll lead your language learners to associating certain body movements or gestures with particular things.

For example, if you can always use the exact same gesture when instructing please sit down,” your ESL learners will end up becoming more accustomed to hearing the command and then sitting down. It doesn’t even matter if you omit the oral instruction from time to time. After a few repetitions, the gesture alone should do the trick.

Using gestures in the ESL classroom is also an excellent way of having more control over your class—in the future if your students become rowdy or a little too loud, you can simply use gestures without oral instruction to have them stand up, be quiet or even make groups.

2. Use Gestures and Miming to Teach Vocabulary

When an ESL student has zero English or is a complete beginner, you’ll want some options aside from translating directly in the classroom. Falling back on their native language can become a bit of a crutch and slow down the learning process.

In this case, gesturing will become indispensable. Additionally, gesturing can help you elicit certain key vocabulary and phrases from your learners without you having to directly translate. In other words, it adds more variety to your method of ESL instruction and avoids common pitfalls.

Gesturing will help your younger students associate common words and phrases with certain actions, which will accelerate their learning and give them more confidence.

3. Using Miming and Gestures to Practice Dialogues

In the communicative ESL classroom, a big part of practicing the new English vocabulary and grammar that’s being taught is through dialogues and role-plays. 

This is the perfect opportunity to incorporate mime and gesture into the lesson. This creates a stronger sense of reality. A conversation seems more real-world and natural to students when they have to behave as they would in their usual interactions with people.

For example, if you’re introducing a sample conversation or scenario where a customer has gone back to the store to complain, you can advise your students that the store clerk could react in a variety of ways towards the complaint.

They could make themselves look shocked, angry or apologetic when hearing the complaint. If the activity involves a first-time meeting where the students have to introduce themselves, have them shake hands just like they would have to do in a real-life scenario. Not only will your students learn culturally appropriate gestures to fit the scenario, it’ll also make learning a lot more fun and interesting. 

Gestures and miming can also be used in the production part of the communicative ESL class. They help reinforce what has already been learned.

For example, if your class has just completed a chapter on feelings and emotions, you could use mime and gestures to practice them. This can be simply done by using a fun little miming activity.

  • Compile a list of all the emotions that have been learned and practiced on the board.
  • Then have your students each select a piece of paper from a hat.

Each small piece of paper should have a related sentence written on it, such as “you are angry.” 

  • Students should keep what’s written on their papers secret.
  • Every student will have a piece of paper where they’ll write complete sentences about their classmates while they mime out their sentences one-by-one.

In this way, students need to identify the correct emotion to mime, as well as the emotion that’s being mimed, and write it down. The sentences written down should look like: “Mika is furious” and so on. The activity will continue until everyone has mimed their emotion to one another.

4. Use Miming and Gestures to Teach Cultural Differences

Gesturing is a huge part of many languages and cultures.

Some countries use more gestures and expressions than others. It’s imperative that you, as an ESL instructor, talk about the importance of using gestures when communicating. What your ESL students need to know is that, even though they may have mastered using polite language in English, the way they use their bodies is also very important.

What they normally gesture out in their culture may not translate into the country where they’re living and learning English. If a gesture is used inappropriately or incorrectly, it could be interpreted in the wrong way.

Therefore, the way you use gestures in class will help your students to communicate better. Continue using gestures no matter which level of English you’re teaching. If you see your students outside of the classroom in the distance, wave to them as you would to someone from an English-speaking region.

If you need them to come to the board, motion the “come here” gesture to them. If you don’t have any idea how to answer their question, shrug your shoulders to show that you don’t know the answer. By doing this, you’re helping them subconsciously learn how to gesture correctly when speaking English.

5. Reinforce and Practice Using Miming Games

Charades is a classic mime game. The great thing is that you can use it for all levels and learners never grow bored of it.

  • Separate your ESL class into two different teams.
  • Explain to your ESL learners that one player goes to the front of the class and acts out a set phrase using no words, sounds or props.
  • Give your students a set time limit—a time of 3 minutes is recommended for lower ESL levels.
  • If the actor’s team guesses the right phrase within the set time, they get a point. If they can’t get the answer, the point is given to the other team.
  • After one player from one team has had a turn, the next team has a go and it continues like this.

This is the perfect way to practice and review different phrases, but make sure you use this activity at the end of your lesson. Otherwise, it may be difficult to control your learners afterwards when you want to do a quieter activity. Most learners will catch on pretty quickly, especially since there’s usually a similar game in most other countries.

Emphasize is a fun game for the pre-intermediate ESL level and above. This requires the students to use different gestures and tones depending on the given situation. The aim of this fun little ESL game is to have the students try and deduce the situation from an acting student’s tone, word stress and body language.

  • Emphasize to your learners that they need to show different emotions such as disappointment, excitement, anger or surprise, for example. It would be a good idea to have them practice different situations first.
  • The next step is to have your learners memorize a simple dialogue between two people. You can make up the dialogue yourself or you can use something like the following:

A: Hey, how are you?

B: Okay, thanks. And you?

A: Great! What have you been up to lately?

B: Oh, you know, not much, but I’m keeping myself busy.

A: Well, okay. It’s been good seeing you.

B: Yeah. Okay, then. Bye!

A: See ya!

  • Have them practice the dialogue through choral drilling until you think they know it.
  • Afterwards, have them practice the same dialogue in pairs, but using a normal tone.
  • After they’ve practiced the dialogue a few times, give each pair a scenario such as: a divorced couple, two very old people who are nearly deaf, two people who are angry at each other and so on.
  • Keeping their cards a secret, and using their voice and body, they’ll need to act out the dialogue for their particular situation.
  • If it’s unclear about what the scenario is, encourage the rest of the class to ask the actors questions until they get there.

For such a game that doesn’t transfer into other languages and cultures, it’s always a good idea for you to demonstrate the activity first no matter how advanced your students are.


All in all, using both gestures and mime in the English language classroom can be really beneficial for your students and yourself in a number of different situations.

Be careful not to force a certain gesture—let them come naturally instead. When you figure out what works best for you, stick with it and allow your students to adapt to you.

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