Movement In Adult Classes

Alex Case
When and how to use TPR-like activities with adult learners.

Although moving the body around by miming, acting things out etc is much more common in young learner classes, there are almost as many reasons for bringing it into adult classes too. It is perhaps most often seen as a nice break from sitting around and studying or a way of waking students up, but more important is the fact that moving while reading, listening etc is a good way of learning.

There is also a caveat, however. There is the danger of some students and classes reacting very negatively to any obviously game-like activities in class, let alone being asked to stand up and wave their arms around. Classes where you might want to introduce TPR-style activities late, with care or not at all include ones in which:

  • There have been complaints about the use of games, or the student profile makes such complaints likely
  • There have been complaints more generally and the students might be looking for something else to complain about
  • Trust between the teacher and students hasn’t been gained (e.g. because it is a new class) or lost (e.g. because of some questions the teacher wasn’t able to answer)
  • The mix of gender, age or status might make people particularly embarrassed
  • Something about the class, e.g. it being Business English or exam preparation, might make them expect a more serious approach
  • Activities where they move around such as miming have already been used quite a lot
  • There is a chance of people who are not in the class seeing the miming etc going on, e.g. through an office window

Approaches that still might allow you to use movement in such classes include:

  • Ask students to stay sitting down and move just their upper body or use only their fingers and hands (e.g. their first two fingers to represent someone walking)
  • Ask students to work in pairs or threes rather than standing up in front of the class
  • Choose the movement that will be made carefully so that there is nothing which will be particularly embarrassing
  • The first time that you use movement, make sure it is with a topic whose connection to using your body is very obvious, such as gestures in different countries or body language in job interviews
  • Justify the use of movement before or after the activity, e.g. by talking about different ways of learning vocabulary or by how difficult it is to come up with realistic uses of Present Continuous in face to face classroom communication
  • Use the other obvious ways of practising the language first, e.g. using defining vocabulary until people can guess the word and drawing games for vocabulary revision before miming is used to really get the ones they are still having problems remembering
  • Use movement for something that students are really struggling with, e.g. the difference between will and going to for predictions, and in a way that obviously helps
  • Have a long introduction where the teacher is the one moving, starting with easy actions but including ones which are a little silly etc so that students won’t be surprised if they have to do one of those things in their group later
  • Keep the stage with movement in short
  • Move quickly from moving to a much more serious point
  • Elicit the use of movement as a way of learning language from the students
  • Always think carefully about whether moving is actually the best way to present or practise the language

Having said all the above, I have used movement in IELTS classes (for trends language for Writing Part One), Technical English classes (for typical verbs in their work) etc without any justification given or complaints received, and would generally recommend to always keep the possibility of getting students to move in mind. As well as being fun and a good warmer, it is a good general approach to learning language that students might also be able to use outside class and is the best way of presenting and practising certain language points. I therefore won’t give a list of people who movement is suitable for – because if it’s done properly my starting position is that virtually all classes should move around sooner or later, and that most certainly includes shy students.

How to use movement in adult classes

There are five main approaches to the use of physical movement in adult EFL classes:

  • Students listening to (or occasionally reading) instructions and following them.
  • One person miming and others responding, e.g. by identifying what the mime represents.
  • Students speaking while doing actions.
  • Games where the movement is integral to the game but not linked the language.
  • Moving around between activities, e.g. changing groups.

Examples of each of these are given below.

1. Movements in response to instructions

Asking for directions is the most common use of this kind of activity, e.g. with one student explaining where to go on a map and another student tracing or drawing the route. With classes who need to or are happy to stretch their legs, it is also possible to give instructions for walking around the classroom in the same way. A variation which isn’t often thought of as being physical is Invisible Pen, in which two standing students take turns asking questions to “find” an imaginary pen that was “placed” somewhere in the classroom while they weren’t looking.

Another good use of this approach is for one student to explain how to do something, e.g. programme a video recorder, and for the other student to follow the instructions on the real object or a large photo. Both of these uses are also obviously good for imperatives (should that be a grammar point you actually need to spend time on).

Any of the games in Watching Mimes and Responding below could also be played with students following the instructions of how to move their body and then guessing what action they are doing rather than watching other people doing it.

2. Watching mimes and responding

This use is similar to the game Give Us a Clue, in which people watching try to guess movie titles etc from mimes. People generally just shout out what they think is being mimed, but it is also possible to respond to what they think is being mimed, e.g. “I think you are feeling disappointed. Are you okay?” and “When I said stop you were thinking. What were you thinking about?”

As long as the teacher chooses the things carefully so that they can actually be mimed, students can act out:

  • Common gestures in other countries
  • Gestures for particular situations, e.g. presentations
  • Words, e.g. some recent vocabulary from the textbook
  • Idioms, e.g. ones including body parts like “sticky fingers”
  • The language of trends
  • Phrases, e.g. functional language like “Can I have a cup of tea, please?” and “Thank you”
  • Whole sentences, e.g. with Present Continuous (“You are ironing”), Past Continuous (“When I said stop, you were ironing”), or Going to for future plans or predictions (“You are going to climb a mountain”)

3. Saying something and acting it out

The most common example of this is students getting up to act out a dialogue, and the same thing can be done using things such as pencils on their desks to represent people. You can also add more connection between the action and the language by giving them roleplay cards that involve more movement, e.g. “Your partner is in a fishing boat a few metres from the shore and wound up in fishing line. Tell him/ her how to get out of it” and “You have lost your voice. Stop someone in the street and get them to phone your husband/ wife to ask them to pick you up.”

The other way of adding more action (and the language that is tied in more with it) is to get students to read out some prose rather than a dialogue while they act things out, e.g. giving them cut outs of common fairytale characters and objects and ask them to move them around an A3 photocopy of an enchanted land while they make up or retell their stories.

4. Movement tied to the game rather than the language

The two most common examples of this are a Running Dictation and mingling games. In the former, one student runs (or more commonly walks quickly) to a text that their partner can’t see, walks back to their partner and dictates whatever they can remember of it, then goes back to read and remember in the same way. This continues until one pair has transferred the whole text successfully to their paper.

In a mingling game, students have to stand up and walk round to speak to most or all of the other students, e.g. to find something that they have done and no one else has with “Have you ever…?” questions.

5. Moving between activities

My general philosophy on changing groups is that the minimum movement is quickest and easiest, e.g. moving one person to the other end of the semi-circle of students and so changing pairs along the whole row. However, this can also be a good opportunity to get students to stretch their legs and so liven up their brains. Perhaps the easiest and most active (although usually also the most time consuming) is just to ask students to stand up, find someone they haven’t worked with, and sit down together somewhere. You can also organise this by giving students matching cards and asking them to stand up and find the other Student A etc.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.


  • Mohira Boymirzaeva says:

    Activities are very practical and helpful!

  • James Thomas says:

    Obviously the voice of experience. The top list is really good advice. Thanks.

  • vaibhav kumar says:

    Excellent! Tips given here are practically good.

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