Drawing and gesturing: keep your students engaged in listening

The major challenge with any language input activity is to make sure that students are actively listening. I have found that having students draw is one of the most powerful ways to keep them engaged in the listening, along with having them do gestures. Students fill out enough multiple choice and short answers worksheets in their school day (BTW see this short but great post by @McLane_Ryan on worksheets), why not give them a chance to show they are listening and comprehending the language in a different way?

Every time I introduce new vocabulary, I try to think of ways students could draw or do a gesture to show me they understand. I am still experimenting but I now have a few key activities:

1. “Teacher speaks, students draw” and “student speaks, student draws”

My 7th graders have been working on physical descriptions. I describe a secret person and they draw him/her, then I show them the person’s picture on the board and they can check if they got it right or not. I try to pick American or Francophone artists I know they like.  Later on, once students have had enough input, they take turns describing a secret person on the board to a partner, while the partner draws. Lots of “oooohs” when students finally get to look at the board. Great formative activity too, as you can walk around and check what they are saying/drawing. This year, because I am working providing better feed-back, I summarize the great strategies I heard while going around and I provide suggestions before the next round of drawing/speaking starts.

 2. “A Francophone speaks, students draw”

A limitation with the activity above is that I get tempted to stick to words they know and students get used to my voice/accent. Of course there is no lack of  francophone people speaking on the internet, lately I found a girl describing what was inside her backpack! But finding the right authentic resource takes a looong time…

So, I asked my French friends to send me a short video where they were describing themselves. I only told them to stick to the physical description of their face but did not tell them what words to use. I played the videos twice, students drew what they heard, and then we watched the video together. What’s amazing about this is that they picked up new vocabulary along the way, such as “magnifique” in this example, which some students have incorporated into their speech: great way to stretch students!


A student draws my friend Ghislaine to show he understands her self-description.

You might be thinking that these techniques only apply to the very novice learners because the vocabulary is very concrete. You are right, though you can also apply this to higher levels. I just started a unit on “Love and Friendship” with my Level 3 students. I told them a story using pictures and had a gesture for each key phrase such as “they meet”, “they fall in love”, “they exchange phone numbers”, “they fight”, “they regret”, “they call each other”, “they make up”, “all is well that ends well”. My sophomores loved the gestures and even ended up making-up their own gestures, which is totally fine, as long as they are engaged in listening!

Picture1Picture4 Tell stories with a twist: come up with gestures for key phrases. 

Image copyright: HOLT French 3 “Bien Dit!” textbook

I am loving this comprehensible input journey, and so are my students. If you would like to share how you keep your students engaged in listening, I would love to hear from you. Stay tuned for my next post where I had a Comprehensible Input expert critique my lesson, a very humbling and inspiring experience!


  1. C’est super! Le nez de Ghislaine est un peu exagéré mais qu’elle bonne idée! J’utilise une exercice similaire au niveau 2 où les élèves doivent dessiner des monstres (un partenaire a un dessin simPle d’un monstre et le décrit a son partenaire, et vice versa. je te l’enverrai si tu veux. Aussi je fais in jeu avec les Madame/Monsieur et après ils doivent deviner qui ils ont dessiné!

  2. […] in the target language 90% of the time, as recommended by ACTFL. While I work very hard to provide comprehensible input to my students, I am not obsessed with everything being comprehensible at all times. I firmly […]

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