An Introduction to the Benefits of Using Sign Language for Function Words

An Introduction to the Benefits of Using Sign Language for Function Words

Error-correction has long been a domain for debate and a persistent bane of teachers’ life. In fact, error-correction is unlikely to be productive without the direct intrusion of the teacher. Yet this intervention can scupper the flow of speech and negatively affect fluent production of target language. Similarly, the continuous repetition of error-correction by the teacher can have a demoralising impact on the motivation of the student. In this article, I will discuss how developing a sign language for function words can help young learners with peer and self- correction and contribute to learner autonomy. I will also discuss how the sign language can reduce TTT and lead to more learner autonomy.

Functions words: a can of worms

In order to develop an arbitrary sign language, it is critically important to unravel the linguistic threads for which we need to fashion a sign system from the intricate weave of language. Caleb Gattegno, in his proposal of The Silent Way emphasises that function words are “a key to comprehending the ‘spirit’ of the language” (Richards and Rogers, 1986, p.101). According to him, these words are more versatile and do not have L1 equivalent (Ibid.). This particular feature of function words poses a problem for students in the acquisition of English language. In the production of the language, even advanced students in my experience of teaching in Turkey and Iran have had grave problems with some of these function words. Function words, according to Scott Thornbury (2006, p.88) “have a mainly grammatical function” and are in sharp contrast to content words “which carry the main informational load’. Thornbury classifies them into several categories:

A. Prepositions of place and time such as at, on, in, for, during, until, till, since, to, towards, by
B. Determiners such as this, that, the
C. Conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, after, as, before, when, although, if, even if
D. Adverb particles like up, down
E. Words like not and infinitive to .
The proposed sign language is the most ideal for the categories of prepositions and conjunctions.

Fashioning an arbitrary sign language

In this approach, certain gestures are coined by the teacher and gradually introduced. The signs are taught at the beginning of a lesson with the focus on prepositions or conjunctions. The link between the gesture and the meaning it signifies is quite arbitrary, yet they have to be pre-thought to have maximum impact and long term effects. From hence on, in this article, the gestures in the system will be designated as ‘signifiers’ and what they mean as ‘the signified’. In my own experience of teaching YL, slapping the hand on the wrist indicated ‘at’, on the forearm ‘on’ and in the wrist ‘in’. Drawing an imaginary line in the air represented ‘for’, crossing hands ‘but’ and making a circle with hands ‘about’. The right hand index finger pointing to the left represented ‘so’, and the left hand index pointing to the right indicated ‘because’. An imaginary triangle in the air signified ‘if’ and a square meant ‘although’. Similarly, a systematic sign language for other categories of function words can be developed for other function words.

It is worth bearing in mind that the relation between signifiers and the signified are all arbitrary and any teacher can develop culturally appropriate codes with awareness to gesture taboos of the context he/she is teaching. The teacher needs to be vigilant about the pace of the introduction, too. Students must not be bombarded with a barrage of signifiers in a short time since linking the signifier and the signified can perplex them and create an air of confusion in the classroom. Another point to remember is the persistent implementation of the signs in the classroom. They are prone to obliviousness unless the students are frequently exposed to them. The teacher can correct errors or elicit and encourage learners to produce meaningful language by gesticulatory prompts. Therefore, they are mostly efficient in lower levels and YL in the production stage and later a means of error correction. The arbitrary but constantly implemented sign system can, in time, be utilised by students themselves in pair and group activities. In fact, learners can use the signifiers to elicit or correct the language produced by their peers.

Benefits of non-verbal interventionism

The question of how and when to intervene and provide corrective feedback for a malformed utterance in a pedagogical focus has long been a field of ambivalences. The over-repetitive interruption of learners by the teacher can shatter their language ego and might even suffocate them to silence. As Brown (2007) observes, in real world, non-natives do not persistently get corrected by native speakers. He concludes that the classroom must be a “happy optimum between some of the overpoliteness of real world and the expectations that learners bring with them to the classroom” (p.347).

The non-verbal error-correction is a step towards establishing this “happy optimum”, a balance between interventionism and laissez-fair attitudes in treatment of errors. The system is most apt for young learners in several ways: Firstly, it raises their curiosity. After all it is quaint, something they haven’t seen and experienced before and whatever raises their curiosity can be efficiently utilised for pedagogic purposes. Secondly, since the learners use their motor skills in pairs, it can appeal to those with interpersonal, kinaesthetic and visual learning styles and can help as a memory aid and a positive reinforcer.

Thirdly, it has a positive benefit on learners’ morale. The correction is conducted in a humorously humanistic atmosphere where learners revel in producing a correct piece of language through inspiring prompts. Another added benefit of this approach to error correction is the considerable reduction of TTT in the classroom. Since the teacher only gesticulates, it is the learner that takes it upon himself/herself to self- correct in a conscious response to the prompt of the teacher. His role switches from that of an initiator or a controller to a non-verbal prompter. Constant implementation of these signs and encouraging learners to adopt it when in pairs will ultimately enhance learner autonomy.


Richads, C., Rogers, T. (1986) Approaches and principles in language teaching: A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT. New York: Macmillan Books for Teachers.
Brown,D., H. (2007) Teaching by Principles: An interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Longman.

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  • Yaabie

    Interesting approach, slightly aside but why did you choose to make up signs rather than use American Sign Langauge or British Sign Language? They have a ready made vocabulary of signs that you or your students can check if you forget what the sign means or if you discover another word that students consistently get wrong.