Just Plain Good Teaching, Part Two: Engage the Body and the Brain | Edutopia
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Just Plain Good Teaching, Part Two: Engage the Body and the Brain

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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This is the second part of a two-part entry. Read part one.

Sheltered instruction uses the phrase "comprehensible input" to describe how teachers can build the background knowledge students need to understand a lesson. Comprehensible input, simply stated, means that the teacher -- aware that students do not capture knowledge very well by passively listening -- provides contextual clues to the meaning of words he or she says by showing pictures, gesturing, pantomiming, pointing, playing music, writing the words, and doing anything else, including standing on her head, to get the students to understand fully.

The rule of three applies here: Use at least three sensory methods to get your point across, and the students will remember and understand at higher levels. An additional benefit is that students will be more likely to keep trying to understand because they see that you are trying to make sure they get it.

As a Spanish teacher, I learned that it increased my students' confidence if they could get to the point of instant recall of vocabulary before I asked them to actually use it; they participated more, and they felt more successful. I used an approach created by James J. Asher, an emeritus professor at San Jose State University, called Total Physical Response. It operates under the theory that, because your body is connected to your brain, you can learn better if you use more of your body than just your eyes and ears. Instead of simply saying a word and having the students repeat it, for example, I showed them the word through actions and had them do the actions, too.

The applications for this theory in a foreign language class are obvious, but a science or math teacher can do the same thing with a little preparation. For example, if you post algebraic theorems or scientific terms around the room, you can name a theorem or a term and have the students touch it. You can put a problem on the board and have the students point to the theorem that will be the first step in solving it.

Just having the students stand up or give a thumbs-up if they think they know the gene sequence is TPR. Have them stand next to the biome that matches, or have them come up with a pantomime to get the other students to guess the right phylum. A creative teacher can make the questions increasingly difficult by going up Bloom's Taxonomy. For example, ask students to point to the force that is most important when figuring out the trajectory of a rocket.

And what are the students who don't understand doing while the rest of the class is engaging in TPR? They're watching and mimicking the others until they get it on their own. Once all the students feel comfortable with the vocabulary, you can start using it in deeper learning conversations. When you say, "The hypotenuse is adjacent to the side," the students will understand what you are talking about, and you can get on to why it's an important thing to know about right triangles.

If you combine TPR with the "comprehensible input" sheltered instruction espouses, you end up with an incredible amount of JPGT that even special-needs students on both ends of the scale can use. A teacher intent on not leaving any student behind must first do some "just plain good teaching" before focusing on any particular student.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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Angey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What grade do you teach and how exactly do you have your students act out vocabulary? I can understand acting out easy words but what about the more difficult words?

Tricia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Comprehensible Input makes sense for everyone. The more ways that you can have something explained the better you will understand it. In an article on brain research that I read it stated that our memories from different senses are all stored in different areas of the brain. Thus, the more ways that you experience or learn something, the more ways your brain will have to retrieve the information. I like the idea of using at least 3 sensory methods to get your point across. I believe that you are right, if your students see that you keep trying to help them, they will be more likely to keep trying to understand it. TPR is something that I incorporate into my daily instruction. My kids are up and moving all the time. I have them act out vocabulary, do movements to remember things, stand up and mix around the room for discussions, give hand signals, etc. One important thing that I do with my students is give them a brain break when I see that they are getting a little burnt. I have them stand up and do all kinds of movements to get their oxygen flowing and give their brains a break from thinking. Afterwards they seem refreshed and ready to go again.

Magan L's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

All through my schooling I have been told to use many different approaches to my teaching and use a variety of sensory strategies in every lesson I teach. I understand the importance of that, and have always tried to create these big elaborate lessons that would get every student engaged no matter what their learning style was. What I am quickly realizing now is that there simple is not enough time in the day to do those elaborate lessons for every subject, every day. I need to find quick effective way that I can engage all students and allow them to use multiple senses. I love the suggestions this article gave on simple ways we can get students up and moving. I have also found in my classroom that if I get students up and moving before the start of a lesson, their attention span is much greater. For example, the afternoon is a pretty large stretch with no breaks for the students. So rather than go one subject after another, I give them a little dance break between two subjects. Students get up and stand in a circle around the room and I play the Cha Cha slide while they go through the motions. It's great! If any of you are familiar with this song, you know that it is also a great way to get students to follow verbal directions as it sings out commands for the actions they are supposed to do. Once this is done, students are refreshed and their blood is flowing.

Christi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am continually trying to integrate more hands on and movement in the classroom. Especially with 90 minute classes. I've found that I am not a fan of sitting that long and neither are the students. One difficulty that I run into is the fact that I teach high school math in a classroom with 30 students that barely holds 30 desks. What suggestions do you have?

Christi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That sounds great. I hope that I can some time soon come up with some physical things like that for my high school math classes.

Leanne Meyer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with Ginger about making learning fun and incorporating as much movement into learning as possible.

I teach Kindergarten Intervention with five to six students at a time. Most of the students attention spans are extremely short and the amount of sitting time is just as slim. Therefore, I have learned that my students have to be moving. When we are learning a new letter, we often make it using our bodies or just our hands. This is one activity the students are always asking to do. We also write the letters on white boards, trace the letter on the carpet, on our arms or be "sky writers" (this is what another teacher at my school calls it, and the students seemed to really like it)in which we write in the air with our fingers. We also incorporate tactile stimulation by using playdough and shaving cream to make our letters, numbers, or even popcorn (sight) words. The students think play dough is fun and yet they are learning what the letter looks like. We also sing songs about the letters and use magazine pictures to sort beginning sounds. One idea that I have had a lot of success with is a game I call "Magic Bag." In a large bag, usually my teaching bag, I place lots of real items beginning with one of two letters. If we were learning the letters B and C, I might place a bottle, stuffed bear, banana, book, bingo game, blocks, can, clock, corn on the cob, candy, stuffed cow, and a stuffed cat in the bag. The students then sit in a cicrle and we pass the bag around while we sing "Magical Bag, Magical Bag, What will we find?" and then the student pulls out an item without looking and places it under the correct letter notecard. I like this game, because the students are orally hearing the sound, visually seeing it, touching it and the items are real things that the students have most likely seen before.

In math we do something similiar to Ginger. We roll a large plstic dice with the numbers written on each side. Which ever number pops up we jump, clap or stomp that many times. Currently we are working on counting by tens and we use the Macarena dance moves to help us make sure we say each number 10-100. This was a new idea I read off of a different blog awhile ago, but the students have really gotten into it.

I'm always looking for more hands on activities that will engage the students in reading and math, so please let me know any that are working or have worked for you in the past. Thanks!

Leanne Meyer

Leanne Meyer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Wow that is a great idea, I would never have thought of something like that. Do you meet with the fifth grade teachers to see what they are teaching or do you just choose based on what is in the standards?

Leanne Meyer

Leanne Meyer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you about not enough hours in the day. I just had a conversation with a colleague of mine about wanting to do more activities with manipulatives to catch the students' attention last week. However, between, school, tutoring, and a family life, the fancy things are often left behind. I agree with you about liking this article for the simple sensory activities that I can apply quickly, yet still engage the students fully. I also like the cha cha slide activity. I'm sure your students really get into it!

heidi 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am interested in learning more ideas for using the entire brain in lessons. Currently we have brain breaks where we move around, rub each others necks, dance etc in between la and math. I don't however use any motions for learning terms. My concern would be what do you do to continusly think of new things? How do you get everyone to buy in when they want to be cool?
Are there sites where other ideas or lessons have been developed around getting kids moving?

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Your problem is a common one but fortunately it has an easy fix. You are absolutely correct in determining that you do not have to be held hostage to paper and pencil activities, lecture format or other teacher controlled activities to help the students learn. Here is my suggestion. Get rid of the desks. No... just kidding! Well, mostly kidding. My real answer is to remind you that it has been many years since student desks have been bolted to the floor (unless you have auditorium seating). Being a math teacher, you should realize that the traditional row by row, lecture style classroom set up, wastes a lot of usable space. For example, if you simply put all the desks in a circle around the room, facing inward, you will find that they most likely fit and you will have the whole center of the room for activities. Similarly, if you organize the desks in groups of four, forming a table, you can recoup a lot of space too, at the same time allowing for student interactions. Vary the geometry of your student desks to match the learning activity. Debates and competitions divide the room in two parts. Presentations require half circles. Investigations need small groups and mathematical relays require you to stack the desks in the corner.

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