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Let's Teach about Body Language

September 30, 2022

There's more to communicating than using words...

Writers and speakers often communicate by leaving some things left unsaid. Readers learn a lot by reading between the lines. Similarly, when listening we make inferences by analyzing the tone and emotion in a person's voice. 

And then there's body language.

Body language can mean different things in different situations. Though some gestures are more or less universal (e.g., a smile or frown meaning happy and sad), some gestures also have cultural or even generational differences. A multicultural English language class is an ideal place for sharing what gestures and body language mean in different cultures and regions around the world.

Discuss these and other examples with the students in your class. Then try some of the suggested activities with the Silent Clips from Ellii's Media Gallery.

Common body language examples and their meaning

Facial expressions

  • eyes suddenly closed tight = I don't want to see that
  • eyes and mouth wide open = I'm so surprised
  • rolling eyes = I'm annoyed by you
  • teeth clenched and head shaking quickly = Brr, it's cold
  • looking away and shaking one's head = I don't want to know any more
  • wrinkled brow = I'm confused

Hand gestures

  • thumbs up = Sounds good / Yes
  • fist bump = Nice to see you / We did it
  • high-five = Congratulations
  • palm held out = Nice to meet you
  • palm cupped = Please give me some money
  • fingers crossed =  Wish me luck

Other body language

  • shoulder shrug = I don't know
  • arms crossed = I'm not pleased
  • foot tapping = I need to move / Hurry up
  • hand to forehead (facepalm) = Oops, I messed up

5 body language activities to try with your students

The video clips in Ellii's Body Language category are silent. Each video includes a word and an expression (e.g., interested / Not bad). Here are five ways to use this category: 

1. Review the vocabulary and expressions

Teach the vocabulary from the video title and ask students to make a sentence describing what they see.

Video not playing? Your school might be blocking Vimeo, our video hosting platform. Please ask your administrator to whitelist vimeo.com.


He is interested in someone on his dating app.

Now ask students to pretend they are the person in the video. Repeat the expression from the video's subtitle (e.g., Not bad).

Work on the correct intonation and body language to express this emotion or meaning.

2. Practice making predictions and inferences

Have students guess what happened or what will happen next.

Who is she pleading to?

Video not playing? Your school might be blocking Vimeo, our video hosting platform. Please ask your administrator to whitelist vimeo.com.

She is begging her parents to use the car.

Discuss some related questions: What happened? What might happen next? Has this ever happened to you? You can even vote on whose prediction is most probable.

Encourage your students to think of at least three open-ended questions that go with the video. They can then work with a partner to answer the questions.

3. Extend the language

Though body language can say a lot on its own, we often add language to our gestures. You'll notice that in some of the videos, the people mouth something that you can't hear. What do your students think is being said? 

Is "irritated" the best word to describe this silent clip? What do you think he's saying?

Video not playing? Your school might be blocking Vimeo, our video hosting platform. Please ask your administrator to whitelist vimeo.com.

You didn't pick up after your dog. I was watching out the window. How would you like it if I brought my dog to your front lawn?

Can your students think of another word or a better expression that goes with this emotion or gesture? (E.g., He is really upset.)

4. Role-play

After watching some of the videos, invite students to go on camera or go to the front of the room and act out one of the gestures. (You may need two students in some cases.) The other students or you, the teacher, can shout out the word or expression. Your online students who never turn their cameras on may even want to participate.


Student A: [Walks up to the front of the room to act out some body language from the category. Crosses her fingers and holds them up near closed eyes.]
Student B: [Shouts] thrilled / We did this!
Student A: [Shakes head no.]
Student C: [Shouts] hopeful / Please let this work out!
Student A: Yes!
Student C: [Chooses a new body gesture/expression to act out.]

5. Observe and suggest new additions

As you and your students start to think about body language, you will naturally begin to notice it more often. You'll see people slumping in their seats, staring out the window, and fidgeting.

Start a list of body language on chart paper or the board and add to it every time you notice a new example.

Get your students to think of one word to describe the emotion or meaning and give them one expression that goes with it. 

For the expression, think of something a person would say out loud (e.g., [looking at the clock or a watch] Can we go now?) or something a person might only say in their head (e.g., This is so boring!). This activity will encourage your students to start thinking in English.

You can use the comments to share some ideas with Ellii for other Silent Clips (body language/gestures) to add to this video category.

Now it's your turn!

Use the comments to share an example of a gesture that's not mentioned in this list. Describe the body language and provide a word and expression for it in English. Can you or your students think of any gestures that are unique to a certain culture, age group, or region?

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Comments (7)

Alesia M.(Teacher)

This is really helpful! I didn't know you had silent videos on body language and gestures. I like that you have put the information all together! Thank you so much!

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

Thanks for your comment, Alesia. Silent Clips is a new category in our Media Gallery. We get a lot of requests for photos/flashcards and videos featuring real people (especially for low literacy learners), so we're adding some new content to fill this need. Please keep in touch and let us know what you think of this new content. Thanks!

Deborah F.(Teacher)

Is there any way to use the Silent Clips without showing the titles/descriptions that ELLII added? I would like to use the clips to ELICIT vocabulary related to body language from students, but I can't figure out how to get rid of the "answers" that appear directly below the videos. Thank you.

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

Hi, Deborah! Thanks for your question! We'll have to think about this. We might be able to create a digital resource with a slideshow option like this. I bet other teachers would also like to use these this way. We'll discuss at our next publishing meeting!

Kani K.(Member)

I have a 15 minute presentation about body language in teaching , can you give me plan or some idea about it ?

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

Hi Kani,
I'm not exactly sure what you mean. Are you doing a presentation for teachers about body language they should or shouldn't use when teaching English? Or will you be talking about how body language means different things in different cultures? That might be a good place to start. You could use our mini-videos as a little warm-up maybe.

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