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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Eight Ways to Use Movement in Teaching & Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 24, 2020 14 min read
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Lots of research shows that sitting in a desk for a full class period can hinder student learning and engagement, and just sitting in front of a computer screen during the school closure crisis isn’t great, either.

In this two-part series, we’ll explore ways to promote student physical movement.

Many are adaptable to distance and hybrid learning, while you might have to wait until after a coronavirus vaccine to use others.

By the way, I’ll be publishing many new posts during August and September specifically about helping us all cope with distance and hybrid learning...

Today, Jenny Vo, Valentina Gonzalez, Cindy Garcia, and Bryan Harris contribute their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jenny and Valentina on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Gestures and motions

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has worked with English-learners during all of her 23 years in education and is currently an ESL ISST in Katy ISD in Katy, Texas:

Students spend seven or more hours in school a day. It is unreasonable to expect them to sit quietly throughout their lessons and classwork. Movement throughout the day helps students to re-energize their bodies and their brains, helping them to focus and concentrate better. Research has shown that movement during the school day benefits academic performance and improves behavior. In the same context, incorporating movement into your lessons keeps the students engaged and excited about learning. Movement in lessons will also help your students to retain the content more.

So what are some ways you can incorporate movement into your lessons? One of my favorite ways to incorporate movement in a lesson is to add a gesture or motion to vocabulary words or important concepts. For example, for the word “weathering,” the motion would be one hand making a chopping motion, representing wind or water chipping away at a rock. For “erosion,” the motion would be one hand moving like a wave, representing the movement of sediments from one place to another. Each time the students say the word, they do the gesture/motion. Having the connection between the word and the accompanying gesture helps students internalize the vocabulary.

Another way to add movement to a lesson is to have students respond to questions in different ways that require them to do something. For example, give a thumbs up or thumbs down to show agreement or disagreement. To show that you are ready to answer, put your hand on your chin, rub your hands together, or stand on one leg. When voting or answering a multiple-choice question, students can move to one of four corners. Not only does this allow the students to have movement, but teachers can easily gauge student participation and give quick assessments.

Who doesn’t like to sing and dance to an upbeat song? Singing requires the movement of mouth and lips. Add a dance to the song and you have the whole body actively engaged, from the brain in your head to the toes on your feet! An ideal situation for learning to be cemented. If you can’t find a song to fit your lesson, write your own!

Some may say that adding movement to lessons takes more time and makes the lesson longer. It’s true. However, you can decide how much movement you want to incorporate. Make sure it is authentic and adds to your lesson. I guarantee that little extra time you use will be returned back to you in the form of active student engagement and improved student success.

Using movement to teach vocabulary

Valentina Gonzalez has served 20+ years in education as a teacher, district facilitator for English-learners, a professional-development specialist for ELs, and as an educational consultant. Valentina delivers professional development and coaches teachers on sheltered instruction strategies. She works with teachers of ELs to support language and literacy instruction. Her work can be found on Seidlitz Education and on MiddleWeb. You can reach her through her website or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

I don’t know about you, but for me, memories of elementary and secondary school consist mostly of teachers at the front of the room imparting their wisdom upon us as we sat passively taking it in. Unfortunately, we did not DO much of the moving or talking. When I became a teacher, I wanted to ensure that my students shared the classroom. That we learned from one another and that they were active participants in their learning journey. What I certainly did not want was disengaged students.

Over the years, I found that when I intentionally planned lessons that weaved in movement and talk, students were cognitively engaged with the learning, and I was able to provide them with ongoing, timely feedback as necessary. For instance, as they worked in groups or discussed with a partner, I listened in and was able to clear up misconceptions rather than waiting until a formal assessment to catch their mistakes. We filled gaps before they formed.

Incorporating movement into lessons can be a game changer. It can:

  • Engage students
  • Increase comprehension and processing
  • Provide formative assessment
  • Decrease unwanted behaviors

So why aren’t more teachers incorporating movement in classrooms? Some common reasons for not implementing movement are:

  • Pressure from the demands of curriculum
  • Fear of chaos
  • Worry that students won’t participate
  • Feeling a lack of control

The Conga Line (Vogt & Echevarria, 2008) has always been a class favorite. It’s a teacher-friendly technique that can be quick or more lengthy and gets kids out of their seats. This is how I implemented it:

  1. Students number off 1, 2.
  2. All 1s stand in a line, and 2s stand face the 1s.
  3. Students use a sentence stem to discuss the question or topic posed. Explicitly assign who will share first (for example, all 1s talk first, then 2s).

Class examples:

  • Which is more important, being right or being kind? Explain .... I think being___is more important because ...
  • What was a leading cause of the American Revolution? One of the leading causes of the American Revolution was ...
  • Explain two ways to solve this problem. One way to solve this problem is ...
  • How did the character change from the beginning of the book to now? In the beginning of the book, the character was ... but now ... for example ...
  1. When the music begins, all 2s move to the right until the music stops. (I encourage dance here! It makes it fun!!) Everyone has a new partner.
  2. Repeat steps 1-4 as many times as you can.

The Conga Line has been successful as a warm-up activity to build background for students as well as a formative assessment toward the middle or end of a unit. It helps students express themselves in a safe, low-stress way while hearing their peers’ ideas, too. Step 3 is probably the most important one of all. Providing students with the sentence stem allows them an entry point into the conversation. It helps some students if we read the stem as a class before we begin the Conga Line. I never require them to use the stem, but it’s there as a scaffold. Sometimes, I give student 1 a different question from student 2. Or I give a mixture of stems, and after a few rounds, they trade with peers. Following a Conga Line, I typically have students do a quick write because they now have many ideas from speaking and listening to their classmates.

Vocabulary can be challenging for all students. Giving students a list of words to define on Monday and a quiz on Friday just didn’t work for me or the students. I found that they weren’t transferring the knowledge. Even students who made a 100 on the vocabulary quiz couldn’t effectively use the words a week later. To help students internalize meanings, we attached movement to the vocabulary words. This is an adaptation or variation of James Asher‘s Total Physical Response. (You can read more about TPR: Learning Through Action here.) It took time, but overall, this technique was worth it because students took ownership and really had to think about the words, process the meaning, and develop a movement that corresponded. Here’s what we did:

  1. Students work in small groups to come up with movements that match each word from a small set of vocabulary words specific to the unit of study.
  2. The words and movements are practiced and reviewed repetitively.
  3. Each group creates a story using the vocabulary words and movements.
  4. Groups present their story to the class.

In the End...

Envision a classroom with a teacher at the front talking as students sit at their desks listening. Some will listen patiently and naturally absorb the words the teacher is saying. Others will strive to comprehend, while many will become bored and begin to find more interesting things to do. Perhaps they will play with their supplies, they might fidget with a toy, distract a neighbor, or even take out a cellphone.

But what if they didn’t have the opportunity to get off task. What if they didn’t get bored because we put them to work. We engaged them in activity. We put their mind and body into the learning. That’s what movement can do in our lessons.

No matter the age or the content area, the benefits of students moving and doing definitely outweigh the disadvantages. Movement in the classroom is essential to the learning process. The Conga Line and attaching a movement to vocabulary are just two easy ways to get kids up and moving while learning. Bottom line is that when we invite students to be part of the learning process and engage them, they become connected and invested in what is happening in the classroom.


Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active on Twitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a great way to incorporate movement during lessons. Teachers and students use their bodies to act out or gesture the meaning of words or concepts.

For example, if the lesson is about the water cycle, then the class would be using their bodies to represent the sun, rain, and evaporation. This helps students associate a word or concept with something they are physically doing. They are putting it in their long-term memory because they will remember swirling their fingers around to form clouds. Another go-to strategy has been parallel lines. Students stand in two lines facing each other, and they share their response to a prompt or question. After they share, one line shifts to the left, and the student left without a partner moves to the head of the line. This is an effective way to get students talking and learning from multiple classmates. A third easy way to implement strategy is posting several tasks around the room and prompting students to rotate and complete each task. The students are up, moving, and energized. The students feel motivated to work as they are moving around the room rather than solving the same problems or completing the same tasks at their desk.

Another way to get students moving during lessons is by having them walk and talk. Students are given a prompt or question to discuss, and they have to walk around the room with a partner sharing their ideas. This is a fun activity for students because they get to spend time with a classmate, and it gives them time to think about what they want to share with the whole class. A disadvantage of these and other movement in the classroom strategies is that it could lead to classroom misbehavior because students are not concentrated in one area of the room and it can be more difficult to monitor behavior. Another disadvantage is that because the students are moving, it can be a challenge to listen in to all of the groups and check for understanding.

“Start small”

As a career-long educator, Bryan Harris has served in a variety of roles from classroom teacher to district-level leader. Now working full time as a trainer, his work focuses on topics ranging from student engagement to teacher resiliency. Find out more at www.bryan-harris.com:

First, the easy part of the question—what are the disadvantages? Cognitively, not many. The brain loves to move, and physical movement has a positive impact on mood, memory, motivation, and engagement. For a taste of some of the research that supports movement and learning, click here, here, or here. Still not convinced? Harvard, Oxford, and other big-time universities around the world are hosting conferences that focus solely on the link between movement and cognition. The evidence is clear: Movement supports learning, and a lack of movement can actually inhibit learnig.

The biggest challenge may be for a teacher who doesn’t have effective procedures in place for managing the movement. Strategies that utilize movement may also be a challenge for educators who are not used to using them. Teachers who prefer silent, sedentary environments may find it difficult to embrace lots of student movement. But that’s OK—if you are not sure how to begin to incorporate movement into your classroom, keep reading

Knowing that there are tremendous advantages (and tons of research) to getting kids out of their seats, where should we start? If you are not accustomed to classroom movement, start small. Start by having your students stand and stretch, lead a quick game of “Simon Says,” or do a Gallery Walk. The idea here is that we are leading and guiding the movement. We are not just letting kids loose and allowing them to run crazy around the classroom. In fact, that image—kids running free and doing whatever they want—is one of the reasons that some teachers are hesitant to allow movement. Effective classroom movement is not chaotic nor is it necessarily unstructured.

Effective classroom movement simply acknowledges that there is a direct connection between physical movement and things like attention, memory, and learning. One of the most effective (and free) ways to improve attitudes, increase retention, and improve student focus is to lead students in simple movement activities. For a free list of five effective movement strategies, click here.

So, start small and use effective strategies to directly lead kids in the movement. That’s a great place to start, and you’ll see positive outcomes for your students.

One more thing. As I train teachers, this question often comes up: “How often should I use movement strategies with my students?” As you can guess, an exact answer to that question is difficult because there are many factors to consider (age of the students, available space for movement, developmental concerns, etc). However, a good guideline is that students should move (or have the freedom to move) about every 30-40 minutes. The main idea here is that long periods of sitting still is not good for learning.

Thanks to Jenny, Valentina, Cindy, and Bryan for their contributions!

(This the first post in a two part series.)

The new question-of-the-week:

How do you incorporate movement in your lessons, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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