Applying Elements of Embodied Cognition to ELL Poetry Read-a-Thons

Dec 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: In the Classroom
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Patrick T. Randolph

Patrick T. Randolph


I. Introduction

One of the inspiring aspects of English language teaching is that the pedagogy is in a constant state of evolution in an attempt to make the teaching methods more effective, creative, and useful for all levels of learners. This article will focus on one such method—applying ideas in embodied cognition to reading-and-acting–based poetry read-a-thons for English language learners (ELLs). These particular read-a-thons have helped ELLs acquire vocabulary terms, learn their meanings and usage at deeper levels, and they have helped ELLs personalize the material and interpret the language in a multiplicity of new and exciting ways, including the use of elements based on embodied cognition.

Before I discuss the concept of reading-and-acting–based poetry read-a-thons and go over the procedure to best teach these projects, I’d like to briefly survey the ideas underlying embodied cognition and offer a practical example with the Moved by Reading method.

II. Refreshing Breaks From Tradition—Considering Embodied Cognition

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One could argue that the Western notion of the mind-body duality dates from the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Heraclitus and Pythagorus, for there are passages in their philosophy fragments that show the soul and body as two distinct entities. However, the clearest and most influential arguments for a mind/soul-body duality are found in the Platonic dialogues. Plato’s well-known works, such as the Phaedo and the Symposium, go into great detail about how the human soul and body are distinct from each other.

Centuries later, the influential rationalists, such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Malebranche, kept the Platonic tradition alive and continued to argue for the duality of mind and body. These particular rationalists heavily influenced the next 300 years of Western thought with the belief that the mind works independently of the body. Take, for example, Descartes’s “Sixth Meditation” of his Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he writes, “And, accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it” (1641/1984, p. 54). The now largely debunked yet still often-cited metaphor of the brain being a computer is based on this age-old belief of duality.

Then, as all things change and evolve, a much-needed and insightful shift in various disciplines gradually began to develop, one in which the mind and body were seen as more interactive and mutually influential. Maverick-minded thinkers such as Freud, Piaget, Heidegger, Vygotsky, and Merleau-Ponty began to show that the body and mind—although distinct in terms of physical and nonphysical—worked together and influenced each other in a myriad of ways. They—despite what traditional Western philosophy and psychology argued—are by no means unrelated entities. This new perception of the mind and body mutually influencing each other gradually grew into what is now referred to as embodied cognition.

Embodied cognition is now the new “hot” field of study. Yet despite its popularity and diverse background of contributing disciplines (e.g., applied linguistics, education, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and artificial intelligence), there is no standard or conclusive definition of embodied cognition. However, a working definition that would suffice for our purposes here and one that most in the aforementioned disciplines would agree on is

the reality that (a) the mind and the body are tightly connected and influence each other (McNerney, 2011); and that (b) the body and the physical environment affect the brain and its cognitive processes; and consequently, (c) the brain, mind, and body work together to perceive, act on, and understand the world (Thompson, 2012; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991).

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A common example of embodied cognition is “the outfielder problem” in baseball (Thompson, 2012). Given all the mathematical and physical dynamics involved, it is truly a remarkable feat how the mind is able to work with the body to catch a fly ball—and, in many cases, under very complex circumstances that are due to weather, playing conditions, or crowd noise. But the catches happen countless times in a baseball season and most often successfully!

A language-thought–based example of embodied cognition is the work done by Miles, Karpinska, Lumsden, and Macrae (2010). Their study reported that participants (N=26) who thought about future events leaned their bodies forward, and when the participants considered past events, their bodies leaned backward. The idea here is that the body and mind work together and embody the English idiomatic concepts that the “future” leads us “forward” and the “past” causes us to look “back.”

Kinesthetic learning, then, seems to be a crucial and natural resource for students, and one that we, as educators, ought to tap into for the sake of more effective and enjoyable learning. It is often said that we are visual learners, which is undeniably true; however, more and more research in both linguistics and neuroscience is showing that kinesthetic learning is also a basic and potent resource for acquiring skills and concepts in our everyday worlds (Barsalou, 2008; Glenberg & Gallese, 2011; Iacoboni, 2009).

A logical step in the evolution of creative pedagogy relating to both embodied cognition and kinesthetic learning is Moved by Reading, a physical and mental simulation technique that helps young readers act out content while reading stories (Glenberg, 2011a).

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In his article “How Reading Comprehension Is Embodied and Why That Matters,” Glenberg (2011a) explains that Moved by Reading consists of two parts: the “physical manipulation (PM)” stage (p. 9) and the “imagined manipulation (IM)” stage (p. 11). In the PM stage, children act out the content of the sentences or stories with toys that represent the characters or objects in the stories. That is, they physically simulate the reading material. In the second stage, or the IM, the children do the same, but this time they only imagine the characters or objects acting out the scenes. In short, both their minds/brains and bodies simulate the scenes from the reading material.

The inevitable question arises: Does this method help in reading comprehension and memory? The answer is “[y]es, and often dramatically” (Glenberg, 2011a, p. 12). In an earlier study, Glenberg, Gutierrez, Levin, Japuntich, and Kaschak (2004) had one group of first and second graders use the PM method while reading, and another group simply read and did not use the method. The results were impressive; the students who used the embodied cognition technique were able to recall 62% of the action sentences. The students who did not use the technique recalled only 29% (Glenberg et al., 2004 as cited in Glenberg, 2011a).

Glenberg has also noted that using Moved by Reading in small groups of three was equally effective. Here, one child would read a sentence and participate in the PM method, and then the next child in the group would read the next sentence and act out the scenes. Glenberg (2011b) suggests that this is effective because the members of the group are tapping into each other’s highly developed mirror neuron systems. That is, when mirror neurons are activated, the act of watching someone perform an activity is just as potent as doing the actual activity. So, for these children, watching each other perform the PM was as meaningful as performing it themselves. (For more on mirror neurons in the ELL classroom, please see “Harnessing an Awareness of Mirror Neurons for English Language Teachers,” CATESOL News, 48[2], 2016.)

The above studies were done on children, but do embodied cognition activities yield the same results for adults? We need look no further than the local actors’ guild to answer that question. Actors perform words. That is, they embody words via voice interpretation, facial expressions, gestures, and particular movements. This helps them perform the written word and learn their lines. “For adults, this process of enactment imbues abstract words with concrete meaning, fixing them more firmly in our minds” (Murphy Paul, 2014, para. 1).

Let us now move to my application of embodied cognition in reading-and-acting–based poetry read-a-thons. I will first review the definition of the Ruppert Randolph and Ramm read-a-thon and then explain how I implement it in my university-level Intensive English Program (IEP) classes and my university credit classes that focus on academic writing and integrated skills for nonnative speakers of English.

III. Reading-and-Acting–Based Poetry Read-a-Thons

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In our article “ELL Read-a-Thons: Feeling the Language and Performing the Written Word,” my colleagues, Ruppert and Ramm, and I defined our own version of a read-a-thon as

A class-generated event whereby intensive and lengthy reading sessions are done primarily to inspire a fresh perspective and enjoyable experience with the written word; and, whereby teachers elicit the pleasure and excitement of reading by making the written word come to life through teaching the craft of reading aloud for a group performance and/or by teaching the craft of reading aloud for the purpose of simultaneously acting out character roles or scenes from various literary genres (e.g., fables, poetry, or short stories). (2015, para. 8)

The idea, then, of our version of a read-a-thon is highly interactive, one in which students are using their voices and bodies to interpret literary genres. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the poetry read-a-thons in which students learn to simultaneously read and act out the verse. Before moving to the procedure, I’d like to offer a word or two about what kinds of poems to use for these read-a-thons. From my own experience, and from what my colleagues, Ruppert and Ramm, have suggested, it’s best to use narrative poems with two to three characters. Students can focus more easily on their interpretation and act out the characters of the poems if they follow a realistic and narrative style. Shorter poems are also recommended. However, I recently had students read and act out longer poems in an advanced university integrated-skills class, and they did an impressive job.

The Poetry Read-a-Thon Procedure*

DAY 1: Discussing Read-a-Thons and the Necessary Read-a-Thon Tools

The first lesson serves as an introduction to the project. To help prepare for this, I recommend asking the students to go online and find various definitions or examples of read-a-thons. This will help frame the project in their minds. Some possible resources are the Macmillan Dictionary, Wordnik, and Urban Dictionary. Then, I have them compare those definitions with the Ruppert Randolph and Ramm read-a-thon described above. You can spend the first part of Day 1 discussing what read-a-thons are and why they are helpful for ELLs.

Next, ask the students what tools they think will be necessary to perform read-a-thons. Most likely, they will offer answers that include clear pronunciation, a strong voice, and the need for gestures. So they will have a general framework in their minds.

My read-a-thon colleagues and I offered a list of four essential tools in our earlier article on read-a-thons (Randolph, Ruppert, & Ramm, 2015). These include:

  1. Use of voice;
  2. The art of stretching and shortening words;
  3. Lexical item understanding; and
  4. Use of gestures and facial expressions.

It is best to go over these as a general introduction, as it will prepare the students for what they will be using as read-a-thon “tools” in the days to come. In short, the focus of Day 1 is to introduce what read-a-thons are and to survey the tools necessary to perform them.

DAY 2: Applying the Tools With an Example Poem

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The amount of time that you spend on practicing the read-a-thon tools will depend on your class’s level of language proficiency, the personality of your class, and the amount of time your schedule allows to practice. Typically, one full class period should be sufficient, as the students will continue to use and develop these tools while they practice for the read-a-thon performance.

The most effective way to introduce how to use the tools is for the lecturer to select a poem, hand out a copy of it to the students, and then model the tools in front of the class. While the lecturer models each of the tools, the students’ mirror neuron systems will react and help students understand the tools on a very real and helpful level (Randolph, 2016). It should be noted that the poem, which is modeled, ought to be relatively short so that the instructor can quickly demonstrate all four of the necessary tools.

Once the instructor’s demonstration is done, create groups of three and ask the students to read the same poem and practice it in the same way as the instructor did; that is, by applying each tool to the poem. While the students are practicing the poem and implementing the tools, instructors should monitor each group as closely as possible while simultaneously allowing for freedom of creativity and expression. As homework, instructors can assign a selection of four to five poems and have students practice these in preparation for Day 3.

DAY 3: Poetry Read-a-Thon Practice

On Day 3, you can either keep the same groups as in the previous lesson, or you can have students make new ones. The chances are that students will feel comfortable staying in the same groups unless there are personality conflicts. Moreover, keeping the same groups will save valuable time.

Day 3’s lesson will involve a great deal of exciting student-to-student negotiation as they decide among themselves how to interpret the poems for both the reading and acting performances. Once the students are in their groups, I have them silently read one of the poems from the selection. Next, they will decide who will first read the poem aloud and who will act out the characters or scenes from the poem. At this point, they will also decide the order of rotation.

These particular poetry read-a-thons are set up so that while one student (A) reads aloud and demonstrates the reading interpretation of the poem, the other two (B) and (C) act out the characters or scenes from the poem. Then they rotate, so while B reads, A and C perform their parts. Finally, C reads and A and B perform their acting interpretation of the poem.

I usually have the students practice as many poems as they can and then select the one that they want to perform in front of the class. If two groups select the same poem, I either advise them to work on a different one, or I allow them to perform the same one. There is no harm in having two different groups interpret the same poem. I’ve found that different groups will come up with very different reading and acting interpretations of a single poem.

DAY 4: The Read-a-Thon Performance Day

The project culminates with group presentations that showcase each group’s reading and acting interpretations of the poetry. During the performance, I encourage the students to use music and other props that relate to the poems, but the focus should center on the students’ use of voice and body expression. Students are also encouraged to make their read-a-thons as interactive as possible, so they can include the audience in their performances. For example, one of my read-a-thon groups recently performed a poem about a homeless man selling newspapers. The reader emphasized the words “selling newspapers,” and one of the actors raised his eyebrows and looked at the audience. He smiled and whispered, “They’re only a dollar!” The added line of “They’re only a dollar!” was powerful and two members of the audience actually responded by raising their hands and pretending to hold out money.

DAY 5: Post-Performance Discussion and Reflection

I conclude the project by having the students discuss and reflect on the read-a-thon. After the performances on Day 4, I hand out a list of questions for the students to think about as homework. We then discuss these on Day 5. Instructors may want to have their students write a reflection of the read-a-thon. I often do this and receive very carefully thought-out and insightful responses. Below is a sample of some of the reflection questions I ask.

  1. What was most memorable about the poetry read-a-thon?
  2. What language skills do you think you developed during the project?
  3. What was the strongest point in your reading performance?
  4. What was the strongest point in your acting performance?
  5. Do you view the skill of reading differently after completing the project? If so, how? Why? Explain.
  6. Do you view English words any differently after completing the project? If so, how? Why? Explain.


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Concluding Remarks

During our postperformance discussions, the one aspect that most, if not all, students agree on is that the read-a-thons help them truly “feel” the words of the language in a very personal and visceral manner. They go on to comment that involving the body while learning how to read and act out the poems is a strong long-term memory enhancer. Many students claim that it is impossible to forget the words and phrases, and in some cases, the complete poems, when they learn while practicing and performing the read-a-thons. Like Glenberg’s participants in his Moved by Reading projects, my own students’ learning processes are grounded in a very physical and personal experience. Not only are they learning how to interpret language in a spoken and physical way, but they are also learning how to connect with it on a very concrete level and make it, via their application of embodied cognition, a real living system within their unique physical and emotional identities.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to

Patrick T. Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” for his presentation on vocabulary pedagogy in 2015. He teaches in PIESL at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He has created a number of brain-based learning activities for the language skills that he teaches, and he continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. Randolph has also been involved as a volunteer with brain-imaging experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and Joseph Ruppert are now working on a creative writing book for TESOL Press’s New Ways Series. The tentative title is New Ways in Teaching Creative Writing for the ELL Community. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, NE.


*This procedure is based on the one discussed in Randolph, Ruppert, and Ramm’s (2015) article on ELL read-a-thons, “ELL Read-a-Thons: Feeling the Language and Performing the Written Word,” CATESOL News, 47(2).


Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617-645.

Descartes, R. (1984). The philosophical writings of Descartes (Vol. II), (J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, & D. Murdoch, Trans.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1641)

Glenberg, A. M. (2011a). How reading comprehension is embodied and why that matters. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(1), 5-18.

Glenberg, A. M. (2011b). Introduction to the mirror neuron forum. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(4), 363-368.

Glenberg, A. M., & Gallese, V. (2011). Action-based language: A theory of language acquisition, comprehension, and production. Cortex. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2011.04.010

Glenberg, A. M., Gutierrez, T., Levin, J. R., Japuntich, S., & Kaschak, M. P. (2004). Activity and imagined activity can enhance young children’s reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(3), 424-436.

Iacoboni, M. (2009). Mirroring people: The science of empathy and how we connect with others. New York, NY: Picador.

McNerney, S. (2011, November 4). A brief guide to embodied cognition: Why you are not your brain. Scientific American. Retrieved from

Miles, L. K., Karpinska, K., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C. N. (2010). The meandering mind: Vection and mental time travel. PlusOne, 5(5).

Murphy Paul, A. (2014, April 21). Why kids should be allowed to act out (scenes) in class. KQED News Mind/Shift. Retrieved from

Randolph, P. T. (2016). Harnessing an awareness of mirror neurons for English language teachers. CATESOL News, 48(2).

Randolph, P. T., Ruppert, J. I., & Ramm, L. (2015). ELL read-a-thons: Feeling the language and performing the written word. CATESOL News, 47(2).

Thompson, J. (2012, February 20). Embodied cognition: What it is and why it’s important. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


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