Mime and Mastering English

“Ointment? Ointment? What in the world does ointment mean?”

It’s 8:30 in the morning, and my students and I are working our way through a section of the TOEIC test, trying to understand some of the questions they got wrong. From time to time we will come across a word which my students have never seen—I let them know if each new word might be useful to know for the TOEIC or if it’s just a word they may never see again.

Then we come to ‘ointment’.

Now this is a word with limited usefulness—unless you work in a pharmacy or have a rash, in which case it can be incredibly useful! But odds are my students will not really need this word—there are other words which are more common and which they could use instead.

But it’s 8:30 a.m., I had forgotten to each breakfast, and I can be a little loopy from just drinking a half a liter of coffee.

I write the word ‘ointment’ on the board, and then stand next to it, a smile growing on my face.

This is ‘ointment’”.

I look down at my arm, then begin to scratch it heavily, moaning and wincing in pain. At this point, my TOEIC students are looking at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

Reaching out into the empty air next to me I grab an invisible bottle and hold it over the arm I was scratching. I squeeze the imaginary bottle and make a ‘squishing’ noise; it sounds like shampoo coming out of a plastic bottle. I then begin to rub my arm and make soothing, contented noises and close my eyes in relief.

Opening my eyes, I look at my students. They are smiling, almost laughing.
“Now,” I say, “who can tell me what ‘ointment’ means?”

What did I use to help teach this word to my students?

  1. Sound
  2.  Movement
  3. Emotion
  4. Humor

All of these things will help my students remember ‘ointment’ for a long, long time…

Three days later, I write the word ‘ointment’ on the board. “What does this word mean?” I ask. All my students are smiling, and I quickly get the definition.

A week after I first taught them ointment, I just pretend to squeeze the bottle over my arm and make the ‘squishing’ noise—everyone in class calls out, “Ointment!”

Over the years, this process has helped my students remember new words and difficult pronunciations. It sometimes doesn’t matter if the physical action is much connected to the definition of the word; merely connecting an action to a word in their mind is enough to help them recall that word–after reviewing the word here and there over a few weeks, it stays in their mind forever!

Thank you, Marcel Marceau, for helping my students learn English!

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