When Clear Instruction And Visual Aids Are Not Enough

Why Gesturing is Far More Important Than You Ever Thought

Technology is moving quickly into every child’s education. The computers are filled with text and pictures, cartoons and drawings. Yet, in spite of all the amazing things that technology can do, some kids still don’t “get it.” What are some possible missing ingredients?

The more you know about learning the better. Here’s one item to consider: the nonverbals by the instructor are often missing from the menu in many kinds of technology. Gestures reveal unspoken messages and can reflect additional knowledge in both child and adult learners.

For example…

Years ago, UCLA pioneer Albert Mehrabian did landmark studies on nonverbal communication. He was the first to put numbers to the research, showing that the majority of ALL interpersonal communication is from nonverbal messages (1967). He described the tonality, facial expressions and a host of other nonverbal avenues that influence the message.

Just a subset of all possible nonverbals, gestures have been recently studied in the role of classroom learning. Gestures can also play a role in changing how the child or the adult REPRESENTS thoughts, either directly or indirectly.

Because gesturing reflects thoughts, it’s also an early marker of a change in thinking or emotional state. In this way, it can be used as a DIAGNOSTIC tool, since many problems will show us as improper, or missing, gestures. When students cannot gesture a thought, they may be having trouble conceptualizing it, too. In fact, gesturing (or its lack) may be the first sign of future developmental difficulty. And because gesturing can change thought, it may prove to be useful in the home, the classroom, and the clinic as a way to alter the pace, and perhaps the course, of learning and development.


Children frequently gesture when they explain what they know, and their gestures sometimes convey different information than their speech does. This suggests that gesturing is indeed a vehicle through which children express their understanding. The knowledge children express uniquely in the form of gestures is accessible on other tasks, and in this sense, is not tied to the hands.

Gesturing might encourage children to extract meaning implicit in their hand movements. If so, children should be sensitive to the particular movements they produce and learn accordingly. Recently, investigators manipulated student gesturing during a math lesson. Children required to produce correct gestures LEARNED MORE than children required to produce only partially correct gestures, or NONE AT ALL. Hence, research findings suggest that a child’s body movements are involved not only in processing old ideas, but also in creating new ones.

Why do gestures work? One theory is that gesturing actually lightens cognitive load while a person is thinking of what to say. There is scientific support for this theory (see all of the references below). Another possible reason (my own theory) is that it makes the brain work harder to CHANGE THE REPRESENTATION from an abstract idea to a CONCRETE thought, hence, they learn better.

Telling children to gesture encourages them to convey previously unexpressed, implicit ideas; which, in turn, makes them receptive to instruction that leads to learning. Previous studies have shown that gesturing improves learning. In summary, researchers found that children told to move their hands in a fully correct rendition of a particular problem-solving strategy (grouping) during a math lesson solved dramatically more math problems correctly. More in “Applications” below.

Want better math scores? Lean in and let’s “flesh out” what we learned from the studies above.

What exactly happened in the math studies listed above? Children in the no-gesture condition were shown a new problem without an answer, 6 + 3 + 4 = __ +4, and taught to say the words, “I want to make one side equal to the other side”, which is a correct equivalence problem-solving strategy that children who succeed on problems of this type often produce. They were then asked to solve the problem without any gestures.

Children who were instructed in using the gesture condition were shown the same problem, 6 + 3 + 4 = __ + 4, and were taught the exact same words (as those above) PLUS the following gestures:

The children were told to point with a V-shape (using two fingers of the left hand, for the two digits) to “6 + 3,” and then, to point with the right index finger (just one digit) to the blank. Undoubtedly, you realize instantly, that if these two numbers are grouped together and summed, they generate the magic solution number that belongs in the blank. Previous research suggests that successful problem solvers often use this strategy mentally as their “grouping strategy.”

Now you see that the students were NOT doing SIGN LANGUAGE, which other studies DO SUGGEST can help out the learning also. They were just identifying and isolating the groups and maybe even the process needed.

I think that kids who add MORE gesturing, have to keep forcing the CONCEPT through a processing stage in the brain, which informs, clarifies and represents the knowledge on a much deeper level.

It turns out that there is a whole slew of evidence that shows that body-based learning, action-based or total physical response is very brain-friendly instruction. Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

Scientific Learning Corporation invites you to a Professional Development webinar with special guest, Eric Jensen.

He will be discussing the “7 Discoveries From Brain Research That Could Revolutionize Education” and how these discoveries have “real world implication” for all educators. Join the session to learn how you can apply this research to succeed with your students in the classroom. This webinar will take place on Tuesday, September 28th at 10am Pacific/1pm Eastern time.

Please click HERE to register ASAP as space is limited.

Broaders SC, Cook SW, Mitchell Z, Goldin-Meadow S. Making children gesture brings out implicit knowledge and leads to learning. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2007 Nov;136(4):539-50.
Garber P, Alibali MW, Goldin-Meadow S. Knowledge conveyed in gesture is not tied to the hands. Child Dev. 1998 Feb;69(1):75-84.Goldin-Meadow S. How gesture promotes learning throughout childhood. Child Dev. Perspect. 2009 Aug 1;3(2):106-111.Goldin-Meadow S, Cook SW, Mitchell ZA. Gesturing gives children new ideas about math. Psychol Sci. 2009 Mar;20(3):267-72.
Goldin-Meadow S, Nusbaum H, Kelly SD, Wagner S. Explaining math: gesturing lightens the load. Psychol Sci. 2001 Nov;12(6):516-22.

Creative Commons License photo credit: woodleywonderworks

3 replies
  1. Deborah Roskos
    Deborah Roskos says:

    I appreciate your article. As a Montessorian who has taught first,second and third graders together, it is so true that gesturing helps students learn more easily. It goes right along with the tactile need that children have to make that connection between the concrete and abstract. I think that gesturing is something that we all take for granted when we are teaching and just how we model it to children.

  2. Bill Esman
    Bill Esman says:

    I have been teaching maths, science and chemistry for over 25 years and whilst I do use a significant amount of internet material myself and use it with my students I try to avoid making them spend a lot of time on a computer.
    I am concerned that the interaction students have with the internet is not tactile, tends to become impersonal and there is absolutely no way a software program can interpret or respond to or with gestures related to structured learning. Incorrect learning may be an inferential consequence so the question is, can extensive exposure to the internet actually be counter productive in long term student learning?

  3. Rania Maayeh
    Rania Maayeh says:

    Thanks for sharing this article, I also appreciate it a lot, as a former EFL teacher and now as a school principal. Non verbal communication queus and gestures are very important and helpful, I have found out observing my teachers that those who used a lot of nonverbal grstures in their classrooms were able to attract their students’ attention and thus have a successful lesson.I’d like to note too that when teaching another language gesturing and usig non verbal queus from the students own culture is a great aid.. just like TPR.

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