The science of gestures
Why it’s good for kids and teachers to talk with their hands
© 2008-2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Most people talk with their hands. In fact, gestures seem to arise
unconsciously when we speak. Kids who are blind from birth use gestures
when they talk, even when speaking to other sightless people (Iverson
and Goldin-Meadow 1998).
And yet some people are anti-gesture. Why?
Ape studies suggest that our ancestors used their hands to
communicate long before the evolution of speech (deWaal and Pollick
Do people therefore think that gesturing is “too primitive?”
I don’t know. But as a diehard gesturer, I find the attitude annoying.
Cognitive psychologists like Susan Goldin-Meadow investigate the
role that gesture plays in memory, learning, problem solving, and
communication. Check out these discoveries made by Goldin-Meadow and her
So I looked into the cognitive science of gesture.
And--guess what--researchers have found that kids who use their hands when they talk learn better than kids who don’t.
They've even demonstrated that the mere observation of a teacher using meaningful gestures helps kids learn. Hah!
Gestures “free up” working memory
is a bit like the RAM of a computer. It’s the ability to remember
information over a very brief interval (a few seconds), and it’s what
permits us to keep our mind on a task.
Our ability to learn is constrained by the limits of working
memory (Brunken et al 2002). Working memory is also linked with
intelligence. So anything that reduces the “cognitive load” on your
working memory may help you think and learn more efficiently.
Surprisingly, gestures might do that for us.
In one experiment, Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues gave
both kids and adults a memory-straining task. Subjects were asked to
remember a list of items while they explained how they had solved a math
problem (Goldin-Meadow et al 2001).
In both age groups, people remembered more items from the list if they gestured during their math explanations.
The researchers concluded that expressing concepts with speech and gesture uses less working memory than expressing the same concepts with speech alone.
In other words, using your hands to talk is a strategy that minimizes cognitive load, freeing up memory for other tasks.
Gestures help kids recall the details of past events
Here’s another fascinating experiment: Researchers Elizabeth
Stevanoni and Karen Salmon presented 6- and 7-year olds with an
interesting experience (visiting a “pirate”) and then asked kids to
recall the event 2 weeks later.
Some kids were instructed to use gestures when they recounted the event. Other kids were prevented from gesturing.
Guess who recalled the most information?
The kids who used gestures recalled more details about the event. (Stevanoni and Salmon 2005).
Gestures help kids retain what they’ve learned in school
Cognitive scientist Susan Cook and her colleagues performed an
experiment on gestures used during a mathematics lesson (Cook et al
American kids in the third and fourth grades were given math problems of this type:
4 + 3 = ___ + 6
The idea was to find the number that would make both sides of the equation equal.
None of the kids were able to solve these problems on their own.
Then an instructor helped them. Instruction took one of three forms:
• In the SPEECH condition, the instructor told the kids “I want
to make one side equal the other side” and she asked the kids to repeat
the phrase themselves.
• In the GESTURE condition, the instructor moved her left hand
under the left side of the equation, then moved her right hand under the
right side of the equation. The instructor asked the kids to repeat
these hand movements themselves.
• In the GESTURE + SPEECH condition, the instructor combined both
elements. Kids were asked to repeat the instructor’s words and actions.
After each child was trained in just one of these methods, he was
given a new problem. The instructor told him to solve the problem using
the method he’d practiced.
Kids in all three groups—SPEECH, GESTURE, and GESTURE + SPEECH—improved their performance.
But something interesting emerged when the kids were re-tested four weeks later:
Kids who had improved using gestures—either alone or paired
with speech—were more likely to maintain their improvement four weeks
In other words, kids who had learned with gestures did a better job remembering the correct strategy.
Skeptics might wonder: Did the non-gesturing kids do worse
because the experiment made them self-conscious about their natural
attempts to gesture? Maybe gesturing doesn’t put you at an advantage.
Maybe it’s the unnatural suppression of gesture that puts you at a disadvantage.
It’s a reasonable objection. But there is other evidence
supporting the idea that gestures are actively helpful. Studies show
that kids who spontaneously gesture more (i.e., without being prompted
by an instructor) are also more likely to retain what they’ve learned
(Alibali and Goldin-Meadow 1993; Cook and Goldin-Meadow 2006).
Gestures help students solve mental rotation tasks
Maybe the most intuitive benefit of gesturing is mental visualization.
When people are encouraged to use their hands, they seem better
able to solve problems that require them to imagine rotating an object
For instance, in a study of 5-year-olds, the kids with the best
mental rotation skills were also the kids who spontaneously used their
hands during problem-solving (Ehrlich et al 2006).
And experimental evidence suggests that gesturing isn't just linked with better performance. It enables better performance.
Researchers Mingyuan Chu and Sotaro Kita gave 132 students a set
of visual rotation tasks to solve--the sorts of problems that ask you to
rotate an object in your "mind's eye."
In a randomized experiment, one-third of the students were instructed to use their hands as they attempted the problems.
Another third were prevented from using their hands.
The rest of the students weren't given any special instructions.
When tested under these conditions, the students instructed to gesture performed the best (Chu and Kita 2011).
And the experience of gesturing seems to have had a lasting
effect. When the students were all tested again, researchers tried a new
tactic. They didn't permit anyone to use his hands.
The results? The students who'd been assigned to the gesturing
condition in the prior test continued to outperform everyone else.
Maybe, say Chu and Kita, these former gesturers were now gesturing in their minds.
Merely watching gestures can help kids learn
The experiments we've discussed so far asked kids to make gestures.
What about observing gestures? Do children learn more from adults who
talk with their hands? In a carefully controlled experiment, Susan Cook
and her colleagues performed a new variant of the mathematics experiment
above, this time asking kids to merely watch the adult instructor (Cook
et al 2013).
In immediate post-testing, kids who received instruction with
gestures and speech outperformed kids who received only verbal
instruction. And the achievement gap widened when kids were tested 24
hours later, suggesting that watching gestures helped kids encode the
lesson in long-term memory. Interestingly, kids in the GESTURE + SPEECH
group also showed evidence of transfer -- of being able to apply their
emerging knowledge in new contexts. To read the details, see my blog
And what about learning words?
Do gestures help kids learn new words? There is evidence supporting this idea.
For instance, experimental studies suggest that babies develop
larger vocabularies when their parents supplement their speech with
gestures (Acredolo and Goodwyn 1988; Goodwyn et al 2000).
Does this mean that gesturing causes bigger verbal vocabularies?
Not necessarily. In fact, it’s possible that having a rich
symbolic vocabulary reduces a child’s motivation to learn new words.
Compared with American kids, Italian kids use more symbolic gestures and
have somewhat smaller spoken vocabularies (Iverson et al in press).
But given the evidence that gesturing aids learning and memory,
I’m inclined to think that gestures might indeed help babies learn new
For instance, if gestures reduce cognitive load, it seems plausible that learning a new word in conjunction with an accompanying gesture might be easier than learning a new word without gestures.
Gestures might aid learning in other ways, too.
As noted by Jana Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow, babies who
gesture a lot might get more timely information from their parents. For
instance, a baby who points at dog may prompt her father to say “Yes,
that’s a dog.” As a result, she hears the word “dog” when she is
attentive and interested—a good time to learn (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow
And other research has shown how gestures can help kids infer the meanings of verbs.
In an English-language study, Whitney Goodrich and Carla Kam invented four words--sib, blip, gern, and flim, and then created a series of puppet shows.
Each puppet show illustrated a different action. For example, one
show featured a stick toy pulling a puppet along a winding path.
Another featured the puppet getting spun around on a turntable.
The researchers presented these puppet shows to young children, and asked questions like this one:
“Sam (the puppet) really likes to blip. Can you tell me which toy lets Sam go blipping?”
Of course, kids had never heard of “blipping” before, but they
could guess. And their guesses depended on what sorts of gestures the
For example, kids were more likely to choose the stick toy if the
experimenter had posed her question while tracing her index finger
along an imaginary, winding path.
More information about gestures
As note above, there is some evidence that babies learn more words when their parents communicate with gestures.
You can read more about this phenomenon--and the possible benefits of teaching babies gestures--by clicking this link.
References: The science of gestures
Alabali MW and Goldin-Meadow S.1993. Gesture speech mismatch and
mechanisms of learning: What the hands reveal about a child’s state of
mind. Cognitive Psychology 25(4): 468-523.
Alibali MW, Kita S, and Young AJ. 2000. Gesture and the process
of speech production: We think, therefore we gesture. Language and
cognitive processes 15(6): 593-613.
Acredolo, LP and Goodwyn SW. 1988. Symbolic gesturing in normal infants. Child Development 59: 450-466.
Bruncken R Steinbacher S, Plass JL, and Leutner D. 2002.
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methodology. Experimental Psychology 49(2): 109-119.
Chu M and Kita S. 2011.The Nature of Gestures’ Beneficial Role in
Spatial Problem Solving. Journal of experimental psychology: General
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of Learning After Observing Hand Gesture. Child Development. In press.
Cook SW and Goldin-Meadow S. 2006. The role of gesture in
learning: Do children use their hands to change their minds? Journal of
Cognition and Development 7(2): 211-232.
Cook SW, Mitchell Z, and Goldin-Meadow S. 2008. Gesture makes learning last. Cognition 106:1047 - 1058.
deWaal FBM and Pollick AS. 2006. Ape gestures and language evolution. PNAS 104(19): 8184-8189.
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Iverson, J.M., Capirci, O., Volterra, V., & Goldin-Meadow, S.
(in press). Learning to talk in a gesture-rich world: Early
communication of Italian vs. American children. First Language.
Iverson JM and Goldin-Meadow S. 1998. Why people gesture when they speak. Nature 396(6708): 228.
Iverson JM and Goldin-Meadow S. 2005. Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological Science 16(5): 367-371.
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Content last modified 4/13