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 2006).

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 colleagues.

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

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 2006).

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 later.

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 in space.

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 post here.

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 words.

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 2005).

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 experiments used.

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.



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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. Assessment of cognitive load in multimedia learning using dual-task 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 140(1): 102-116.

Cook SW, Duffy RG and Fenn KM. 2013. Consolidation and Transfer 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.

Ehrlich SB, Levine S, and Goldin-Meadow SA. 2006. The importance of gesture in children's spatial reasoning. Developmental Psychology42: 1259 - 1268.

Goldin-Meadow S, Nusbaum H, Kelly SD and Wagner S. 2001. Explaining math: gesturing lightens the load. Psychological Science 12(6):516-522.

Goodrich W and Hudson-Kam CL. 2008. Co-speech gesture as input in verb learning. Developmental Science. Published online 13 August 2008. 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00735.

Goodwyn, S.W., Acredolo, L.P., & Brown, C. 2000. Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior., 24, 81-103.

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.

Rowe ML, Ozcaliskan S, and Goldin-Meadow S. 2008. Learning words by hand: Gesture's role in predicting vocabulary development. First Language 28: 182 - 199.

Stevanoni E and Salmon K. 2005. Giving memory a hand: Instructing children to gesture enhances their event recall. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 29: 217–233.

Straube B, Green A, Weis S, Chatterjee A, and Kircher T. 2009. emory effects of speech and gesture binding: cortical and hippocampal activation in relation to subsequent memory performance. J Cogn Neurosci. 21(4):821-36.

Content last modified 4/13