The science of gestures: Why "talking" with our hands can help children think and learn

© 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Do you motion with your hands when you talk? Most people do. The movements come naturally to us, and often happen without any conscious planning. We speak, and our hands get into the act.

Undoubtedly, a lot of this behavior is learned.

If you raise a child in Italy, she'll grow up learning different gestures than if you raise her in Japan, Nigeria, or Canada.

She'll also learn different social norms about the desirability of gesturing. By the age of two years, Italian children produce about twice as many communicative gestures as do English-speaking Canadian kids (Marentette et al 2016).

But cultural variation doesn't change the fact that gesturing is a species-normal behavior. Like speech, music, or dance, gesture is part of our biological heritage.

Children who are blind from birth use gestures when they talk, even when speaking to other sightless people (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow 1998).

And fieldwork on the great apes suggests that our ancestors used their hands to communicate long before the evolution of speech (deWaal and Pollick 2006; Byrne et al 2017).

But why do we do it nowadays? Is it mere hand-waving? Is it a useless atavism, an evolutionary leftover that serves no modern purpose?

Research suggest otherwise.

As it turns out, our simple hand movements have a substantial impact on the way we learn, reason, and solve problems.

  • Babies exposed to lots of communicative gestures appear to learn language more quickly, and acquire bigger vocabularies. It's helpful to have a parent who is a good gesturer.
  • Young children also seem to benefit from making gestures. For instance, toddlers who point are more likely to elicit helpful information from adults ("Oh! That's a dog!"), which may explain why these children develop larger vocabularies over time.
  • And from elementary school through college, gesturing has been found to help students learn -- from mastering new mathematical concepts, to acquiring new vocabulary and reasoning about spatial relationships.

With all this evidence, we really should be in the business of encouraging gesture, at least the kind that boosts communication and intellectual performance. Far from being outmoded or redundant, gesture plays an important role in our cognitive development.

Here are the details.

Babies benefit from gesturing

It's clear that gestures can help adults understand the meaning of new words. That's why pantomime is effective, and it's the premise of the classic parlor game, charades.

But do gestures have a substantial effect on language learning in children?

There is good evidence in favor.

1. We know that young children can pick up on gestures

Experiments demonstrate that 2-year-olds pay attention to adult gestures, and use them to figure out what actions adults are asking them to perform (Novack et al 2015).

And deaf infants immersed in a sign language environment develop language skills at rates similar to hearing infants exposed to speech.

So from an early age, children study our gestures, and understand them to be communicative.

2. We know that kids can eventually learn to use gesture to rapidly work out the meaning of a new word.

Whitney Goodrich and Carla Kam confirmed this in an experiment on preschoolers. The researchers invented four verbs, and then presented kids with puppet shows that demonstrated the meaning of these words.

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.

Along with each puppet show, an adult experimenter introduced the word being depicted by slipping it into her conversation, e.g.,

"Sam (the puppet) really likes to blip. Can you tell me which toy lets Sam go blipping?"

Of course, the kids had never heard of "blipping" before, but they could guess. And their guesses depended on what types of gesture the experimenter used while she was talking. If she had traced her finger along an imaginary, winding path, kids were more likely to choose the stick toy (Goodrich and Kam 2008) .

3. Even before children demonstrate this quick thinking, they appear to benefit via slower learning processes.

In an experiment on 18- to 24-month-olds, researchers trained babies to understanding the meaning of the word "under" by asking them to place one item "under" another. Could you put the toy bear under the table?

Some babies got the added help of an explanatory gesture. The adult conspicuously placed one of her hands beneath the other as she spoke.

Other babies weren't exposed to a gesture, but instead were shown a photograph. When the adult asked the babies to perform the task, she also showed them a photo depicting the desired outcome (e.g., the bear sitting under the table).

In tests that immediately followed training, researchers observed no differences between groups. But when researchers tested the babies again, 2-3 days later, the children exposed to gestures outpaced those in the photo group. They showed a stronger, more flexible understanding of the word "under" (McGregor et al 2009).

4. Babies develop larger vocabularies when they communicate with people who gesture.

When researchers have tracked language development, they have found that the infants who make the biggest gains in vocabulary are the ones whose parents gesture a lot (Acredolo and Goodwyn 1988; Goodwyn et al 2000).

Moreover, children appear to learn language faster when they have parents who score higher on objective measures of "referential transparency," the ability to convey the meaning of a word through nonverbal cues. In a study tracking 50 toddlers, researchers found this to be the case even after controlling for a child's initial vocabulary size (Cartmill et al 2012).

5. Babies who use lots of gestures tend to develop more advanced skills.

Does your baby communicate a lot with this hands? If so, he's more likely to utter his first multi-word sentence at an earlier age (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow 2005; Ozçalişkan and Goldin-Meadow 2010; Goldin-Meadow 2014).

Gesturing babies also go on to amass larger vocabularies, which may stem from their ability to engage caregivers in conversation.

As noted above, babies who make frequent use of pointing tend to get more timely linguistic feedback. They see something that interests them -- point at it-- and their caregivers respond by providing the appropriate verbal label (Kovács et al ; Wu and Gros-Louis 2013).

Experiments show that babies learn more quickly when we respond to their pointing in this way (Begus et al 2014; Lucca and Wilbourne 2016).

All of this sounds pretty encouraging -- if you and your baby are die-hard gesturers. But what if you aren't? Can you change your ways?

A recent study offers hope. Researchers paid a series of in-home visits to fifteen babies (ranging between 16 and 20 months of age) over a period of 6 weeks. During each visit, babies sat with an adult experimenter and looked at a couple of picture books (LeBarton et al 2015).

The experimenter talked to the baby about the objects depicted in the books. "Look at the dress. That's a dress." But not every baby experienced exactly the same lesson.

  • Some babies watched as the experimenter pointed to the items she spoke about.
  • Some babies watched the adult point, and were also coaxed to point at, or touch, the named items themselves.
  • Some babies were randomly assigned to a control condition. Nobody pointed; all the information was verbal.

Two weeks after the last session, researchers found that the babies encouraged to gesture were now gesturing more at home.

Did that increase translate into better language learning? That's hard to say, because the time frame of this study was so short, and the sample size so small. Babies who gestured during their lessons did, in fact, show the greatest growth in their vocabulary, but the effect wasn't quite strong enough to reach statistical significance. Perhaps future studies -- larger studies conducted over longer time periods -- will replicate these results.

Meanwhile, parents should feel motivated to engage their babies with meaningful gestures, and to encourage their babies to respond in kind. Smiles, praise, and responsiveness will help reinforce your baby's attempts to communicate.

But what about later on? Do kids continue to benefit from gesture? Yes.

Gesture helps people perform spatial reasoning tasks

If you want to remember a new route, one way to do it is to simply rehearse it through visualization. But merely imagining the route isn't as effective as combining mental imagery with hand movements.

When researchers tested these two forms of rehearsal head-to-head, they found that people encouraged to gesture learned with greater accuracy than did people who were prevented from doing so. In fact, people who gestured remembered new routes with greater accuracy than did people who drew the routes on paper -- perhaps because the task of drawing introduces distractions into the process (So et al 2014).

So it seems that gesture can help us visualize moving ourselves through space. Can it also help us visualize the movement of other objects? 

The ability to mentally rotate an object is a core spatial skill, and there is evidence that gesture can indeed help.

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 an experiment supports the idea that gesturing contributes to better performance.

Mingyuan Chu and Sotaro Kita asked college undergraduates to solve a set of visual rotation tasks, the sort of problems that require us to rotate three-dimensional objects in our "mind's eye."

But first, the researchers randomly assigned each student to one of three experimental conditions.

  • In the first condition, students were instructed to use their hands as they attempted the problems.
  • In the second condition, students were free to use their hands, but they weren't given any special instructions.
  • In the third condition, students were told to sit on their hands. Literally!

These assignments made a big difference in the amount of gesturing students performed. The students encouraged to gesture did so about six times as often as the students in the second group. And of course the students who sat on their hands produced no gestures at all.

But what the researchers really wanted to know was if all that additional gesturing made any difference for spatial problem-solving, and it did. The students who had been actively instructed to gesture made the fewest number of errors (Chut and Kita 2011). 

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). So anything that reduces the "cognitive load" on your working memory -- anything that makes it easier for you to juggle multiple pieces of information at once -- may boost your ability to reason and learn.

And surprisingly, gestures may do that for us.

In one experiment, Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues presented a group of children and adults with a concentration-straining challenge.

First, the researchers briefly presented people with a list of items to remember. Then they asked these people to perform another task on the side: The volunteers had to look over a mathematical problem, and then explain its solution to another person.

During this step, the researchers noted which people made spontaneous use of gestures during their mathematical explanations. Then, at last, the researchers asked participants to spill the beans about that list. How many items could they still remember?

For both children and adults, the outcome was the same. The people who had gestured more during their math explanations went on to recall more items from the list.

The researchers concluded that expressing concepts with speech and gesture uses up less working memory than expressing the same concepts with speech alone (Goldin-Meadow et al 2001).

In other words, using your hands to talk is a strategy that minimizes cognitive load, freeing up memory for other tasks.

Subsequent research has bolstered this conclusion.

Studies suggest that gesturing helps people perform tasks that tap verbal working memory skills, especially if they have low working memory capacities (Gillespie et al 2014).

Gesturing is also linked with better performance on tests of visuo-spatial working memory (Wu and Coulson 2014; Morsella and Krauss 2004).

And when adults tell children to refrain from gesturing, kids perform notably worse on working memory tasks (Pine et al 2007).

Gesturing helps kids grasp and retain new lessons about mathematics

If gesturing helps clarify our spatial reasoning and minimizes cognitive load, might it also help us learn mathematical concepts? Mathematical tasks taps both spatial intelligence and working memory, so it makes sense. And once again, the evidence is supportive.

Susan Cook and her colleagues tested some third and fourth graders to see if they could solve simple algebra problems like this:

4 + 3 = ___ + 6

None of the children could. So the researchers randomly assigned each child to receive one of three types of instruction:

  • In the SPEECH condition, a teacher explained to the child, "I want to make one side equal the other side," and she asked the child to repeat the phrase.
  • In the GESTURE condition, a teacher moved her left hand under the left side of the equation, then moved her right hand under the right side of the equation. Then the teacher asked the child to repeat these hand movements.
  • In the GESTURE + SPEECH condition, the teacher combined both elements. The child was  asked to repeat the instructor's words and actions.

After training, kids were given a new algebra problem to solve, and they were told to solve it using whatever method their teacher had demonstrated.

Children in all three groups — SPEECH, GESTURE, and GESTURE + SPEECH — showed improvements. They were more likely to arrive at a correct solution immediately after instruction.

But something interesting emerged when the kids were re-tested four weeks later:

The children who had shown immediate improvements after gesturing — either alone, or in combination with speech — were more likely to maintain their improvement four weeks later (Cook et al 2006).

In other words, kids who had learned with gestures did a better job remembering the correct strategy.

Interestingly, these kids also showed evidence of transfer -- of being able to apply their emerging knowledge to new contexts (Cook et al 2006).

Merely watching gestures can also help kids learn math

We've seen how observing gestures can help children learn new vocabulary. Might it also help them learn mathematics?

Susan Cook and her colleagues were curious to find out if a teacher's gesturing alone could make a difference. So they 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 gesture 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.

Cook has also replicated these effects with a mathematics lesson delivered by a computer-generated, anthropomorphic, teaching avatar. Some children in the experiment were randomly assigned to a teaching avatar that incorporated meaningful gestures into it's speech. Other kids received exactly the same lesson, except that the avatar didn't gesture.   

The students instructed by gesturing avatars went on to learn and solve problems more quickly. As in the previous study, they were also more likely to transfer their new knowledge to other  contexts  (Cook et al 2017).

What else can gesturing do for us?

In recent years, experiments have documented the usefulness of gesture in encoding memories (Cook et al 2010). They have also indicated that young children recall more information about interesting, autobiographical events when we allow them to gesture (Stevanoni and Salmon 2005).

And experiments have revealed that people are better at solving a sequential, logical puzzle (the Tower of Hanoi) when they use gestures (Trofatter et al 2015).

Will future research uncover other benefits? That seems very likely. For example, it's easy to imagine how gesturing might help students grasp certain physics concepts. I expect we'll see studies investigating the use of meaningful gesture in science education.

But we may also discover some surprises.

Recent research has revealed some interesting correlations in a child's developing ability to tell coherent stories. Five-year-olds who use gesture to portray a character's perspective (like motioning downward with the hands to show that a character falls down) tend to develop more complex narrative skills later on.

Compared to other children, they are more likely in subsequent years to construct narratives that recount events in chronological order, and to explain a character's actions in terms of his or her goals (Demir et al 2015).

The same correlation was not found for speech. Merely talking about actions from the character's viewpoint didn't predict later improvements in narrative structure.

Is it possible that the act of physically enacting another character's experiences -- "showing" as well as "telling" -- helps kids better understand that character?

Is it possible that it helps kids think more clearly about cause and effect, and develop better narrative skills? It's an intriguing idea that future studies may unravel.

More information

What happens when we explicitly teach babies to talk with their hands? Learn more in this article about the possible benefits of teaching babies gestures.

In addition, you can find more evidence-based information about learning in these Parenting Science pages.








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Content last modified 7/17

This article includes some text from a previous Parenting Science article by the same author.

Image of gesturing toddler and father by David R. Tribble / wikimedia commons

Image of preschooler in robot tee shirt by Gordon / flickr

Image of gesturing baby in green striped shirt by Quinn Dombrowski / flickr

Image of teacher and student by Fort Rucker / flicker

Image of chalkboard with light bulb by cristian carrara / flickr


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