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How can gestures help students learn?

Asking students to make hand gestures related to what they are learning can help them remember new information, including vocabulary.

When I was researching a book on teaching reading and writing, I spent time at an elementary school that used an innovative, content-rich curriculum. The school had many children who were still learning English, and it had adopted some techniques to help them. One was to ask teachers to introduce a new vocabulary word by pairing it with a hand gesture, then ask students to repeat the word and gesture.

A school administrator told me that she had observed something interesting. At the beginning of the school year, the pupils of small section studied the formation of the rocks. When the word “diaper” was introduced, their teacher taught them to make the corresponding gesture: both hands flat, one placed above the other. In the spring, during a unit on the tropical forest, the word “layer” came up again. The administrator noticed that when the children heard the word, they started waving again, spontaneously. They had remembered.

When I started to follow a middle section class at school, I noticed that the teacher sometimes taught gestures even with abstract words, such as awakening, which the class encountered in a unit on the Buddhism. While pronouncing the word and giving an age-appropriate definition (“a better understanding of life”), the teacher raised her hand to her forehead as if in greeting, then raised and extended it. The children repeated the word and imitated the gesture.

Since then, I have wondered if there is any evidence to support this teaching technique and if it can help all learners absorb and retain new information, not just students learning a new language. It turns out there are quite a few.

An example is taken from the recent book The Extended Mind, by science writer Annie Murphy Paul. When Kerry Ann Dickson, an anatomy teacher in Australia, teaches the parts and systems of the body, she asks her students to act out the corresponding gestures. For the lacrimal gland and the production of tears, they pretend to cry; for cochlea and hearing, they place their hands behind their ears. Ms. Dickson says that since she started using this approach, her students’ anatomy test scores have increased by 42%.

Similar results were seen with younger students. In a study carried out in 2008, pupils in Grande Section and CP were divided into three groups which received different types of teaching in mathematics. Instructors in one group gave a verbal explanation during problem solving and asked students to repeat it. In the second group, the instructors provided a verbal explanation and accompanying gestures, and asked the students to repeat the gestures but not the words. The third group repeated both the words and the gestures. When tested immediately after the lesson with math problems similar to those they had learned to solve, all three groups improved their performance by the same amount. But in a test four weeks later, only the second and third groups — those who had used the gestures — performed significantly better.

There are many other examples of the power of gesture and movement, although most studies have focused on immediate learning. It has been found, for example, that children understand a story better when they act it out with objects, or even simply by imagining themselves doing it, than when they read it twice. Students who learned the motion of the planets by pretending to be an asteroid performed significantly better, as did students who learned geometry by replicating shapes with their bodies in a playground. Children learning animal names in a foreign language did better when they performed word-related activities and gestures.

Why do gestures have these effects? There are several theories. One of them concerns working memory, the aspect of our consciousness that absorbs and tries to make sense of new information. If we try to juggle too many new items in working memory at once, we get overwhelmed, and comprehension and recall suffer. Body movements like gesture, which are natural, can relieve some of the cognitive load associated with learning. It has also been suggested that movement leaves a more lasting impression in long-term memory than words alone, and that it is helpful in relating mental representations of ideas to the external environment.

Whatever the reasons (and several of them could be valid), there is enough evidence of the effectiveness of the gestures to justify their integration into teaching. This does not mean, however, that any gesture – or any bodily representation of information – will be useful. Here are some caveats to keep in mind.

Be judicious. “A team of researchers has warned that ‘using gestures for inappropriate tasks risks disrupting performance.’ Even for tasks that lend themselves to gesture, such as learning vocabulary, there is a limit to the number of words that need to be associated with a gesture – because there is a limit to the number of new words that children will be able to retain, even with associated gestures. It is a good idea to reserve gestures for what is sometimes called “level 2” vocabulary: words that are not so common that their meaning is likely to be understood naturally (level 1), but which are sufficiently patterns to appear frequently in written texts (level 3). In this level 1 category, it is probably best to associate gestures with words that seem particularly important or are likely to appear in future units of the syllabus.

Don’t get carried away. It is possible to focus so much on an elaborate bodily representation of information that the information itself gets lost. I once heard an educator describe how she used body cognition to help students relate sounds to the letters that represent them. To help a child grasp one of the sounds produced by the letters “ow”, for example, she asked him to dress up as a clown. It can work. But it can also take 15 minutes or more to put on clown makeup, put on a wig, etc. And the child may focus so much on the fun of dressing up as a clown that he remembers the experience more than the sound the letters “ow” can make.

Use a content-rich program. The kids at the school where I researched my book couldn’t remember the word “diaper” just from the wave of the hand. The program used by the school, called Core Knowledge Language Arts, provided them with a rich context for the meaning of this word. The children spent two or three weeks studying the formation of rocks, encountering the word in different interesting contexts. The fact that the program brought the word back a few months later to another interesting context, the rainforest, also helped.

Unfortunately, most primary schools do not use this type of program. Rather than spending two or more weeks diving deep into a topic, they focus on supposed reading comprehension skills, like “finding the main idea,” and jump from topic to topic, treating each of them superficially. If children do not have a rich context for a new vocabulary word, even if taught with gesture, they may be able to repeat a definition, but they are unlikely to really understand what it means.

However, if teachers use gesture wisely, in conjunction with a content-rich and engaging curriculum, this technique can help students remember key vocabulary and concepts, laying the foundation for further learning.

Article translated from Forbes US – Author: Natalie Wexler

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