How Gestures Can Help Students Learn
Gestures can help kids learn and remember new concepts, if they're used judiciously and in conjunction with a content-rich curriculum.
Having students make hand gestures connected to what they’re learning can help them remember new information, including vocabulary. But there are some important caveats.
When I was researching a book on literacy instruction, I spent time at an elementary school that was using an innovative, content-rich curriculum. The school served many kids who were still learning English, and they had adopted certain techniques designed to help them. One was to have teachers introduce a new vocabulary word by matching it to a hand gesture and then have students repeat the word and the gesture.
An administrator at the school told me she’d observed something interesting. At the beginning of the school year, first-graders were learning about rock formation. When the word layer was introduced, their teacher coached them to make a corresponding gesture: both hands held out flat, with one hovering above the other. In the spring, during a unit on the rain forest, the word layer came up again. The administrator noticed that when the kids heard the word, they started making the hand gesture again, spontaneously. They’d remembered.
When I started following a second-grade class at the school, I noticed the teacher sometimes taught gestures even with abstract words—like enlightenment, which the class encountered in a unit on Buddhism. While saying the word and providing an age-appropriate definition (“a greater understanding of life”), the teacher held her hand at her forehead as though saluting and then swooped it upward and outward. The kids repeated the word and imitated the gesture.
Ever since then I’ve wondered if there was evidence to support that teaching technique, and whether it could help all learners absorb and retain new information—not just students learning a new language. It turns out there’s quite a bit, and it falls under the rubric of “embodied cognition.”
One example comes from the recent book The Extended Mind, by science writer Annie Murphy Paul. When Kerry Ann Dickson, a professor of anatomy in Australia, teaches about body parts and systems, she has her students mime corresponding gestures. For the lacrimal gland and tear production, they pretend to cry; for the cochlea and hearing, they place their hands behind their ears. Dickson says that since she started using this approach, her students’ anatomy test scores have been 42% higher.
Similar results have been found with younger students. In a 2008 study, third- and fourth-graders were divided into three groups that received different kinds of math instruction. The instructors for one group provided a verbal explanation while solving a problem and had students repeat it. For the second group, instructors provided both a verbal explanation and accompanying hand gestures, and had students repeat the gestures but not the words. The third group repeated both the words and the gestures. On a test given immediately after the lesson, with math problems similar to those they’d been taught to solve, all three groups improved their performance by about the same amount. But on a test given four weeks later, only the second and third groups—the ones that had used gestures—performed significantly better.
There are lots of other examples of the power of gesture and movement, although most studies have focused on immediate learning rather than longer-term retention. It’s been found, for example, that children understand a story better when they act it out with objects, or even just imagine doing that, than when they read the story twice. Middle school students who learned about planetary motion by pretending to be an asteroid had significantly higher performance, as did elementary school students who learned geometry by forming shapes with their bodies on a playground. Children learning names for animals in a foreign language did better when they performed activities and gestures relevant to the words.
Why would gesture have these effects? There are several theories. One has to do with working memory, the aspect of our consciousness that takes in and tries to make sense of new information. If we try to juggle too many new things in working memory at the same time, we get overwhelmed, and comprehension and retention suffer. Bodily movements like gesture, which come naturally, may relieve some of the cognitive load associated with learning. It's also been suggested that movement leaves a more lasting impression in long-term memory than words alone, and that it’s helpful to link mental representations of ideas to the external environment.
Whatever the reasons (and more than one could be valid), there’s enough evidence that gesture is effective to justify incorporating it into instruction. That doesn’t mean, however, that any gesture—or any bodily representation of information—will be helpful. Here are some caveats to keep in mind.
Be judicious. “Gesturing on tasks that do not lend themselves to gesture,” one team of researchers has warned, “is likely to disrupt performance.” Even on tasks that do lend themselves to gesture, like learning vocabulary, there’s a limit to how many words should be paired with a gesture—because there’s a limit to how many new words kids will be able to remember, even with gestures attached. It makes sense to save gestures for what are sometimes called “Tier 2” vocabulary: words that are not so common that their meaning is likely to be picked up naturally, but common enough that they show up frequently in written text. Within that Tier 2 category, it’s probably best to pair gestures with words that seem particularly important or are likely to appear in future units of the curriculum.
Don’t get carried away. It’s 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 embodied cognition to help students connect sounds to the letters that represent them. To help a child grasp one of the sounds made by the letters ow, for example, she had him dress up as a clown. That might work. But it also might take 15 minutes or more to put on clown makeup, a wig, etc. And the child might focus so much on the fun of getting dressed as a clown that he remembers that experience more than the sound the letters ow can make.
Use a curriculum that is rich in content. The children at the school where I did research for my book didn’t remember the word layer just because of the hand gesture. The curriculum the school used, called Core Knowledge Language Arts, provided them with rich context for the meaning of that word. The kids spent two or three weeks learning about rock formation, encountering the word in different engaging contexts (I observed one of those lessons, and the children were rapt). The fact that the curriculum brought the word back months later in another engaging context, the rain forest, also helped.
Most elementary schools, unfortunately, aren’t using that kind of curriculum. Rather than spending two or more weeks diving deeply into a topic, they focus on supposed reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea” and jump from one topic to another, treating each of them superficially. If children don’t have rich context for a new vocabulary word—even one that is taught with a gesture—they might be able to parrot back a definition, but they’re unlikely to truly understand what it means.
If teachers use gesture judiciously, however, in conjunction with a content-rich, engaging curriculum, the technique can help students remember key vocabulary and concepts, laying the groundwork for further learning.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.