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The handiness of gesture for children’s learning

Published on Psychology Today

My dad’s side of our family is nearly 100% Italian. As a result, I grew up immersed in Italian-American traditions, including large family gatherings with a lot of food and laughter, mispronouncing words like mozzarella (“mut-za-tel”), and most importantly for this post, learning to talk with my hands. I know it’s a silly stereotype that for many Italian Americans may not be true, but for my family, it’s right on: Many of us do use our hands a lot when we talk, including me. For awhile, I was a bit worried about passing along my animated manner of speaking to my children, but then again, a large body of research highlights the power of gesture for communication, especially in infants and young children, and its importance for learning.

Gesture has the most obvious benefits for individuals from the deaf community, and research suggests that deaf infants and young children are particularly prone to using gesture to communicate. In the first year of life, around the same time that hearing infants begin to babble, deaf infants begin to babble as well, but they mostly babble manually, making gestures that resemble parts of words in sign language (Petitto & Marentette, 1991). There is also evidence that deaf children can develop a way to communicate with each other via gesture if they aren’t directly taught sign language. For example, the deaf community in Managua, Nicaragua did not have formal schools for the deaf until the late 1970’s. When these schools finally opened, deaf children had the opportunity to interact with other deaf children for the very first time. Over the years, despite the fact that children attending these schools were primarily taught to lip read in classrooms so that they could communicate with the hearing community, they developed their own rudimentary signing system so that they could communicate with each other. The signing system—called Nicaraguan Sign Language—now has all of the properties, structure, and grammar that any other formal language has, and most importantly, it was developed entirely by children (Senghas & Coppola, 2001).

But deaf children aren’t the only ones who can benefit from gesture. Typically, hearing infants don’t utter their first words until they are about a year old, and they don’t start using a large number of words and stringing them together into sentences until after the age of 2. Importantly, they begin to understand language well before they can produce it. As a result, baby signs have become a popular way to encourage babies to communicate before they start to talk. Baby signs are different from the signs used in sign languages, as they only represent a small number of words or phrases, like “more”, “all done”, and “milk”, and they are typically used only until hearing babies begin to talk. While there are some products on the market that promote baby signs by claiming that they improve language development overall, a recent review of the literature did not find any evidence to support that teaching hearing infants baby signs before they start talking has any long-term benefit for language development. But, there is also no evidence that there are negative effects of baby signs either, suggesting that parents can teach their infants baby signs if these gestures happen to be useful in communicating a few thoughts early on, when babies can understand several words, but are not yet able to express them verbally (Fitzpatrick, Thibert, Grandpierre, & Johnston, 2014).

There is also evidence that gesture might be useful in capturing what older children know, but may not yet be able to articulate. For example, researchers gave 10- and 11-year-olds a series of math equivalence problems and then asked the children to explain how they solved them. Most children at this age were not able to correctly solve problems like 4+1+2 = __ +2, but some children gestured correctly to the 4 and the 1 as the potential solution for the total number that goes into the blank space. Importantly, it was those children who benefited most from instruction, suggesting that children who gesture to the correct response (but verbalize the wrong one) might be on the cusp of learning the new skill (Perry, Church & Goldin-Meadow, 1988). Similar findings have shown for learning physical properties, like that if you transfer water from a tall skinny glass to a tall fat glass, the amount of water doesn’t change (Church & Goldin-Meadow, 1986), and using gesture has been shown to benefit word learning, especially learning new verbs (e.g., Wakefield, Hall, James, & Goldin-Meadow, 2018).

Besides benefits associated with the act of gesturing itself, research has shown that children are more likely to learn from teachers who use gesture. For example, when explaining two sides of the same kinds of mathematical equivalence problems I just described, like 4+1+2 = __ +2, teachers are most effective when combining verbal explanations with gestures to explain the solution, like forming a “V” shape to emphasize that the solution involves combining the 4 and the 1. The gesture effectively draws attention to key parts of what the teacher is explaining. As a result, children look more at the relevant areas of the problem itself and less at the teacher, and are better able to follow what’s going on even when the teacher’s verbal explanation isn’t 100% clear (Wakefield, Novack, Congdon, Franconeri, & Goldin‐Meadow, 2018).

So it turns out that maybe my Italian relatives are on to something, and using your hands to explain something new can actually be quite beneficial. Gestures can be useful when words are not possible, or when infants and young children don’t yet have the capability of verbalizing their thoughts. In the same way, gestures can also help teachers enhance the learning experience for children, drawing attention to the most important aspects of a lesson. Altogether, this research suggests that gestures might be a handy solution when words escape us.

Photo by Lars Plougmann/Flickr


Church, R. B., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (1986). The mismatch between gesture and speech as an index of transitional knowledge. Cognition, 23(1), 43-71.

Fitzpatrick, E. M., Thibert, J., Grandpierre, V., & Johnston, J. C. (2014). How HANDy are baby signs? A systematic review of the impact of gestural communication on typically developing, hearing infants under the age of 36 months. First Language, 34(6), 486-509.

Perry, M., Church, R. B., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (1988). Transitional knowledge in the acquisition of concepts. Cognitive Development, 3(4), 359-400.

Petitto, L. A., & Marentette, P. F. (1991). Babbling in the manual mode: Evidence for the ontogeny of language. Science, 251(5000), 1493-1496.

Senghas, A., & Coppola, M. (2001). Children creating language: How Nicaraguan Sign Language acquired a spatial grammar. Psychological science, 12(4), 323-328.

Wakefield, E. M., Hall, C., James, K. H., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2018). Gesture for generalization: gesture facilitates flexible learning of words for actions on objects. Developmental science, 21(5), e12656.

Wakefield, E., Novack, M. A., Congdon, E. L., Franconeri, S., & Goldin‐Meadow, S. (2018). Gesture helps learners learn, but not merely by guiding their visual attention. Developmental science, 21(6), e12664.


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