Recent research suggests that the gestures accompanying verbal speech convey critical information to the listener…and serve as a window into the thought processes of the speaker.
Minnie Pearson, a first-grade teacher, explains a mathematical concept to her students. “Twelve take away eight gives you what?” she asks, pointing to each number in the equation on the board.
“Four!” several children say, some of them holding up four fingers.
“That’s right, four,” Pearson says, completing the equation and pointing emphatically at the number four. “And if you want to check your work, you can add together the four and the eight”—Pearson makes a sweeping motion around the four and the eight—”and you should get twelve. That’s a family.” She cups both hands together, as if bringing the twelve, the eight and the four together. The children nod their heads in understanding.
Pearson, like most people, gestures as she speaks. Sometimes gestures are simply visual substitutes for speech: every school child knows that a finger held to tightly closed lips means “be quiet”; that the thumbs-up sign means “okay.” But we also gesture spontaneously as we talk, even on the telephone. Are these gestures meaningful, or are they just so much hand-waving?
The Long-Neglected Sister Of Language
Recent research indicates that gestures do convey critical, often unspoken, information. David McNeill, a professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Chicago, calls gesture “the long-neglected sister of language.” McNeill and others have found that speakers use hand gestures to illustrate concrete images as well as abstract concepts. A woman describing a Sylvester and Tweety video to another subject, for instance, may say “and he came down the pipe,” while making a sweeping motion that describes the contour of the path that Sylvester follows. A student describing an algebra word problem about continuous change is likely to use sweeping or arcing gestures; but the same student, if describing a problem about discrete change, is likely to use choppy or zigzagging motions. Teachers would do well to be aware of the gestures they use in the classroom, says Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, because they “offer students a second window onto the task, one that students do take advantage of.”
Gesture-speech mismatches, they say, indicate a transitional state of knowledge, a time when people don’t completely understand a new concept, but are ready to learn.
Goldin-Meadow and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Educational Psychology showing that students in small math tutorials were more likely to learn new concepts when teachers used gestures that appropriately reinforced their message. The teachers’ gestures served not just to direct the students’ attention to the numbers in the problem, but conveyed problem-solving strategies not directly expressed in speech. A teacher explaining the concept of mathematical equivalence might say, “Both sides of the equation have to be the same,” first making flat palm gestures under one side of the equation, and then under the other.
Children were significantly less likely to learn if the teacher did not gesture or inadvertently used a gesture that did not correspond with her verbal instructions—a mismatch. Goldin-Meadow found that all eight of the teachers studied produced mismatches about 20% of the time, often when explaining what not to do. In explaining strategies for solving a problem such as problem 3 + 4 + 5 = __ + 5, the teacher might say, “You need to make both sides of the problem equal,” but point to all four numbers. The problem is that when children point to all four numbers in such a problem, said Goldin-Meadow, they mean to indicate that they would add all four of the numbers. When they wrongly repeat that strategy, Goldin-Meadow said, “the teacher is shocked as to where the child came up with that answer. When in fact, if you look a turn back, the teacher gave them that strategy with her hands.”
Michelle Perry, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, has carried Goldin-Meadow’s research into the classroom. She just completed a three-year study that looks at how teachers use gesture and other forms of nonverbal representation, including manipulatives, pictures, or writing, in mathematics instruction. “A whopping amount of information is communicated in the non-spoken channel,” says Perry. “We found that teachers use some sort of non-spoken representation every ten to twelve seconds, and approximately 50% of those are gestures that convey some mathematical concept.”
In fact, humans seem to be hard-wired to gesture when they speak. In a 1998 study published in Nature, Goldin-Meadow and Indiana University researcher Jana Iverson showed that children and adolescents who had been blind since birth spontaneously gesture when they are speaking, even if they know that they are speaking to another blind person. Obviously, the young people had never seen gestures, and so had no model for gesturing. “I think this really does suggest that gesture is an important part of the whole speaking game,” Goldin-Meadow says. She suggests that gestures may reflect or even facilitate the thinking that underlies speaking, adding “We don’t know much about [the area of the brain] that generates language, let alone gesture. But we do know that gesture and speech are very much integrated at the behavioral level, that they’re nicely timed with one another, and that they’re semantically coherent.”
Gesture-Speech Mismatches: A Glimpse At Thought Processes?
It’s surprisingly common for a speaker’s words to say one thing, while their hands tell a different story. What do gesture-speech mismatches mean? In the case of the teachers, Goldin-Meadow said, it may simply indicate an uncertainty about how best to teach a certain principle. Often, though, gesture-speech mismatches can provide critical insight into the thinking process, according to Goldin-Meadow and Perry. Gesture-speech mismatches, they say, indicate a transitional state of knowledge, a time when people don’t completely understand a new concept, but are ready to learn.
For example, a child who is learning the concept of mathematical equivalence may explain that she solved the problem 4 + 3 + 5 = __ + 5 by adding together all of the numbers on both sides of the equation to get her (incorrect) answer of seventeen. But her gestures tell quite a different story: as she explains her problem-solving strategy, she produces one sweeping motion on the left side of the equation, and a separate sweeping motion on the right side of the equation, indicating that she does indeed recognize that there are two sides to the problem. Children who are developmentally ready to learn a new concept, explains Goldin-Meadow, produce a lot of speech-gesture mismatches when explaining their reasoning. Children whose gestures agree with their words—but who nonetheless use the wrong problem-solving strategy—are not as open to instruction.
In fact, Perry, Goldin-Meadow, and another colleague found that children in transitional knowledge states are often verbally imprecise as well. “Teachers often think that the kids who are inarticulate don’t know anything, and that’s often not the case,” says Perry. “The articulate kids are either sure of themselves—and wrong—or sure of themselves and right. It’s not necessarily a feeling of confidence, but it’s just that the kids who are sure of themselves have no other way of looking at the problem.”
There is always the chance that asking teachers to pay attention to their own gestures will result in stilted and unnatural movements, Perry says. “I would say that being expressive and using your hands is a good idea, though,” she adds. “A lot gets communicated with your hands. If you make them inaccessible or make small movements, then the kids won’t see them.”
Conversely, Perry says that she would not advise teachers to consciously attend to the students’ gestures as they speak—it’s just too difficult to absorb all of that information in real time. Instead, she says, “get children to explain what it is that they’re doing, and then pay attention to whether or not something is awry. It may be coming through in gesture, it may come through in imprecise speech.”
Susan Goldin-Meadow, San Kim, and Melissa Singer. “What the Teacher’s Hands Tell the Student’s Mind About Math,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 1999, 91(4): 720-730.
Susan Goldin-Meadow, Martha Wagner Alibali, and R. Breckinridge Church. “Transitions in Concept Acquisition: Using the Hand to Read the Mind,” Psychological Review, 1993, 100(2):279-297.
Jana M. Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow, “Why People Gesture When They Speak,” Nature, November 1998, 396: 228.
Lucia M. Flevares and Michelle Perry, “How Many Do You See? The Use of Nonspoken Representations in First-Grade Mathematics Lessons,” unpublished manuscript.
Michelle Perry, R. Breckinridge Church, and Susan Goldin-Meadow. “Transitional Knowledge in the Acquisition of Concepts,” Cognitive Development, 1988, 3:359-400.