Deirdre Moore | February 2015

I Like to Move It: Combining Gesture with Speech

Gestures are powerful.

Whether it’s a child with little to no language, and points to indicate what s/he needs. Or, a fellow driver indicating her/his displeasure with a maneuver you just executed without rolling down a window, gestures communicate a great deal.  Many of us unconsciously use gestures as we speak. It turns out gesture may be an important aspect of language development, and has implications for educators on increasing effectiveness of instruction.

Teaching Movement and Gesture with Vocabulary

I have seen firsthand, and heard secondhand the effectiveness of teaching movement and gesture with vocabulary.  By creating movements to represent key vocabulary words and having students perform the movements as they say the words, students are gaining another tool to help them comprehend and remember important terminology.  Teachers I have worked with have talked about seeing their students moving in their seats during a test to recall vocabulary and concepts.  Results of standardized tests of students with whom I worked who received science instruction integrated with visual art, theatre and dance showed significant gains in vocabulary – especially those who speak English as a second language.  It was therefore not surprising to me to learn that gesture, speech and sign language are processed in the same area of the brain and that a study conducted with adults who had a low capacity of working memory but used gestures recalled more terms than adults who did not use gestures.

Where Did I Find the Inspiration?

It is so satisfying to know that all that gesturing I do as I talk to my students may be benefiting them!  It’s even more satisfying to realize I can harness that fact to intentionally help my students better comprehend and recall.  Just recently I was lucky enough to witness an educator who puts this idea of accompanying gesture with vocabulary to great use.  Not only did the students easily recall the key terms and their meanings throughout the lesson but they also stayed engaged in an hour long lesson whether they were 5 or 10 years old.

The lesson I observed was about portraiture and it was taught by Melanie Rick of Focus 5, Inc.  Melanie chose 6 important words that she wanted the students to understand and remember.  Then, as she introduced the terms to the students, she taught an accompanying gesture that reinforced the word’s meaning (like making a circle with her index finger around her face as she said “facial expression”).  Not only did she have the students repeat that with her but they repeated it numerous times.  That could get boring except that she turned it into a game having them say it faster, slower, louder, softer.  She had the students ultimately say all 6 terms in succession in a rhythmic way so that she was not only utilizing speech and gesture but cadence as well – a winning combination!  As the students turned to do partner talk about various portraits, I observed a high level of engagement and lots of students gesturing and repeating the sequence of the terms in order to facilitate the discussion with their partners.

Help Illustrate the Words

If you are looking for a way to better engage your students and aid their comprehension and recall of important terminology, I highly recommend creating movement or gesture that help illustrate the words.  If you add rhythm and treat it like a game, you may find that your students are not only more engaged but are more likely to remember what you wanted them to remember!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.