Talk with your hands

Psychologists studying the use of gestures at the University of Chicago say using their hands to work out a problem can help kids find answers or better understand math concepts.

The researchers’ conclusions follow two studies in which a total of 176 third- and fourth-graders were tested.

“With gesturing, the kids expressed information they were unable to communicate in speech,” explains Susan Goldin-Meadow, Ph.D, one of the study’s authors.

She says kids use a variety of strategies to solve problems in general. She and her co-researchers found that strategies expressed using gestures seem to indicate that kids understand the concepts, even if they don’t get the answer.

“Gesturing seems to activate the knowledge that seems to be implicit,” she says."So they’re more open to learning about [that concept] afterwards.”

In the first part of the study, students were randomly given a directive regarding how they could solve the problems: gesture, don’t gesture and no instructions either way.

Though all participants made some mistakes, the results were quite compelling: those told to use their hands in explaining how they solved a problem were four times as likely as their peers given no instructions to convey accurate ways to solve problems and to come up with new problem-solving tactics.

In the second phase, researchers evaluated how gesture vs. no-gesture students performed after lessons were given on solving the problems they worked on before. Again, the findings showed that children who were told to use their hands to express math problems and then had a lesson on it solved 1.5 times more problems correctly than those told not to gesture.

What does this mean?

“It seems to indicate that gesturing may actually play a role in learning,” Goldin-Meadow says. Gesturing, she says,"apparently activates knowledge in your head that makes the whole process of learning easier.”

If math gives your kids problems, Goldin-Meadow says to encourage them to use their hands to express themselves.

“There’s no downside,” says Goldin-Meadow."You don’t have to gesture, but it may help. Listen to what your kids are saying with their hands, too.”

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