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Dev Psychol. 2003 May;39(3):509-20.

From children's hands to adults' ears: gesture's role in the learning process.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA.


Children can express thoughts in gesture that they do not express in speech--they produce gesture-speech mismatches. Moreover, children who produce mismatches on a given task are particularly ready to learn that task. Gesture, then, is a tool that researchers can use to predict who will profit from instruction. But is gesture also useful to adults who must decide how to instruct a particular child? We asked 8 adults to instruct 38 third- and fourth-grade children individually in a math problem. We found that the adults offered more variable instruction to children who produced mismatches than to children who produced no mismatches--more different types of instructional strategies and more instructions that contained two different strategies, one in speech and the other in gesture. The children thus appeared to be shaping their own learning environments just by moving their hands. Gesture not only reflects a child's understanding but can play a role in eliciting input that could shape that understanding. As such, it may be part of the mechanism of cognitive change.

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