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Dev Psychol. 2008 Sep;44(5):1277-87. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.44.5.1277.

Hands in the air: using ungrounded iconic gestures to teach children conservation of quantity.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. rping@uchicago.edu


Including gesture in instruction facilitates learning. Why? One possibility is that gesture points out objects in the immediate context and thus helps ground the words learners hear in the world they see. Previous work on gesture's role in instruction has used gestures that either point to or trace paths on objects, thus providing support for this hypothesis. The experiments described here investigated the possibility that gesture helps children learn even when it is not produced in relation to an object but is instead produced "in the air." Children were given instruction in Piagetian conservation problems with or without gesture and with or without concrete objects. The results indicate that children given instruction with speech and gesture learned more about conservation than children given instruction with speech alone, whether or not objects were present during instruction. Gesture in instruction can thus help learners learn even when those gestures do not direct attention to visible objects, suggesting that gesture can do more for learners than simply ground arbitrary, symbolic language in the physical, observable world.

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