Is gesturing by a child learning to read important?

When my son was almost two, and not talking much, I often read to him a picture book by Helen Oxenbury which showed a toddler doing everyday things: pulling on his socks and pants, for example. I would ask my son, “What is the baby doing?” My son would show me by gesturing—pretending to put on his socks, or pretending to pull up his pants. Once he learned to say words, I stopped this practice.

child making letter T with his body

It turns out that I should have continued with the gesturing. Research shows there is a positive relationship between gesturing and learning in children. By noticing your child’s gestures, you might be able to tell when he understands a concept or when he is trying to figure it out.

According to research,If a child understands a concept, the child’s words and gestures are in sync.

  • For example, if you ask the shape of a triangle, and the child says “three sides” and then draws a triangle with his index finger, the gestures and words are in sync, and you can presume the child understands.
  • If a child is still learning a concept, the child’s words and gestures might be out of sync, and there might be an abundance of gestures or a shrug.
  • For example, if you ask a child to tell you what an orbit means, and the child says “space” and draws a rounded triangle,” the child’s words and gestures are not in sync. The child is still learning.
  • Out-of-sync responses offer parents and teachers an opportunity to help the child learn while his understanding is fluid and open to instruction and before he learns something wrong.

Is gesturing necessary for learning? Probably not, yet research shows that children who gesture while they are learning are more likely to learn. This is especially true if the child is asked to explain a general concept.

For more scholarly details on this subject, check out the work Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, an expert in this field.

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