When my one-year-old son was still mostly pre-verbal, I “read” to him books about a baby doing the simplest of tasks—jumping, crouching, and clapping, for example. Each time I turned the page, I asked him, “What’s the baby doing?” He would act out the drawing—jumping, crouching low and applauding—all without words.
My son was engaging in the world of books long before he had verbal vocabulary to explain what he saw. He used what he had—the gestures, the motions of his body—to “say” what he saw.
Another time, I worked with a third grader who had excellent verbal fluency, but she could not read. We worked on phonics, and she slowly acquired skills to take apart words into letter sounds and to assemble letter sounds into words. She was an excellent actress, so when she would learn a vocabulary word, she would act it out—standing, moving about the room, using her whole body to memorize the meaning of a word. I was flabbergasted. And when she came upon a word she had previously acted out, she would go through the same motions—this time sitting in her seat—to remember what the word meant.
Working with these children opened my mind to using gestures and body language to learn. These allow a child’s thinking to progress even when he doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain what he is thinking. Or sometimes he does have the vocabulary, but it is quicker to respond with gestures than to recall the appropriate words. What is “slope,” for example? Doesn’t lifting a hand and sliding it downward on a diagonal show understanding? What is “ferocious”? If a child bares her teeth and makes a growling sound, doesn’t she show that she knows that word?
Large numbers of children in preschool and in the primary grades are kinesthetic learners. Yet teachers rarely call upon these children’s body language and gestures to help them learn. With a little imagination, it’s possible. Three students stand in a row, holding hands. One student lets go. Three minus one equals two. A child curls herself into the letter “C.” Another creates a big “O” with her arms. A third stands tall and stretches out both arms into a “T.” They move close together. “COT.” Three students act out “ice” by hugging and not moving. Three more act out “water” by making swimming strokes. Three more act out “steam” by dancing rapidly.
Performing to learn takes time, yes. But it’s also fun. It engages students. It uses many of the senses. It works.