Using gesture to solidify academic vocabulary

Recently, my almost-3-year-old son has been very interested in those preschooler language-learning videos. As a language educator, it’s fascinating to analyze how the videos are structured. They are highly repetitive, but only take a few minutes for each concept before moving on. This matches the developmental needs of small children, who have short attention spans and love repetition but is also a good practice for providing linguistic input that is frequent, yet not too tiresome.

Most interesting to me, however, is the use of gesture. At every opportunity, the host gestures along with the words–Knock on the door is a fist rapping in the air. Hungry is a circular tummy rub. Look for is a flat hand above the eyes. They are not uncommon gestures, but having the visual cues to match the words is critical for kids who may or may not understand what is being said. Also important is the idea that a video can be static and unengaging, so the creators are doing everything possible to keep their audience tuned in.

Erik Herrmann also writes about using gesture to enhance language instruction. He takes it all the way to a physiological process–movement improves blood flow, and increased blood flow takes oxygen to vital organs, particularly the brain. He also highlights research that has supported movement for aiding memory retention. We are no strangers to using movement in learning either–in this post, we talk about how acting out a word problem helps students visualize it more easily, and in this post, how snapping a rubber band or clapping on stressed syllables reinforces the cadence of English for new learners.

It’s easy to envision how gesture can be used for preschoolers, or for basic vocabulary such as verbs and concrete nouns, but Herrmann stretches our thinking, encouraging teachers to use them for academic languages. You can start by distinguishing two related concepts, such as biomes and habitats, with different gestures.

Involving students in creating the gestures or researching the signs for key concepts in American Sign Language reduces the burden for the teacher and increases buy-in from the students. It also is one more opportunity for students to commit the gesture (and vocabulary) to memory.

Herrmann finishes by identifying content vocabulary examples for each grade levels, including words like chronological, equivalent, scarcity, and catalyst, with a potential gesture to solidify each. He intends to get us thinking about how words that aren’t immediately obvious candidates for gesture could benefit from this learning tool.

Have you made a point to use gesture for academic vocabulary? How did it go?

Have you tried this strategy for teaching word problems?

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