Working with families: The role of gesture

Maria Kay
Friday, December 9, 2022

This month Maria Kay considers the role of gesture and how this supports children's development of language and literacy skills. This could prove an interesting read for families to help them understand the importance of gesture.


By Maria Kay


Gesturing - the act of communication by bodily movement, may help us to think, master mathematics and may be an indicator of language skills, according to research. It differs from mere action in that there is an intention to convey meaning.

Gesturing supports children's communication when they talk about something they are doing. It helps to reinforce language. Children often use gesture to communicate before they use speech. Young children prior to speech may say ‘doll’ and point to the doll. The pointing finger is indicating where the doll is and therefore is giving different information to the accompanying speech. The gesture enriches the information given.

An early gesture for children is that of waving, especially to signify ‘goodbye’. Practitioners can encourage performance of this gesture by incorporating it into a ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ song.

The action of gesturing also helps children to imagine doing something. Being able to imagine something in your head is called ‘internalising’. This is important when building literacy skills as children need to be able to see in their heads how letters look and imagine how they sound. Air writing can be a form of gesture; it is using a physical skill to support visual and cognitive skills.

Action rhymes which help children to count by showing the correct number of fingers help children to visualise the amounts represented by numbers. For example, when singing the song, ‘One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive’ and holding up the appropriate number of fingers when each number is sung. Adding the gesture for ‘why’ - shrugging shoulders, out-turned hands, and quizzical face too, may further consolidate learning.

Research in this area by Novak et al (2014) investigated the extent to which gesturing helps learning. They examined the role of gesturing when learning maths. They found that gesturing worked better than just an action and that it helped children to apply a skill learned in one situation to a different but similar situation. Psychologists call this ‘generalisation’ - the ability to transfer a skill learned to another problem.

Research shows that children who gesture more have greater vocabularies than those who gesture less (Rowe at al, 2008.) Possession of a good vocabulary is a determinant of literacy success. Therefore, encouraging young children to speak with their hands as well as their voices may contribute to their education. Adults’ gestures to children may also have an impact upon child learning as children may understand a gesture more than a spoken word.

The song ‘the wheels on the bus’ contains many actions to support spoken language. Exaggerating the gestures whilst singing and encouraging the use of these gestures in other circumstances helps the development of children's communication. LeBarton et al, (2015) found that intentionally inducing gesture (as one might do whilst singing action rhymes) can lead to increases in spoken vocabulary.

Goldin-Meadow's research (2009) showed that gesturing not only supports speech but also may indicate thoughts that are unspoken. She suggested that children are more likely to gesture to indicate something they are unable to verbalise, or when they are in the process of learning something new. We tend to gesture more when describing things that may be difficult to remember or when we are having difficulty describing something even if the object is present. The act of gesturing seems to help us to retrieve the words we need.

Another activity to help to promote the use of gesture is to sing the song ‘Everybody Do This.’ Change the words to ‘Everybody's x-x’ (2 syllables). Insert the following words for different verses - quiet, hungry, tired, thirsty, happy, and puzzled. Either, ask the children to suggest gestures for the words, or omit the words, do the gestures and ask children what the gestures might mean. At the end sing ‘Everybody stop now’ and show a ‘stop’ gesture.

The research suggests that if you wish to support children's communication skills, maths and to help their brains to process information and aid memory then encouraging the use of gestures can help.



Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009). How gesture promotes learning throughout childhood. Child Development Perspectives. 3(2):106-111

LeBarton, E. S., Goldin-Meadow, S. and Raudenbush, S. (2015). Experimentally-induced Increases in Early Gesture Lead to Increases in Spoken Vocabulary. Journal of Cognition and Development. 16(2):199-220

Novack, M. A. et al., (2014). From Action to Abstraction: Using the hands to learn math. Psychological Science. 25(4):903-910


Rowe, M. L., Özçalişkan, S. and Goldin-Meadow, S. (2008). Learning words by hand: Gesture’s role in predicting vocabulary development. First Language. 28(2):182-199

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