Cognitive Daily

Early childhood education can often seem like one of the most over-researched fields imaginable. So many parents are so concerned with the fate of their progeny, that it’s natural for research to focus on more effective ways to teach kids. Yet the process of learning is also so complex that it can be difficult for studies to come up with conclusive results.

University of Chicago researchers Melissa Singer and Susan Goldin-Meadow have done extensive research on the role of gesture in teaching, finding that teachers spontaneously use gestures to teach, and that the use of gestures increases when children are having difficulty with a topic. Surprisingly, they also found that very often these gestures did not match the verbal lesson being given by the teachers.

Were the teachers failing their students by teaching contradictory lessons? Or does a combined approach make learning even more effective? To answer these questions, Singer and Goldin-Meadow came up with an impressive study of teaching methods for third- and fourth-grade math (“Children Learn When Their Teacher’s Gestures and Speech Differ,” Psychological Science, 2005).

The goal of the study was to find an effective method for teaching the principle of equality—to solve an equation such as this one:

4 + 5 + 8 = _ + 8

There are many ways to teach this principle, but Singer and Goldin-Meadow focused in on two. In the first method, students are told that 4 + 5 + 8 equals 17, and they must figure out what would make the other side of the equation equal 17 as well. In the second method, students are told that 4 + 5 can be grouped together; all they need to do is find the number that 4 and 5 add up to. Corresponding gestures for showing each of these methods were also devised.

Students were then divided into three groups: Groups that were taught with speech only, groups that were taught with matching speech and gesture, and groups that were taught with mismatched speech and gesture. Each of these groups was in turn divided into groups that were taught only one method using speech, or groups that were taught both methods using speech. All groups were tested after instruction, with the following results:


The students with by far the best results were those who had been taught only one method using speech, with a mismatched gesture: when the teachers’ hand gestures suggested an alternate method of solving the problem. Students who were taught two different strategies using speech were no better than students learning only one method with a matching gesture.

Singer and Goldin-Meadow argue that students who are taught both methods using speech become confused, but when the alternate method is shown in gesture, it clarifies the problem for them and offers an additional approach they can use when solving it. It seems fortunate indeed that these conflicting patterns of speech and gesture also seem to be the approach teachers naturally tend to use. Elementary school is hard enough as it is!


  1. #1 J.D. Fisher
    April 1, 2005

    Great blog. I enjoy reading it ‘almost’ daily.

    These results raise a number of questions.

    Is it possible that students responded more positively to the mismatched speech and gesture BECAUSE it is an approach that most teachers use naturally–that is, students are more comfortable with this approach to begin with?

    Also, is it that the mismatched speech and gesture caused each student to score better than their counterparts in the corresponding group or was it simply an approach that was able to reach more students?

    Finally, is there any evidence that the technique affects long-term recall of the concept taught?

  2. […] as if one day kids don’t have it, and the next day they do. Inspired by the work of Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues, a team of researchers led by Stephanie Carlson developed a series of expe […]

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    April 2, 2005

    Great questions, J.D.

    Your first objection makes a lot of sense to me–it’s quite plausible. However, regardless of the cause of the result, it may still make sense to train new teachers to use mismatched gestures, since that’s what appears to be most successful in the real world.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your second question. The students exposed to mismatched speech and gesture consistently performed better on the task, so in that sense it appears to be a valuable instructional technique.

    The study doesn’t address long-term retention, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would think that retention would be related more to practice than to the instructional technique initially used to teach the principle.

    Glad you like Cogdaily!

  4. #4 J.D. Fisher
    April 2, 2005

    Thanks for your response. I admit that the language of my second question was awkward.

    I assume that the “Number of Correct Responses” on the graph is an average. Thus, there are a few ways to raise the average–increase the scores overall or just increase SOME of the lower scores (close the variance).

    If the mismatched treatment raised scores across the board, then one would think that there is just some kind of (counterintuitive) cognitive principle behind the improvement in scores when exposed to the technique of mismatched speech and gesture.

    But if the treatment only raised the scores of a subgroup of students (significantly), then one could accept the more intuitive conclusion that the mismatched speech and gesture was really the ellision of two strategies–one in speech, the other in gesture–such that it was able to reach a greater number of students.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    April 2, 2005

    Aha! Now I understand. Pardon me for being so dense. They don’t report on individual differences, but the post-test had a maximum possible score of 4, so it doesn’t seem to me that it would be likely that a few outliers could boost the average score by enough to account for the difference you see here.

  6. #6 worth of me
    October 4, 2005

    Well on early stages the child simply can not concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. The question is if the child can absorb this information recieved during these few seconds.

  7. #7 Deborah Leslie
    April 16, 2008

    I couldn’t make sense of this discussion, I confess, because I couldn’t figure out what “matched” and “mismatched” gestures might look like. How do you mismatch gestures in teaching an arithmetical problem? Say “five” and hold up three fingers?

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