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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Kinesthetic Symbols: Harnessing the Power of Gesturing

Special Article

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Kinesthetic Symbols: Harnessing the Power of Gesturing San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2014. www.KaganOnline.com

Great ideas originate in the muscles.
—Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)

For quite a few years we have been training teachers in the use of Kinesthetic Symbols. Teachers have students symbolize content with their hands, bodies, and gestures. Functions of a president, parts of speech, steps of an algorithm, and stages of cell life, are all samples of content taught not just with words, but also with gestures. Teachers in the classrooms and trainers in their workshops consistently report very positive results. Teachers are boosting their vocabulary test scores from an average of 75 to an average of 95 by having students create and practice a kinesthetic symbol for the meaning of each word. I am amused by one result: A boy shyly admitted to his teacher that he had cheated on the vocabulary test. She asked how. "I put my hands in the desk and did the kinesthetic symbols to remember."

Most teachers encourage students to use Kinesthetic Symbols as memory aides during recall. Sarah Backner, a Kagan Trainer, recalls that as a teacher,

I had a high population of second language learners in my classroom and found that Kinesthetic Symbols had a big impact on helping students raise their test scores. I knew that Kinesthetic Symbols played a role in raising scores because during their weekly vocabulary quiz, I could see students doing the Kinesthetic Symbols at their desk as they were going through the quiz to remind themselves what the words meant. 

Amal Mahmoud Al Shariti at Liwa International School in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, teaches her English-as-a-second-language students a kinesthetic symbol for each vocabulary word. For example, when introduced to the word "reliable" students learn to say the word while giving themselves a pat on the shoulder. As they say "sociable" they intertwine their fingers like many people interacting. As they say "astounded" students put both hands under their jaws and open their mouths wide in an exaggerated expression of surprise. The students now receive very high marks on their vocabulary words whereas prior to using Kinesthetic Symbols their performance was substantially lower. Amal writes,

After attending one of Mrs. Laurie Kagan's workshops in which she used Kinesthetic Symbols in training Kagan Structures, I decided to use them in my class. I started using them with vocabulary lessons, and the results were awesome — one of the students whose average score was 11 out of 20 showed a great improvement and could achieve a score of 19 out of 20. After that, I started using Kinesthetic Symbols in all my classes. I am teaching grade seven right now, but I have used Kinesthetic Symbols with all levels, and the results are always unbelievable. Using the Kinesthetic Symbols is full of fun and it is effective in keeping energy levels high and in recalling information on tests. The part I enjoy most is when all the students are involved in creating their own kinesthetic symbols and giving me ideas to make the actions either easier or harder, as that stimulates their critical thinking.

Ways to Use Kinesthetic Symbols

There are various ways teachers are using Kinesthetic Symbols, differing in who makes up the symbols and how they are used.

Who Makes Up the Symbols? The teacher may make up the symbols and then teach them to the students. Alternatively, each team may make up its own symbols. Or in some cases, teachers have students each create their own unique symbols. There is something to be said for each approach. If the class uses the symbols as response modes, it is important the whole class has the same set of symbols. The process of having teams make up their own symbols serves as teambuilding. Individuals making up their own unique symbols gives them practice in cross translating from a verbal symbol system to a kinesthetic symbol system. Given the advantages of each approach, age permitting, I would recommend that teachers incorporate each approach at different times.

How to Use Kinesthetic Symbols. There are many ways Kinesthetic Symbols are used including as response modes, for isolated content, for sequences of content, as signals, and to reinforce verbal instruction. They serve primarily, for students to practice content and as a memory aide in recall.

Kinesthetic Symbols as Response Modes. Kinesthetic Symbols are handy (literally) as response modes. After students have practiced the symbols and are fluent with them, the teacher can then post or project a sentence with missing punctuation marks, point to each missing punctuation in turn, and on cue have students respond with the appropriate kinesthetic symbol. For example, the teacher might post the following:

Kinesthetic Symbols for Punctuation




Two fists, one above the other


Hand curved in shape of letter C


Fist above + hand curved below

Exclamation Mark

Fist below of raised forearm

If Jonny has enough money ___ he will buy a new bike___ The teacher says, "When I snap my fingers, everyone give me the kinesthetic symbol for the punctuation that belongs in the blank"

Kinesthetic Symbols for Isolated Content. Sometimes the symbols are used in isolation as when a symbol is created for each vocabulary word, the names of types of rocks, the names of elements, the names of geometric forms, or the branches of government. Some teachers have used the symbols to help students remember the class rules: Misty Higgins, another Kagan Trainer, taught high school biology at Anderson County High School in Lexington, Kentucky. When I asked her how she used Kinesthetic Symbols, she responded, "I used Kinesthetic Symbols for class rules at the beginning of the year." Misty, used the symbols for a range of content during the school year: including anatomical terminology in anatomy and physiology. In her words

The most important thing I believe the Kinesthetic Symbols did was to give students something to anchor their thinking, to connect with the content. It helped then to conceptualize abstract concepts. Basically, providing for more linkages in the brain around specific content.

While coaching in a middle school science classroom, Sarah Backner, a Kagan Trainer, saw a teacher using Kinesthetic Symbols to help students remember the part of a cell.

For each part of the cell students had a kinesthetic symbol that reminded them of the function. For example when they talked about the mitochondria as the power of the cell, students flexed their muscles. When they talked about the nucleus, students tapped their brains.

Melissa Wincel provides a powerful example of how teaching Kinesthetic Symbols for isolated content improved both reading and writing. She taught her kindergarten students at Trafalgar Elementary School in Cape Coral, Florida, the 70 sounds associated with the letters in the alphabet. She describes the results,

Kinesthetic Symbols were key to the children remembering the sounds of the letters. Every one of my students walked out of my kindergarten class reading. I had some kindergarteners reading at a 3rd grade level! When my students came to a word they couldn't read by sight I would see them using the kinesthetic symbols to decode unknown words.

Not only did it impact reading significantly, but also their writing. The program gave them the confidence to sound words out and write the sounds they heard. Having Kinesthetic Symbols made it less inhibiting to their writing and creativity. Students didn't constantly ask "how do you spell…?"

Kinesthetic Symbols for Sequences. Often the symbols are used to remember a sequence of items in order as when the students are memorizing the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, the steps of how a bill becomes a law, the parts of a letter, or the steps of a math algorithm. By practicing the sequence repeatedly, it becomes automatic and even fairly long sequences can be recalled in order perfectly. Misty used the symbols for sequences like chromosomal movement during the stages of cell division, stages of photosynthesis, and cellular respiration.

Angela Pinkerton, a Kagan Trainer, used Kinesthetic Symbols with her first grade students to help them remember the steps of an algorithm called CUBES for tackling word problems. In her words:

I taught my students a problem solving strategy for word problems called CUBES. Before solving the word problem, we would stand up and review each letter's meaning with a corresponding kinesthetic symbol.


Circle the numbers (we drew a large circle in the air as we said the phrase).


Underline the key words (we drew a straight line across our bodies horizontally as we said "underline", as we said "key" we pretended to put a key in the door, then twisted the key as we said "words").


Box the question (we drew a box in the air, saying one word or syllable at a time as we drew each side of the square).


X out Extra info (we put our arms in an X across our bodies for X, then dropped them down on "out," then threw our right thumbs over our right shoulders when saying "extra info."


Show your work (we drew a giant S in the air as we said the phrase).

Then students sat down and followed each step with a word problem in their math journal. We did this as a daily math warm up, and my first graders never forgot the strategy.