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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Kinesthetic Symbols: Harnessing the Power of Gesturing

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Kinesthetic Symbols as Signals. Some teachers teach their students to silently convey information to the teacher. “I need help” “Please slow down” “I need a restroom break” and “I don’t understand” are some common examples. The flip side of the coin is the teacher may use Kinesthetic Symbols to signal the class. “Please work quieter” “You are working really well” or “Please come see me” are examples. Without disturbing the other students, a teacher can silently signal an individual or a team.

Kinesthetic Symbols as Coaching Tips. Sarah Backner provides an example of how her students used Kinesthetic Symbols to scaffold support for each other within the Quiz-Quiz-Trade structure:

I used Kinesthetic Symbols in my second grade classroom at Martinez Elementary School in North Las Vegas, NV each week for my vocabulary words. On Monday, I would introduce the class to the words with kinesthetic symbols. Then as the week went on and we reviewed our vocabulary words using structures, students had their coaching tips ready to go. For example in Quiz-Quiz-Trade, if your partner is stuck on the definition, Tip #1: demonstrate the kinesthetic symbol.

Kinesthetic Symbols to Recall Steps of Structures. Some teachers have used Kinesthetic Symbols to have students remember the steps of a cooperative learning structure. Kindergarten students easily recall the steps of Mix-Pair-Share once they have learned the symbol for each step.

Common Kinesthetic Symbols. In the chart below, are content examples – academic content taught with Kinesthetic Symbols.

Academic Content Taught with Kinesthetic Symbols

Language Arts


Social Studies


  • Simile v. Metaphor
  • Punctuation Marks
  • Proofreading Marks
  • Parts of Speech
  • Literary Techniques
  • Vocabulary Words
  • Figures of Speech
  • Forms of Linear Equations
  • Angles
  • Geometric Figures
  • Math Symbols: (Plus, Minus, Equal, Divide, Multiply, Exponent…)
  • Order of Operations
  • Patterns
  • Steps of An Algorithm
  • Land Forms
  • Branches of Government
  • Accomplishments of
  • Historical Figure
  • Bill of Rights
  • Events in Sequence
  • Functions of the President
  • Steps: Bill Becomes a Law
  • Geologic Regions
  • Types of Rocks
  • States of Matter
  • Classes of Animals
  • Body Systems
  • Measurement Units
  • Stages of Cell Life

Kinesthetic Symbols for Kinesthetic Learners. Although I strongly advocate teaching all students with Kinesthetic Symbols, Kinesthetic Symbols can have an amazingly liberating impact on students who are especially strong in the bodily/kinesthetic intelligence. One of a number of examples is Paula’s story.1 Early in her school career Paula was assessed as learning disabled; she developed a very low self-esteem, and a dislike for school. By fifth grade Paula was several grade levels behind her classmates. Paula attempted suicide in the summer before sixth grade.

Her sixth grade teacher noticed Paula moved with poise and dignity. Following her hunch that Paula would benefit from kinesthetic instruction, Paula’s teacher asked her to create a “movement alphabet” — movements to form the letters of the alphabet. Paula responded. Not only did she create letters, she sequenced them into a dance. Paula went on to dance her name, the words on the blackboard, spelling words, and even entire sentences. She performed for her class. Paula’s self-esteem and liking for school increased. By the end of sixth grade, Paula reached grade level in reading and writing. In seventh grade, she was mainstreamed in all classes and received above-average grades!

Had her teacher not recognized Paula’s unique learning style, Paula’s academic career (and possibly her life) would not have been saved. Paula’s story is one of many that illustrate the power of adapting how we teach to how students best learn.

Gestures and Kinesthetic Symbols Accelerate Learning

Teachers use Kinesthetic Symbols and gestures while teaching. Whereas the hand symbols created during the Kagan Structure Kinesthetic Symbols are deliberately created and often involve considerable thought, gestures are spontaneous symbolization of ideas, often created unconsciously.

There is a growing body of research indicating gestures and Kinesthetic Symbols used by teachers are powerful symbol systems that promote learning, retention, and transfer of learning. Gesturing is extremely important in cognition, problem solving, and cognitive development. Students who are taught to gesture as they learn, learn more. Merely observing the teacher gesturing during instruction increases achievement. Before presenting that research let’s list some of what is known about gesturing:

  • Gesturing is not merely imitation and does not need to be learned by watching others. Congenitally blind individuals gesture.2
  • Young children spontaneously use hand gestures while telling stories,3 solving problems,4 and during conversation.5
  • Memory for action words is increased when the corresponding action is performed as the word is said.6
  • Making a gesture that improperly represents a subsequent action, interferes with ability to perform that action quickly or accurately.7
  • Watching someone make a gesture while explaining an action determines how the viewer will perform the action.8
  • If we have performed an action, when we hear that action described in words, our premotor cortex becomes active. The more we have performed the action, the more our premotor cortex activates upon hearing the word. The implication: Comprehension of action speech is facilitated by the motor cortex.9
  • Training gesturing is associated with improved skills in mental rotation and spatial transformation. Spontaneous gesturing during mental rotation tasks predicts higher performance.10
  • Gesturing not only represents thought, it influences thought, and may express thought of which we are unaware.11
  • Gesturing represents an independent cognitive symbol system that enriches understanding and increases learning and retention.12
  • Teachers who gesture while giving instructions increase the probability of students’ gesturing which in turn leads to increased learning.13
  • When the same verbal lecture is given with and without gestures, students in the gesture condition rate the lecture as more understandable and are more confident they have answered correctly the test questions on the lecture.14

Gesturing and Executive Function. Executive function is more important than general intelligence with regard to problem solving and cognitive development. Executive function refers to the cognitive processes that we use to control our thinking and behavior when trying to achieve a goal or solve a problem. It is dependent on four factors: 1) short-term memory: holding content in memory, 2) working memory: manipulating content mentally, 3) impulse control: inhibiting interfering thoughts and impulses, and 4) cognitive flexibility: shifting from one perspective to another or from one problem solving strategy to another. In short, executive function is smarts. Whereas general intelligence includes the information we have accumulated and is dependent on learning and culture, executive function describes the most important pure cognitive abilities. As such it is better than IQ in predicting a person’s ability to learn and problem solve. Executive function develops from infancy through late adolescence.15

The use of gestures predicts the development of executive function even better than does age! In an extraordinarily revealing study, children ages 2.5 to 6 years of age were given a test of executive function, and their gesturing was carefully videotaped and analyzed.16 Results indicated that gesturing predicted executive function better than did age: “…both gesturing and age contributed significantly to task performance. However, gesturing was the stronger predictor of accuracy….” Further, spontaneous gesturing predicted accuracy better than spontaneous verbalization: “Whereas 97% of the spontaneous gestures on a given trial resulted in correct sorts on that trial, only 69% of spontaneous verbalizations resulted in correct sorts.” Interestingly, those children who used gestures most did better on the cognitive tasks even when they were not using gesturing. It is possible that gesturing, like speech, is internalized. When children learn to read, they move from subvocal speech to internalized speech or silent reading. Perhaps children who have learned to gesture internalize the gestures, moving from performing the gestures to merely visualizing them or remembering them nonverbally in the pre-motor cortex, without a need to carry out the action.