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August 5, 2019

Gestures During Storytelling Help Young Children’s Developing Brains

Children remember more when told a story punctuated by what is known as “beat gestures.”

We all know people who tend to talk with their hands, but it turns out that gestures do more than add emphasis, they may also help the listener understand and remember the story in more detail.

It’s what happened among a group of 5- and 6-year-old children after they listened to a story told by an adult who punctuated words with what is known as “beat gestures” versus hearing a story without them.

“Beat gestures help children retain information, and they have been found to enhance the comprehension of a discourse. It also helped children recall target words better,” said Ingrid Vilà-Giménez, a third-year predoctoral researcher and teaching assistant at the Prosodic Studies Group in the Department of Translation of Language Sciences at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.

The research study Vilà-Giménez headed, published recently in Developmental Psychology, is one of few cases where researchers have looked at the impact of beat gestures on early learning.

Beat gestures are non-verbal, are in tune with the rhythm of speech, and are used whether the speaker can see the listener or not.

While they don’t add information to the story, they accentuate the topic being conveyed without directly referring to it by emphasizing certain words.

For example, someone might open and extend their hands slightly in front of their body, palms up, when asking a question.

The beat gestures used in the study were the outward open-palm hand movement, to punctuate words like “therefore,” or “once upon a time,” and the inward palm movement was used with words like “Duck,” the protagonist of the story.

But why exactly do beat gestures have an impact on comprehension and retention?

Vilà-Giménez explained that body movements and the mind are influenced by each other in cognitive processes and there’s evidence that gestures and speech are part of the same communicative system in the brain.

While the study focused on children and early learning, the power of beat gestures can benefit adults, too.

“There are studies that showed the same positive effects of beat gestures on adults. For instance, it is shown that they enhance the learning of new words from a second language,” she said.

Researchers still aren’t sure why humans use beat gestures to accompany verbal expression, or why some cultural groups tend to do it more than others, but they do know they’re important precursors of early language and cognitive development.

That means that caretakers and early-childhood educators could add the use of beat gestures to their toolbox in boosting children’s memory and narrative comprehension, supporting better early readers and problem-solvers.

“I think that beat gestures are an educational tool for early communicators since it can help learning and also help to develop a language,” she said.

In the near future Vilà-Giménez is slated to publish another study investigating the potential value of encouraging 5- to 6-year-old children to produce beat gestures themselves as opposed to merely observing them, and measure the gestures’ effects on story comprehension and storytelling.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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