Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (2.08 MB)

Hands-on learning: The influence of hand gestures on children's recall of scientific information

Download (2.08 MB)
Version 2 2023-09-26, 01:35
Version 1 2021-11-22, 19:56
posted on 2023-09-26, 01:35 authored by McLay, Lynley

When people speak they typically also gesture. Gesture and speech form an integrated communication system, with speech conveying information in a rule-bound and sequential manner (i.e. one word follows the other in accordance with grammatical rules) while gesture conveys information holistically in a visuospatial representation. These gestural hand movements not only aid the process of speaking, but also convey important information to the listener.  While observing gesture during learning can facilitate children’s understanding and remembering of novel and isolated information (e.g.(Cook, Duffy, & Fenn, 2013), observing gesture may also support children in recalling complex, discursive content. This thesis examined the role observing gesture may play in supporting children’s learning and recall of narrative, scientific content. The 7- to 9-year-old children, who participated in this program of research, learnt about the solar system either with or without accompanying gestures. Children’s recall was assessed via interviews, both at short delays (one day) and long delays (two weeks or seven months after learning). It was hypothesised that gesture would improve children’s recall by grounding the abstract scientific ideas in a physical representation, disambiguating novel terms, and providing an additional representation for children to process, store, and retrieve.  In Study 1, the influence of observing gesture in supporting children’s learning and recall was examined in combination with adult initiated wh-questions. The study was also conducted in the presence of visual aids. Results indicated that observing gesture only had a limited effect on children’s recall in Study 1 (both independently and in combination with wh-questions), so Study 2 examined the role of observing gesture in the absence of additional visual and verbal supports. Children’s recall was assessed both the next day and seven months later. Study 3 then manipulated both the gesture children observed at learning and the gesture children performed during recall the next day (i.e. instructed, allowed or restricted from gesturing). Finally, Study 4 examined children’s recall of spatial terms across the three studies.  The overarching results revealed that children who observed gesture during learning tended to report more spatial terms, but did not show improved recall of the facts and concepts taught. When children observed gesture they did, however, produce a greater rate of representational gestures during recall. In particular, children who observed gesture were more likely to mimic the gestures they had observed, and in doing so improve their verbal recall both within the same interview and across interviews. The instruction to produce gesture did not appear to be effective in augmenting the influence of children’s gesture production, but restricting children from gesturing was found to hinder recall.  Observing gesture was only indirectly effective in supporting children’s recall. One possible explanation for this findings may be that children found it difficult to integrate the gestural and verbal information into a cohesive message. Perhaps it was only when children produced gesture that they were able to non-verbally access the encoded gestural content and convert it into speech. While children’s own gesture appears to be the driving force in improving children’s learning and recall, adults must be aware of the way they move their hands during educational lessons, as these gestures likely set the stage for how children themselves will gesture.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Brown, Deirdre; Salmon, Karen