Learning from gesture: How early does it happen?

Miriam A. Novack*, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Amanda L. Woodward

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


iconic gestures are harder to interpret than incomplete-actions.•Children do not view gestures as meaningless movement.•For novice learners, imitating gesture may promote learning. Iconic gesture is a rich source of information for conveying ideas to learners. However, in order to learn from iconic gesture, a learner must be able to interpret its iconic form-a nontrivial task for young children. Our study explores how young children interpret iconic gesture and whether they can use it to infer a previously unknown action. In Study 1, 2- and 3-year-old children were shown iconic gestures that illustrated how to operate a novel toy to achieve a target action. Children in both age groups successfully figured out the target action more often after seeing an iconic gesture demonstration than after seeing no demonstration. However, the 2-year-olds (but not the 3-year-olds) figured out fewer target actions after seeing an iconic gesture demonstration than after seeing a demonstration of an incomplete-action and, in this sense, were not yet experts at interpreting gesture. Nevertheless, both age groups seemed to understand that gesture could convey information that can be used to guide their own actions, and that gesture is thus not movement for its own sake. That is, the children in both groups produced the action displayed in gesture on the object itself, rather than producing the action in the air (in other words, they rarely imitated the experimenter's gesture as it was performed). Study 2 compared 2-year-olds' performance following iconic vs. point gesture demonstrations. Iconic gestures led children to discover more target actions than point gestures, suggesting that iconic gesture does more than just focus a learner's attention, it conveys substantive information about how to solve the problem, information that is accessible to children as young as 2. The ability to learn from iconic gesture is thus in place by toddlerhood and, although still fragile, allows children to process gesture, not as meaningless movement, but as an intentional communicative representation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)138-147
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Action
  • Gesture
  • Iconicity
  • Imitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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