Learning math by hand: The neural effects of gesture-based instruction in 8-year-old children

Elizabeth M. Wakefield*, Eliza L. Congdon, Miriam A. Novack, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Karin H. James

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Producing gesture can be a powerful tool for facilitating learning. This effect has been replicated across a variety of academic domains, including algebra, chemistry, geometry, and word learning. Yet the mechanisms underlying the effect are poorly understood. Here we address this gap using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We examine the neural correlates underlying how children solve mathematical equivalence problems learned with the help of either a speech + gesture strategy, or a speech-alone strategy. Children who learned through a speech + gesture were more likely to recruit motor regions when subsequently solving problems during a scan than children who learned through speech alone. This suggests that gesture promotes learning, at least in part, because it is a type of action. In an exploratory analysis, we also found that children who learned through speech + gesture showed subthreshold activation in regions outside the typical action-learning network, corroborating behavioral findings suggesting that the mechanisms supporting learning through gesture and action are not identical. This study is one of the first to explore the neural mechanisms of learning through gesture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2343-2353
Number of pages11
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019


  • Gesture
  • Learning
  • Mathematics
  • Neural mechanisms
  • Neuroimaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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