Developmental Science

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Volume 21 Issue 6 (November 2018), Pages

Gesture helps learners learn, but not merely by guiding their visual attention

Abstract

Teaching a new concept through gestures—hand movements that accompany speech—facilitates learning above‐and‐beyond instruction through speech alone (e.g., Singer & Goldin‐Meadow, ). However, the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon are still under investigation. Here, we use eye tracking to explore one often proposed mechanism—gesture's ability to direct visual attention. Behaviorally, we replicate previous findings: Children perform significantly better on a posttest after learning through Speech+Gesture instruction than through Speech Alone instruction. Using eye tracking measures, we show that children who watch a math lesson with gesture do allocate their visual attention differently from children who watch a math lesson without gesture—they look more to the problem being explained, less to the instructor, and are more likely to synchronize their visual attention with information presented in the instructor's speech (i.e., follow along with speech) than children who watch the no‐gesture lesson. The striking finding is that, even though these looking patterns positively predict learning outcomes, the patterns do not mediate the effects of training condition (Speech Alone vs. Speech+Gesture) on posttest success. We find instead a complex relation between gesture and visual attention in which gesture moderates the impact of visual looking patterns on learning—following along with speech predicts learning for children in the Speech+Gesture condition, but not for children in the Speech Alone condition. Gesture's beneficial effects on learning thus come not merely from its ability to guide visual attention, but also from its ability to synchronize with speech and affect what learners glean from that speech.

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