Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Move me, I'm in; show me, I learn.

Always nice to stumble onto yet another piece of empirical research that helps explain why something you do in teaching probably works. Having been using gesture more or less systematically in pronunciation teaching for over 40 years, it was obvious that the ability to mimic gesture was closely related to ability to interpret and learn from pedagogical gesture in class.

There were, of course, some learners who seemed naturally to have great "kinaesthetic intelligence"; others clearly didn't. Consequently, so much of our work has been aimed at developing gesture-enhanced or gesture-synchronized techniques that the less "kinaesthetic" could learn quickly and use.

A 2015 study by Wu and Coulsen of UC-San Diego, Iconic Gestures Facilitate Discourse Comprehension in Individuals With Superior Immediate Memory for Body Configurations provides an interesting clue. As part of their research into the relationship between "kinaesthetic working memory" (KWM) and perception of  (iconic) gesture, the instrument they used to determine KWM involved having subjects basically attempt to mimic gestures of a model, independent of verbal language. Those with stronger KWM by that measure were better at interpreting gestures used in somewhat fragmented conversation--which required contribution of the meaning of the gestures for the core sense of the conversation to get across.

The question, of course, is whether or not KWM can be enhanced by training or even engaged more in teaching and learning. Study after study in the areas of athletic training and rehabilitation confirm that it can.  KWM is, likewise, the basis of haptic pronunciation teaching. And how is such training accomplished? By highly controlled, systematic repetitive practice of relevant body movements involved, not simply by demonstrating the movements to learners or using them naturally in teaching--which is what most enthusiastic (pronunciation) instructors do anyway.

What that means, especially for language teaching, is that the benefit of simply using gestures in teaching may be minimal at best for any number of reasons. In general, techniques such as stretching rubber bands, tapping on desks or playing choral conductor with intonation appear to be good for presenting concepts but not for actually helping learners practice and improve their pronunciation. (For those with high natural KWM it may, of course, be a different story.)

Systematic work with KWM is, I think, the key to at least efficient learning and teaching of pronunciation. If you are still not moved to act on that concept, check in with your local aerobics or Alexander Technique instructor for a tune up. (Research suggests at least 4 weeks needed to establish new kinaesthetic patterning.) Or join us hapticians. See info in the right column and elsewhere on the blog on how to do that!

Full citation: Wu, Y. and Coulsen, S. (2015) Iconic Gestures Facilitate Discourse Comprehension in Individuals With Superior Immediate Memory for Body ConfigurationsPsychological Science vol. 26 no. 11 1717-1727,

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