Meanings of gestures in learning and teaching mathematics

By Suzanne Perin - November 2013


Alibali, M. W., & Nathan, M. J. (2012). Embodiment in mathematics teaching and learning: Evidence from learners’ and teachers’ gestures. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(2), 247–286.

Research Brief 

How do gestures show what teachers and learners are communicating and understanding about mathematics as they work together? Starting with gestures that have identifiable meanings in psychological and cognitive theory, the authors applied these gestures to instances of mathematics teaching and learning, classifying them into three categories:

Gestures reveal thinking that goes beyond what is being said aloud. When gestures are considered in conjunction with speech, a richer understanding of the other’s thinking becomes possible.

Theoretical Basis 

Theories of embodied cognition are based on the idea that cognition and linguistic processes are rooted in human perception and in the physical interactions of the human body with the world. Our basic ways of thinking, the ways we represent knowledge, and our methods of organizing and expressing information are shaped by the constraints and possibilities of human bodies and human perception. The particular line of theory from which these researchers draw concerns how thought is grounded in the physical world. Connecting new or abstract ideas to something more concrete and familiar facilitates meaning making and supports transfer of learning to new situations. (See pp. 250–251 of the article for more.)

Implications for Practice 

Bodily movements are often considered invaluable in informal learning environments. The typology outlined in this article calls attention to the particular meanings or roles that specific gestures play in relation to mathematics learning. In their discussion, the authors call for special attention to the pedagogical nature of teachers’ oral and gestural communication. They suggest that just as much attention and planning should go into the use of gesture as is paid to oral delivery and classroom discussion—a recommendation that is equally valid for educators in out-of-school settings. In the evaluation or assessment of learning in informal settings because movement is often encouraged and designed into activities, attention to learners’ gestural interpretation may be even more important in revealing thinking and understanding than it is in schools, where standard paper-and-pencil forms of assessment are more widely used.