Pairing Gestures With Vocabulary Learning

Regular readers to the blog will know how much I value the incorporation of movement into my classroom, harnessing it’s many benefits to increase learning. I’ve presented on this at conferences across the country, and have blogged about it many times. As such, I’m always looking for ways in which to authentically add movement to my health education lessons, and here is one of my favorites.

Adding a gesture or specific movement to vocabulary words is an effective way to enhance the learning of those words. We learn more effectively when new information is presented to us in a variety of ways, more so when that information requires us to use more than one sense. Adding gestures to learning is one such proven way in which to enhance both retention and recall.

There are two moments at which doing an action might influence whether that action is later recalled: doing the action when that action is first encoded, or doing the action when it is later recalled.

(Cook, Yip, & Goldin-Meadow, S, 2010)

When teaching and talking about sexual identities and allyship, and in attempt to ensure that my classroom is an affirming learning environment for all, I like to cover some basic language that we all need to understand before we can take our conversations deeper. Some of my students come to these classes well-versed in terminology because they are living and breathing it daily – these are the students of whom I am most thankful because they keep me up to date with contemporary language use. Some of my students come to class without ever taking time to really understand the definitions of, or the differences between certain words, and these are the students in whom I see the most growth.

Gesturing can thus turn speaking into doing, which, in turn, improves memory.

(Cook, Yip, & Goldin-Meadow, S, 2010)

The four terms that I pair with a gesture are as follows:

SEXUAL ORIENTATION: This refers to who you are attracted to romantically, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and/or sexually. This is thought to be established around the age of 9 to 10 years old. Sexual orientation can be fluid — changing in different situations for some, and over the years for others. My aromantic and asexual students appreciate their peers knowing that their are some students who might not be sexually or romantically attracted to others. Sexual orientation is the language that sometimes confuses students, particularly if they’ve heard/read about a term about which they know little.

GENDER IDENTITY: This refers to how you understand your own gender. This is thought to be established around the ages of 2 to 5 years old and is NOT determined by genitalia or sex assigned at birth. My gender non-conforming and gender fluid students appreciate their peers hearing that gender identity extends beyond those typically associated with the binary gender system. Many states are reviewing and updating their laws to accommodate non-binary and genderfluid citizens. These are introduced to allow people to register their preferred gender identity on official vital records.

GENDER EXPRESSION: This refers to how you outwardly express your own gender. This might include mannerisms, clothing, accessories and hairstyles. How we express ourselves outwardly might not reflect how we identify internally and you can not assume someones gender identity based on how they present themselves. Many of my students express themselves in a variety of ways – it makes life less boring!

BIOLOGICAL SEX: More appropriately referred to as the sex assigned at birth, often based on external genitalia. When someone’s sexual and reproductive anatomy doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male, they may be described as intersex. One of my more memorable teaching moments was when an intersex student walked past my classroom as I was talking about intersex individuals and she walked in and said “this is me”. The conversation that ensued between her and my students was very powerful.

Pairing gestures with each of these terms allows students to move, and smile, and improve their learning without them realizing. The encoding of these gestures is so powerful, that on those occasions when I have quizzed students on their recall of the terms I have witnessed many of them repeating the movements before writing down the answer.

Sexual orientation is all about attraction, so I ask my students to place a hand on their heart.

Gender identity is how you think about yourself, so I ask my students to place their hands on their brain.

Gender expression includes the ways in which we dress, so I ask students to run their hand along their opposite arm (or shoulders if you’re a Jay-Z fan).

For sex assigned at birth I ask students to place their hands in their laps.

This really works! One study reported that when vocabulary words were presented with iconic or random gestures, students’ ability to recall the words’ meanings was 8-10 percent better than with words that were presented without gestures.

If you’re here because you want to know more about incorporating movement in your lessons, then check out these posts.

If you are here because you want to know more about creating GIFS – I create all of mine using the Vid-to-GIF app on my iOS devices.

If you are here because you want more resources to support your LGBTQ+ students, check out this resource.

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