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Role of Gesture in Learning

The goal of the study is to explore the role of gesture in learning by comparing theperformance of children who use spoken language and children who use sign language on specific tasks. Many have argued that gesture and speech form complementary components of a single integrated system, with each modality best suited to expressing its own set of meanings. Gesture reflects a global-synthetic image. It is idiosyncratic and constructed at the moment of speaking––it does not belong to a conventional code. In contrast, speech reflects a linear-segmented, hierarchical linguistic structure, utilizing a grammatical pattern that embodies the language's standards of form and drawing on an agreed-upon lexicon of words. Gesture is said to allow speakers to convey thoughts that may not easily fit into the categorical system that their spoken language offers (Goldin-Meadow, 2003; Goldin-Meadow & McNeill, 1999). Taken together, gesture and speech offer multiple representations of a single task, and these multiple perspectives may prove useful in solving problems and learning new tasks.

One possible reason that gesture plays a role in learning is because, when speech and gesture are produced together, information conveyed in a discrete representational format (speech) is juxtaposed with information conveyed in a continuous, imagistic representation format (gesture). If this is correct, we should be able to predict who is ready to learn, not only in speakers, but also in signers since sign languages have been shown to use both discrete and imagistic representational formats. An alternative possibility, however, is that it is the divide of two modalities––the manual modality and the oral modality––that gives gesture its power to predict readiness-to-learn. If so, we should not be able to predict who is ready to learn in signers, who use only one modality to communicate. In the proposed research, we will test these hypotheses by conducting studies comparable to those that we have done on hearing children on deaf children who are signers of American Sign Language.