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Learning to Use Prepositions: An experiment with gestures and theater



When observing objects in space, we are usually oblivious to imposing categorical distinctions on the scene. On the other hand, talking about position and movement requires that space be divided into basic spatial categories. Although effortless in a language we know well, learning to use spatial terms in a foreign language is often a difficult task. While research has shown that gesture, language and thought are closely linked (Kita, Alibali, & Chu, 2017; Willems & Hagoort, 2007), how to best use gestures as a teaching tool in diverse classrooms is unknown. In the context of learning a foreign language play, the experiment detailed here investigates pairing specific linguistic items with specific codified gestures which differ in linguistic units.
When observing the position or trajectory of objects in
space, we tend not to impose categorical distinctions on
the scene. Talking about position and movement,
however requires spatial categories.
For beginning second language learners, prepositions,
such as around, over, in, on, under and to, are frequent,
important, abstract and for teachers often perceived as
di cult to teach.
In addition to seeing or hearing information, movement
creates a richer memory trace and provides a physical
cue for remembering.
Movement can also allow users to shed some of their
cognitive load, the burden created by the need to keep
track of information.
ERP research shows that simple gestures can make a dif-
ference in how we understand complex language
(Holle et al. 2012).
Research comparing gesture and physical action for
learning math has shown that action is not better for
representing abstract ideas (Novack et al. 2014).
Classroom-based research indicates that gestures may
di erentially benefi t beginning learners
(Janzen Ulbricht 2018).
1. In the context of learning and performing a play (14
hours), can we measure a long-term gain in L2 preposi-
tion use on a transfer task?
2. If the same text is learned in di erent ways (3 hours),
both of which utilize movement, are there measurable
di erences between groups?
Natasha Janzen Ulbricht
Supervisor: Univ.- Prof. Dr. M. Sambanis Coding examples for test item: Put the ball under the box.
Correct Incorrect Incorrect
Interested in more details?
Ask for more information on this topic:
Böttger, H., & Sambanis, M. (2017). Sprachen lernen in der Pubertät.
Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto.
Holle, H., Obermeier, C., Schmidt-Kassow, M., Friederici, A. D., Ward,
J., & Gunter, T. C. (2012). Gesture Facilitates the Syntactic Analysis of
Speech. Frontiers in Psychology, 3.
Janzen Ulbricht, N. (2018). An experiment on gesture and fl uency in
two German schools. ELT Journal, 72(3), 309-18.
Novack, M. A., Congdon, E. L., Hemani-Lopez, N., & Goldin-Mead-
ow, S. (2014). From Action to Abstraction: Using the Hands to Learn
Math. Psychological Science, 25(4), 903–910.
Children between 8 and 13 years (N=76) in Germany (n =
29) and Poland (n = 47) were tested on their use of Eng-
lish prepositions in Week 1, Week 3 and Week 7.
In Week 2 of the experiment, matched codifi ed gesture
(CG) and scenic learning (SL) units were designed for a
common English theater project. While learning the text
(for a total of 3 hours over 4 days), the children were
randomly placed in these two groups where they learned
and memorized the same text.
In the CG group the teacher provided a gesture per mor-
pheme for all the words of the play. Consistent with the
SL methodology, the teacher taught the children the play
supported by gestures for the most important sentenc-
es with access to the written text (Böttger & Sambanis
Both our immediate situation and past perceptual-mo-
tor experiences play an important role in language com-
prehension and cognition. The present study exploits
this relationship by investigating codifi ed gestures which
di er in linguistic units. Although over time both groups
made similar gains in preposition accuracy, this gain was
more immediate for learners exposed to one gesture per
morpheme (CG) as opposed to gestures at the sentence
level plus the written text (SL).
While not the only valid approach to classroom research,
using complete methods can establish how di erent
teaching elements, such as gesture type and access to
text, work in combination and provide more ecologically
valid grounds for generalization than experiments di er-
ing in one variable only.
Week 1
Mean Gain
Week 3-Week 1
CG M = 3.52, SD = 2.28
SL M = 1.86, SD = 2.00
p = .001 two-tailed
d = .77
Mean Accuracy in Prepositions
Week 3
Week 7
Codifi ed Gesture
Scenic Learning
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