Kinesthetic Symbols: Harnessing the Power of Gesturing
DR. SPENCER KAGAN
To cite this article: Kagan, S. Kinaesthetic Symbols: Harnessing the Power of Gesturing San Clemente, CA: Kagan
Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring/Summer 2014. www.KaganOnline.com
Great ideas originate in the muscles.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)
For quite a few years we have been training teachers in the use of Kinaesthetic Symbols. Teachers have students
symbolize content with their hands, bodies, and gestures. Functions of a president, parts of speech, steps of an
algorithm, and stages of cell life, are all samples of content taught not just with words, but also with gestures.
Teachers in the classrooms and trainers in their workshops consistently report very positive results. Teachers are
boosting their vocabulary test scores from an average of 75 to an average of 95 by having students create and
practice a kinaesthetic symbol for the meaning of each word. I am amused by one result: A boy shyly admitted to his
teacher that he had cheated on the vocabulary test. She asked how. "I put my hands in the desk and did the
kinaesthetic symbols to remember."
Most teachers encourage students to use Kinaesthetic
Symbols as memory aides during recall. Sarah Backner, a
Kagan Trainer, recalls that as a teacher,
I had a high population of second language learners in my
classroom and found that Kinaesthetic Symbols had a big
impact on helping students raise their test scores. I knew
that Kinaesthetic Symbols played a role in raising scores
because during their weekly vocabulary quiz, I could see
students doing the Kinaesthetic Symbols at their desk as
they were going through the quiz to remind themselves
what the words meant.
Amal Mahmoud Al Shariti at Liwa International School in Al
Ain, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, teaches her English-as-
a-second-language students a kinaesthetic symbol for each
vocabulary word. For example, when introduced to the word "reliable" students learn to say the word while giving
themselves a pat on the shoulder. As they say "sociable" they intertwine their fingers like many people interacting.
As they say "astounded" students put both hands under their jaws and open their mouths wide in an exaggerated
expression of surprise. The students now receive very high marks on their vocabulary words whereas prior to using
Kinaesthetic Symbols their performance was substantially lower. Amal writes,
After attending one of Mrs. Laurie Kagan's workshops in which she used Kinaesthetic Symbols in training Kagan
Structures, I decided to use them in my class. I started using them with vocabulary lessons, and the results were
awesome one of the students whose average score was 11 out of 20 showed a great improvement and could
achieve a score of 19 out of 20. After that, I started using Kinaesthetic Symbols in all my classes. I am teaching
grade seven right now, but I have used Kinaesthetic Symbols with all levels, and the results are
always unbelievable. Using the Kinaesthetic Symbols is full of fun and it is effective in keeping energy levels high
and in recalling information on tests. The part I enjoy most is when all the students are involved in creating their
own kinaesthetic symbols and giving me ideas to make the actions either easier or harder, as that stimulates their
Ways to Use Kinaesthetic Symbols
There are various ways teachers are using Kinaesthetic Symbols, differing in who makes up the symbols and how
they are used.
Who Makes Up the Symbols? The teacher may make up the symbols and then teach them to the students.
Alternatively, each team may make up its own symbols. Or in some cases, teachers have students each create their
own unique symbols. There is something to be said for each approach. If the class uses the symbols as response
modes, it is important the whole class has the same set of symbols. The process of having teams make up their own
symbols serves as teambuilding. Individuals making up their own unique symbols gives them practice in cross
translating from a verbal symbol system to a kinaesthetic symbol system. Given the advantages of each approach,
age permitting, I would recommend that teachers incorporate each approach at different times.
How to Use Kinaesthetic Symbols. There are many ways Kinaesthetic Symbols are used including as response
modes, for isolated content, for sequences of content, as signals, and to reinforce verbal instruction. They serve
primarily, for students to practice content and as a memory aide in recall.
Kinaesthetic Symbols as Response Modes. Kinaesthetic Symbols are handy (literally) as response modes. After
students have practiced the symbols and are fluent with them, the teacher can then post or project a sentence with
missing punctuation marks, point to each missing punctuation in turn, and on cue have students respond with the
appropriate kinaesthetic symbol. For example, the teacher might post the following:
Kinaesthetic Symbols for Punctuation
Colon Two fists, one above the other
Comma Hand curved in shape of letter C
Semi-Colon Fist above + hand curved below
Exclamation Mark Fist below of raised forearm
If Jonny has enough money ___ he will buy a new bike___ The teacher says, "When I snap my fingers, everyone
give me the kinaesthetic symbol for the punctuation that belongs in the blank"
Kinaesthetic Symbols for Isolated Content. Sometimes the symbols are used in isolation as when a symbol is created
for each vocabulary word, the names of types of rocks, the names of elements, the names of geometric forms, or the
branches of government. Some teachers have used the symbols to help students remember the class rules: Misty
Higgins, another Kagan Trainer, taught high school biology at Anderson County High School in Lexington, Kentucky.
When I asked her how she used Kinaesthetic Symbols, she responded, "I used Kinaesthetic Symbols for class rules at
the beginning of the year." Misty, used the symbols for a range of content during the school year: including
anatomical terminology in anatomy and physiology. In her words
The most important thing I believe the Kinaesthetic Symbols did was to give students something to anchor their
thinking, to connect with the content. It helped then to conceptualize abstract concepts. Basically, providing for
more linkages in the brain around specific content.
While coaching in a middle school science classroom, Sarah Backner, a Kagan Trainer, saw a teacher using
Kinaesthetic Symbols to help students remember the part of a cell.
For each part of the cell students had a kinaesthetic symbol that reminded them of the function. For example
when they talked about the mitochondria as the power of the cell, students flexed their muscles. When they
talked about the nucleus, students tapped their brains.
Melissa Wincel provides a powerful example of how teaching Kinaesthetic Symbols for isolated content improved
both reading and writing. She taught her kindergarten students at Trafalgar Elementary School in Cape Coral, Florida,
the 70 sounds associated with the letters in the alphabet. She describes the results,
Kinaesthetic Symbols were key to the children remembering the sounds of the letters. Every one of my students
walked out of my kindergarten class reading. I had some kindergarteners reading at a 3rd grade level! When my
students came to a word they couldn't read by sight I would see them using the kinaesthetic symbols to decode
Not only did it impact reading significantly, but also their writing. The program gave them the confidence to sound
words out and write the sounds they heard. Having Kinaesthetic Symbols made it less inhibiting to their
writing and creativity. Students didn't constantly ask "how do you spell?"
Kinaesthetic Symbols for Sequences. Often the symbols are used to remember a sequence of items in order as
when the students are memorizing the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights, the steps of how a bill becomes a law,
the parts of a letter, or the steps of a math algorithm. By practicing the sequence repeatedly, it becomes automatic
and even fairly long sequences can be recalled in order perfectly. Misty used the symbols for sequences like
chromosomal movement during the stages of cell division, stages of photosynthesis, and cellular respiration.
Angela Pinkerton, a Kagan Trainer, used Kinaesthetic Symbols with her first grade students to help them remember
the steps of an algorithm called CUBES for tackling word problems. In her words:
I taught my students a problem solving strategy for word problems called CUBES. Before solving the word
problem, we would stand up and review each letter's meaning with a corresponding kinaesthetic symbol.
Circle the numbers (we drew a large circle in the air as we said the phrase).
Underline the key words (we drew a straight line across our bodies horizontally as we said "underline",
as we said "key" we pretended to put a key in the door, then twisted the key as we said "words").
Box the question (we drew a box in the air, saying one word or syllable at a time as we drew each side of
X out Extra info (we put our arms in an X across our bodies for X, then dropped them down on