I Visualization Strategies: Depictive Gestures

These strategies use depictive gestures to communicate mental imagery and to help clarify it.

Depictive gestures: Gestures that represent shapes, locations, movement, changes, or forces.

These gestures appear to create pictures in the air, usually in front of the speaker about chest high or higher.1 There are many kinds of physical gestures that teachers can make while talking in front of the class, but depictive gestures, in particular, can help students “see” what you are seeing.

We notice skilled science teachers using gestures to:

  • Represent a system.
  • Represent forces or motion in a system.
  • Indicate motion in static drawings.

Noticing student gestures can also give the teacher information about student thinking in the moment.

The teacher has bent her hands upward from the wrist, as though the valve has opened. Her hands now form an upside down V with a gap of a few inches between her fingertips.Teacher is looking at her class, has her elbows high and out to the side. Her fingertips are touching and her forearms create a shallow V. Her hands and fingers represent a closed valve.Example 1

A teacher gesturing to show her middle school class how valves in a vein might function to keep blood from flowing backward.

Example 2

In a high school class on gravity, it became apparent that at least two students were certain that gravity was partly or wholly caused by the Earth’s spinning. Another student disagreed, saying, “Everything pulls on everything else,” but this was not enough to convince those students. An animated discussion followed, with students giving real-world examples to bolster their claims (including a ride at the fair that spins and makes riders stick to the wall). One student began by arguing that most of gravity was caused by spinning, but over the course of a 2-day discussion, changed his mind. His words expressed this, but the gestures he used to demonstrate the pull of the Earth also changed. Other students used gestures to demonstrate their understanding that spinning would normally result in a centripetal force away from the Earth.

Traced image of a student, three moments of a time lapse sequence from a video. In all three, he has his hands close together near his chest, fingers loosely curved. In the first, his left hand is held a little above his right, in the second his hands have swapped position with his right hand a little above his left. In the third, his hands have returned close to their original position. The impression is of a vague and unclear movement, faintly suggesting a "pulling."

Figure 1: Student describing the Earth’s pull of gravity at a point in the lesson where he thinks that “pulling” is a minor effect, and that the spinning of the Earth is the main source of gravity.

Traced image of the same student of Fig. 2, this time with four time-lapsed images. In the first, he has his arms held up high, fists clinched, as if grabbing onto something. In the second, he has pulled his fists downward to chin level. The third and fourth drawings are very similar to the first two. The impression is of two forceful pulls.

Figure 2: The same student the next day, after he has revised his thinking to believe that the “main force of gravity” is “pulling” rather than “spinning.” He gestures as he says, “The Earth has more pull on you…. “



More about how gestures and other visual-support strategies support the rest of the framework is in the following pages:

Educator's Tour - Level I
Introduction to the Full Theory


Articles, Papers and Websites

More examples of depictive gestures being used in class discussion are in these papers from our team:

Expert scientific reasoning processes and imagery: Case studies of high school science classes (Stephens & Clement, 2009)

Identifying teaching strategies that support thinking with imagery during model-based discussions (Stephens, Clement, Price, & Núñez-Oviedo, 2017)


1A classic book on gesture is Hand and Mind by David McNeill (1992).