“I’ve forgot what it means, I’ll show you”: Children’s embodied communication of word meanings

Year: 2018

Author: Nichols, Sue

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

A word is more than a collection of letters to be decoded; it is the linguistic representation of a concept or state of affairs. In considering how children come to acquire vocabulary, questions of how concepts can be represented and expressed become salient.  This paper discusses the use of both verbal and embodied modes of communication by Year 1 children, when asked to define moderately challenging words. In this study, 65 children from schools characterised by moderate to high levels of social disadvantage and cultural diversity, participated in individual interviews which elicited their word knowledge. Children were explicitly invited to “tell or show” what words mean, with researchers explaining that “you can use your hands or act out the word”. This paper presents an analysis of instances of meaning-making in which children drew on embodied means (such as gesture and role-play) instead of, or as well as, verbalisation to communicate word meanings. In many cases, these strands were interwoven to the extent that the meaning would not have been communicated without both working together. Characteristics of children who were highly embodied in their communication of word knowledge were diverse, challenging the view that only children with language or literacy difficulties would need recourse to ancillary resources such as gesture. To further explore the relationship between verbal and embodied communication, two bodies of theory were drawn on. Neurolinguistic studies are beginning to show the networking of the physical and linguistic systems in perception and communication (Claxton, 2012; Gibbs & Perlman, 2010). Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic body assists in understanding the significance of embodied literacy in the production of self-other relationships within which meanings may be shared (Bakhtin, 1981; Cresswell & Teucher, 2011; Maslov, 2013).
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