, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 425–440 | Cite as

Teachers’ gestures and speech in mathematics lessons: forging common ground by resolving trouble spots

  • Martha W. Alibali
  • Mitchell J. Nathan
  • R. Breckinridge Church
  • Matthew S. Wolfgram
  • Suyeon Kim
  • Eric J. Knuth
Original Article


This research focused on how teachers establish and maintain shared understanding with students during classroom mathematics instruction. We studied the micro-level interventions that teachers implement spontaneously as a lesson unfolds, which we call micro-interventions. In particular, we focused on teachers’ micro-interventions around trouble spots, defined as points during the lesson when students display lack of understanding. We investigated how teachers use gestures along with speech in responding to such trouble spots in a corpus of six middle-school mathematics lessons. Trouble spots were a regular occurrence in the lessons (M = 10.2 per lesson). We hypothesized that, in the face of trouble spots, teachers might increase their use of gestures in an effort to re-establish shared understanding with students. Thus, we predicted that teachers would gesture more in turns immediately following trouble spots than in turns immediately preceding trouble spots. This hypothesis was supported with quantitative analyses of teachers’ gesture frequency and gesture rates, and with qualitative analyses of representative cases. Thus, teachers use gestures adaptively in micro-interventions in order to foster common ground when instructional communication breaks down.


Gesture Classroom communication Common ground 



This research was supported by Grant # R305H060097 from the U. S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (Alibali, PI). All opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and not the U. S. Department of Education. We thank Maia Ledesma, Kristen Bieda, and Elise Lockwood for their contributions to this research. Most of all, we thank the teachers and students who opened their classrooms to us and allowed us to videotape their instruction.


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Copyright information

© FIZ Karlsruhe 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martha W. Alibali
    • 1
  • Mitchell J. Nathan
    • 2
  • R. Breckinridge Church
    • 3
  • Matthew S. Wolfgram
    • 4
  • Suyeon Kim
    • 5
  • Eric J. Knuth
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Educational PsychologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyNortheastern Illinois UniversityChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  5. 5.Anyang UniversityAnyangKorea
  6. 6.Department of Curriculum and InstructionUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA

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