During an evaluation or consultation one of the first things Speech Language Pathologists pay attention to is gesture use. And for good reason- it is an important indicator of later language development and can help identify children at risk of language delays.
How a child’s gestures impact language development
Long before children speak their first words they begin communicating through the use of gestures. Starting at the age of 9 months we want to see a child learning and using 2 new gestures a month. Some of the most common first gestures are: give (open hand), shake head, reaching, raising arms, show, wave, point (open hand and later with index finger), clap, blow kiss, “shh” gesture, and head nod.
By age 14-16 months, children will use more gestures than words in their communication. Once a child has starting using their first words, they will keep using gestures to combine words and gestures. There are two ways that children do this:
- Complementary Gestures: When a child points to something and then names them (e.g. a child may say “bus” while pointing at a bus toy or bus passing by). But not all pointing is equal. A recent study showed that 12-month olds who point with their index finger (versus with their whole hand) have stronger language skills at 24 months (Luke, et al. 2017)
- Supplementary Gestures: When a child points at things and adds information using first words (e.g. pointing at a book and saying “read” or pointing at the fridge and saying “snack”). These are important because the beginning use of supplementary gestures predicts the age children will start combining words (Iverson, et al., 2005)
Even after kids start using simple phrases, they continue to use gestures with their speech to communicate sentence-like meanings. For example, B often uses the “come” gesture while saying “come on” (currently pronounced “mon”) and point to the fridge while saying “cheese”- communicating the equivalent of the more complex sentence “Come on Mom, I want you to get me cheese”.
So, gestures are an important step to developing language and predicts future speech and language development. Late talkers who don’t gesture much are at a higher risk of longer-term language delays than late talkers who gesture a lot (Luke et al. 2017).
How a parent’s gestures encourage language development
Gestures are a natural part of our communication- if you don’t believe me try to talk with your hands restricted! When parents are talking to their young children, they often modify their gestures to make it easier for a child to understand. For example, parents use more complementary examples (pointing and naming) and they use them more frequently than when talking to other adults. By 12 months, most children can follow an adult’s point to a target object (e.g. a toy or picture in a book).
Research shows us that parents who gesture more have children who also gesture more themselves (Namy et al., 2000). Parent gestures and gesture combinations also help children learn new words (Kinnane, 2016) and can be a predictor of children’s later vocabulary development (Pan et al. 2005).
How to Support Gesture Development
- Model, Model, Model (point to pictures in books, things on a walk and in the grocery store, model requesting what they want)
- Bubbles are a great fine motor task to practice using the index finger. Popping bubble wrap is another great way to work on those skills.
- Respond to their pointing. Label what they see, ask simple questions, or describe.
- Choose one gesture a week to focus on. The 16 Gestures by 16 Months (in references) is a great resource to help you choose what to focus on! Overtime you will find yourself more naturally using these gestures with your child.
- Play Simon Says using gestures
- Iverson, J.M. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological Science, 16, 368-371.
- Kinnane, David. “Why I Tell Parents to Point at Things to Help Late Talkers to Speak.” Banter Speech & Language, 29 Aug. 2016, http://www.banterspeech.com.au/why-i-tell-parents-to-point-at-things-more-often-to-help-their-late-talkers-to-speak/.
- Lowry, Lauren. “What’s the Point of Pointing?” The Hanen Centre, http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/What’s-the-Point-of-Pointing-.aspx.
- “16 Gestures by 16 Months.” First Words Project, 2014, firstwordsproject.com/about-16by16/.
- Lüke, C., Grimminger, A., Rohlfing, K. J., Liszkowski, U., & Ritterfeld, U. (2017). In Infants’ Hands: Identification of Preverbal Infants at Risk for Primary Language Delay. Child Development, 88(2), 484-492.
- Namy, L.L., Acredolo, L. & Goodwyn, S. Verbal Labels and Gestural Routines in Parental Communication with Young Children. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 24, 63–79 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006601812056
- Pan, B.A. , Rowe, M.L. , Singer, J.D. & Snow, C.E. (2005). Maternal correlates of growth in toddler vocabulary production in low-income families. Child Development, 76(4), 763-782.