Gestures 'aid early speech'

Behind the Headlines

Friday February 13 2009

Interacting with a young child helps to develop their vocabulary

“Parents who point and use other gestures with their toddlers can give them a head start with learning language” reported The Times today. It said that scientists have discovered that children as young as 14 months who pick up gestures from their parents have larger and more complex vocabularies when they start school. This could affect a child’s intellectual development, as early vocabulary is a good indicator of later academic success.

In this study, researchers filmed the interactions between parents and toddlers from 50 families with different socio-economic backgrounds. Children from higher income families used more gestures to convey meaning than those from lower income families. When the children started school several years later, those who had gestured more at 14 months had significantly bigger vocabularies.

It should be highlighted that this study does not prove that gesturing alone can positively affect vocabulary. Also, it did not look at the children’s performance at school or later in life. However, it is clear that parent−child interactions are important in developing a child’s vocabulary, and it seems sensible to encourage social interactions, including hand gestures, from an early age.

Where did the story come from?

Drs Meredith L Rowe and Susan Goldin-Meadow from the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago carried out the research. The work was funded by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The study was published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in its peer-reviewed journal Science.

What kind of scientific study was this?

The researchers say that the aim of this case series was to investigate why children from poorer families begin school with smaller vocabularies than children from higher income families. They tried to find out what led to this difference in ability, by filming 50 children interacting with their parents at 14 months and later assessing their vocabulary skills at 54 months.

The researchers say it is already known that children from higher income, high socio-economic status families have larger vocabularies, on average, than children from low socio-economic status families. This gap in vocabulary begins in the toddler years, widens until the age of four, and then stays about the same throughout the school years. Vocabulary is linked to success at school, and the researchers also wanted to see if they could identify factors that could be targeted in children from poorer backgrounds to improve their language.

The study involved 26 boys and 24 girls, for whom the main caregivers were 49 mothers and one father. Thirty-three of the parents were white, eight African-American, six Hispanic and three Asian. The families filled in a questionnaire giving details of their income and education and this was combined into one socio-economic scale. On this scale, parental education ranged between 10 and 18 years, and average family income ranged from less than $15,000 to over $100,000 per year. Socio-economic status was based on the education level of the primary caregiver and annual family income level.

The children were filmed for 90 minutes with the parents while they were playing, reading or eating. The tapes were then transcribed to capture all the speech and gestures of the children and the parents. The researchers counted the word types, the different intelligible words and parts of words produced by the children, and categorised and counted the number of gestures produced by child and parent.

When the children were at 54 months they completed a standard language assessment.

The researchers analysed the collected data using a statistical technique known as correlation and regression analysis. This, in part, attempts to see if one variable (in this case parental gesturing) explains, to a significant degree, the relationship between two other variables (here socio-economic status and child gesturing).

The researchers wanted to see how much of the link between socio-economic status and child gesturing was explained by parental gestures. They also wanted to see to what extent the link between socio-economic status and child vocabulary at 54 months was explained by child gesturing. They adjusted the results for (took into account) the amount of verbal speech used in the interactions.

What were the results of the study?

Children from high socio-economic status families more frequently used gestures to communicate at 14 months. The researchers attributed this to the greater amount of gesturing that parents used (when speech had been taken into account).

The children from high socio-economic status families had larger vocabularies at 54 months. The researchers say this can be explained by the children’s gesture use at 14 months.

A child’s vocabulary level when they begin school can vary. This study found that 33% of this variation in vocabulary was linked to the socio-economic status of the family. A further 7% in variation was attributed to the use of pointing and gesturing.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers say that the amount of gestures that children use in early life helps to explain the differences in vocabulary that children bring with them to school, independent of early spoken vocabulary.

They add a cautionary note that the specific nature of the relationship between early child gestures and later child vocabulary is not addressed in this study.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This small study used observational methods to reveal and quantify some of the complex interactions between the precursors of language development.

The researchers acknowledge some limitations to their study and admit that gestures and pointing are not the only things that can affect the link between socio-economic status and child vocabulary. They say that other environmental factors (such as the parent’s speech) and child factors probably influence child vocabulary as well.

This study did not look at children’s school performance or performance later in life, and so conclusions cannot be drawn about the effect of gesturing on these outcomes.

The researchers say that if parents and children can be encouraged to point more when they speak, it could result in an improved vocabulary when it is time to begin school. This theory would need to be tested in properly designed trials.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Gestures 'develop infant speech'. BBC News, February 13

Gesture effect points to head start for toddlers. The Times, February 13

Toddlers' gestures hold key to their future speech. The Independent, February 13

AAAS: Pointing and gesturing at babies during their second year boosts their vocabulary. The Daily Telegraph, February 13

Why waving and making funny faces can help your child learn  to talk. Daily Mail, February 13

Links to the science

Rowe ML and Goldin-Meadow S. Differences in Early Gesture Explain SES Disparities in Child Vocabulary Size at School Entry. Science 2009; 323: 951-953

Further reading Law J, Garrett Z, Nye C. Speech and language therapy interventions for children with primary speech and language delay or disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2003, Issue 3


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