WASHINGTON (AP) - Don't just talk to your toddler - gesture, too. Pointing, waving bye-bye and other natural gestures seem to boost a budding vocabulary.
Scientists found those tots who could convey more meaning with
gestures at age 14 months went on to have a richer vocabulary as
they prepared to start kindergarten. And intriguingly, whether a
family is poor or middle class plays a role, the researchers report
Anyone who's ever watched a tot perform the arms-raised "pick
me up now" demand knows that youngsters figure out how to
communicate well before they can talk. Gesturing also seems to be
an important precursor to forming sentences, as children start
combining one word plus a gesture for a second word.
University of Chicago researchers wondered if gesturing also
played a role in a serious problem: Children from low-income
families start school with smaller vocabularies than their
better-off classmates. It's a gap that tends to persist as the
students age. In fact, kindergarten vocabulary is a predicter of
how well youngsters ultimately fare in school.
One big key to a child's vocabulary is how their parents talked
to them from babyhood on. Previous research has shown that
higher-income, better-educated parents tend to talk and read more
to small children, and to use more varied vocabulary and complex
Do those parents also gesture more as they talk with and teach
To see, university psychology researchers Susan Goldin-Meadow
and Meredith Rowe visited the homes of 50 Chicago-area families of
varying socioeconomic status who had 14-month-olds. They videotaped
for 90 minutes to count both parents' and children's words and
gestures. Quantity aside, they also counted whether children made
gestures with specific meanings.
This is not baby sign-language; parents weren't formally
training their tots. Instead, they used everyday gestures to point
something out or illustrate a concept. A child points to a dog and
mom says, "Yes, that's a dog." Or dad flaps his arms to mimic
flying. Or pointing illustrates less concrete concepts like "up"
or "down" or "big."
The researchers found an income gap with gesturing even in
toddlerhood, when children speak few words.
Higher-income parents did gesture more and, more importantly,
their children on average produced 25 meanings in gesture during
that 90-minute session, compared with an average of 13 among poorer
children, they reported in the journal Science.
Then the researchers returned to test vocabulary comprehension
at age 4½. The poorer children scored worse, by about 24 points.
Researchers blamed mostly socioeconomic status and parents' speech,
but said gesturing contributed, too.
It's not just that richer parents gesture more, stressed Peggy
McCardle of the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, which funded the work.
"It's that there's a greater variety of types of gesture that
would signal different types of meaning," McCardle said. "It sure
looks like the kids are learning that and it's given them kind of a
The study doesn't prove gesturing leads to better word-learning,
but it's a strong hint. Now scientists wonder if encouraging
low-income parents to gesture more could translate to toddlers who
do, too, and in turn improve school readiness.
"It wouldn't hurt to encourage parents to talk more and gesture
more," Rowe said.