A Smarter Beginning 

Gesturing Predicts Children’s Future School Success

March 29, 2014 / by Susan Sirigatti

Why do some children have larger vocabularies when they start school than others? This is an important question considering that a significant predictor of success in school is a child’s vocabulary. When we say “vocabulary,” we mean an understanding and use of words. But before being able to use words, how does your child let you know what she or he wants? In other words, what is your child’s first vocabulary?

small_1519576998For example, a 10 month old baby sees her toy blocks on the shelf and wants to play with them. What does she do? She points to them and makes eye contact with her mother. Her mother responds by saying something like, “You want the blocks. I’ll get them for you,” and hands them to the child. The baby can’t talk yet but she certainly has communicated and she’s been rewarded for communicating by being given what she asked for, the blocks. She has also gotten her mother’s attention. In the process, she’s heard some words relating to the interaction such as “blocks” which name the object and “get” which tells what action Mom is performing, both closely associated with her need at that moment. This mother and child are communicating through gestures and, in addition, the child is hearing words in a meaningful context. She’s learning vocabulary.

A Child’s First Language

When a child gestures, usually starting at about 10 months, it’s his or her first language. Gesturing is a form of communication and it begins before the child can talk. This first language is a collection of motions and facial expressions and may even be accompanied by sounds. Encourage its use as often and as early as possible because it better enables you and your child to communicate with each other. It’s also an important step to a better vocabulary upon entering school.

Gestures Are Important in Vocabulary Acquisition

We’ve known for a while that the more parents talk to their children, the greater the language development of the child. More recently, however, a study has shown that gestures may be at least as important in vocabulary acquisition and, therefore, in preparing children for school. The study, conducted at the University of Chicago (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677374/) involved fifty 14-month old children videotaped interacting with their parents during a 90 minute session. During each child’s session, the researchers recorded how often words and gestures were used. Then, when the children were 54 months (4 ½ years), their vocabularies were assessed.

What were the findings of the study? The first was that some of the children often used gestures to communicate while others used fewer gestures less often. These differences in gesturing among the children could be linked to differences in how much the parents used gesturing.  The second result was that the children who more often used gestures had larger vocabularies at 4 ½ years than the others.

The study concluded that the amount of gesturing helps explain why some children have larger vocabularies when they enter school than others. This was framed in a socioeconomic context:children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds use gesturing more and, therefore, enter school with larger vocabularies. This means that gesturing could affect children’s development in significant ways.

As pointed out in the study, “If there is any way to encourage children to gesture…more before they can speak, that could be useful.”

What’s your opinion?  I’d like to hear from you.

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/shawnecono/1519576998/”

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