Hand signs help boost kids’ vocabulary

CHICAGO: Encouraging toddlers to use hand gestures can improve their vocabulary and boost their chances of doing well at school a few years later, according to research.

Children are known to perform better at school if they have a large vocabulary, but precisely why some are able to master more words than others has been hard to pin down. The parents’ education plays a major role, but psychologists suspected other factors were also important.

Meredith Rowe and Susan Goldin-Meadow, from the University of Chicago, worked with 50 young families from different socio-economic backgrounds and filmed 14-month-old children during an hour and a half of play with their parents. They noted the words and gestures that were used. Later, when the children were aged four-and-a-half, they were given a vocabulary test to assess their language skills. The video sessions showed that better-educated parents used gestures more often and, as a result, their children learned to use hand signals in a variety of ways. On average, toddlers from well-educated families used gestures to convey 24 different meanings during a 90-minute play session. Toddlers from less-educated families used gestures to convey only 13.

“At 14 months of age, children are in the very early stages of productive language,” said Rowe.

“We didn’t see any differences in their spoken language, but we did see a difference in their gestures and that’s what we think is so striking.”

The study, published in the journal Science, goes on to find that once in school, the children who gestured most as toddlers scored on average 26 per cent higher in the language test than the other children.

By learning to gesture, toddlers pick up new words more quickly because it prompts parents to name the object gestured at. For example, if a child points at a doll, the parent might repeat the word “doll” a few times, boosting the child’s chances of remembering the word.

“Whether or not early gesture plays a direct or indirect role in word learning, it is clear that gesturing partially accounts for the relation between socio-economic status and later vocabulary skill,” they wrote. “The next step is to explore whether increases in gesturing lead to vocabulary gains in early childhood.”