Why Are Gestures Important?
Gestures can be a very important skill that can be observed by speech-language pathologists to assess a child's language development and cognitive development, a treatment target to help children develop communication, and a tool for assisting a child's language comprehension.
Gestures can provide children a means of communication when spoken communication is not fully developed. They can provide a way for children to indicate their wants and needs and decrease frustration. If a child can learn to use gestures successfully to communicate, it can create a positive interaction and build the child's self-esteem and confidence, encouraging further language development.
Early Gesture Development and Types
Early gestures serve to obtain and maintain attention and communication with adults, which are essential for establishing language learning opportunities.
Showing off is one of the first signs an infant gives of intentional interaction. Infants will repeat behaviors that previously have been successful in gaining adult attention and/or reaction. The children will use objects in their attempts to gain attention, leading to deictic gestures (these direct a persons attention). Showing, giving, and pointing emerge in this predictable sequence starting at approximately 10 months of age.
Ritualized requests emerge between 9 and 13 months and include reaching with an open-close grasping motion, placing an adult’s hand on an object to request setting it in motion, or pulling at an empty hand to obtain something.
Around 12 months, when the first word is also emerging, children start to use symbolic play schemes, which are carried out on a an object and depict its function, like using a block to represent a doll's bottle.
During this same time, representational gestures also emerge, typically before the child has reached 25 words. These gestures carry meaning in their form to symbolize something without manipulating the object itself, like flapping arms to represent a bird.
Gesture Predicts Subsequent Language Milestone
Using gestures at a younger age has been linked to total vocal production at a later age.
Pointing develops almost exactly at the same time as object name comprehension (around 10 ½ months).
Children with more object gestures (i.e. using hands to represent itsy bitsy spider) in their repertoire tend to have larger vocabularies and develop spoken words earlier.
Gesture and Language Reveal Symbolic Operations
Using gestures reveals a gradual distancing from self, or ‘symbolic development’. Infants start by SHOWING objects and looking toward others, which evolves to GIVING objects. Then they use a referential POINT.
This is important because words are symbolic. To successfully learn language, children must have an understanding that a spoken word can refer to something that is not related in any way to the word.
Gestures Facilitate Language Development
Infants pay attention to and copy gestures used by adults. Adults naturally use gesture along with speech to help children understand what is being said.
When parents use gesture-word pairs with their children, symbol use by the children begins earlier and these children outperform others in terms of earlyreceptive language.
Children rely on gestures more while language is developing and as their expressive language increases they use gesture more for emphasis to supplement or clarify their message.
Gestures Use is Associated with Advances in Expressive Language
During preschool years children use gestures with speech at levels comparable to adults. Children who use longer utterances and are more language proficient at this age also use more gestures.
Gestures Use is Associated with Advances in Receptive Language
Receptive language is also related with gesture comprehension. Using gestures along with speech facilitates language comprehension, especially when gestures are used when giving a direction to a child.
What Does This All Mean?
This information is relevant to therapists and families because it shows that gestures develop in a predictable way that can be used along with other assessment information and when treating children with language delay. For example, if a child is not yet using words but is using gestures to compensate, this may indicate a better prognosis than another child who is not yet using words or gestures.
Including gesture in language goals and treatment can be very beneficial and it is important to consider the TYPE of gesture use and understanding the child demonstrates.
Using gestures with children can help them understand language, vocabulary, and directions.
If your child has a language delay, gestures can be an important tool to help them understand and express themselves.
If you are concerned about your child's language development:
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Check out more information about child development and milestones:
A Review for Clinical and Research Practices
Rachel Troccoli, M.A., CCC-SLP.
Speech-Language Pathologist and Founder of Skyrocket Pediatric Therapy Foundation.
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