Children who pick up gestures from their parents at an early age often have more advanced vocabulary by school age and go on to perform better academically, says new US research.
Psychologists from the University of Chicago have claimed their study shows that parents and teachers can help children learn to speak by encouraging the use of gestures, rather than simply speaking to them.
The study also goes some way to providing the answer as to why children who come from low socio-economic backgrounds often come to school with less vocabulary development.
Focusing on children as young as 14-months-old, the authors explored the reasons behind this occurrence. Psychologists have long stated that families of higher income and education levels talk more frequently and use more complex sentences than their poorer counterparts. However, this study was one of the first to focus on whether gestures, too, influence children's vocabulary levels.
The children were videotaped whilst reading, eating or playing with their parents or primary caregiver, and it was discovered that those who use extra gesturing were the ones from higher socio-economic groups.
Professor Susan Goldin-Meadow, co-author of the study said: "It is striking that, in the initial stages of language where socio-economic differences in children's spoken vocabulary are not yet evident, we see socio-economic status differences in gesture use."
Although the paper does not supply a causal link between early child gesture and later child vocabulary, the authors suggested two possible ways by which one could encourage the other. "Child gesture could play an indirect role in word learning by eliciting a timely response from parents," they wrote. "For example, in response to a child's point at a doll, mother might say 'yes, that's a doll', thus providing a word for the object that is the focus of the child's attention."
It is also thought that the connection could simply be that children make a stronger connection if there is visual and oral communication.
By Florence Buswell