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The Unspoken First

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

There are so many firsts in a child’s development. First smile. First sounds. First food. First words. First steps.


But did you know that there is another element of communication development that comes before first words?


Using gestures!

Gestures are “physical actions performed with the intent to communicate” (Iverson & Thal, 1998). Humans use gestures all the time as part of their communication. As adults, we may shrug our shoulders, give a thumbs up, or raise our eyebrows – all of which has meaning to the person we are communicating with.


Babies also use gestures! They often gesture with their hands (e.g., clapping), fingers (e.g., pointing), head (e.g., nodding), and sometimes their body (e.g., shrugging).


The Importance of Gestures


In fact, gestures are strong predictors of verbal language development. Research shows that learning and using gestures helps children learn language.

  • Children with more gestures tend to have larger expressive vocabulary

  • Children who point or show objects, learn that object word faster

  • Children combine gestures with words before they make two-word combinations

  • Children with language delays make more progress when parents use gestures and words together during play.

Gestures are important for children because they allow them to communicate before they are ready to use words. This reduces frustration, builds connection with others, and provides opportunities for us to model language.


Gesture Development


Children typically begin to use gestures as early as 8-9 months and will continue to add different kinds of gestures as they get older.


At first, gestures will be social in nature (like giving, pointing, waving) and they will develop to be more symbolic (like blowing or shrugging). There are also cultural gestures (like thumbs up) which will vary based on the child's environment.


Some early gestures and related words to model include:

Early Gestures Chart

And here are some slightly later gestures and related words:

Later Gestures Chart

As children get older, they will begin to have a variety of symbolic gestures in their repertoire. Perhaps your child flaps their hand to mean go away or waves a hand over their nose to mean stinky.


NOTE: This post is all about developmental gestures, not baby signs. If you choose to teach your baby signs, these count as words (i.e., not gestures) once your baby is using them consistently, independently, and contextually.


Encouraging Gestures


As parents and caregivers, we can encourage our little ones to use gestures more in our everyday routines. The more you model gestures, the more your baby will too. And always pair the verbal word with your gestures so they are exposed to the word as well!


Some ideas for using gestures in your everyday routines:


1. Waving -- "hi", "bye"

  • When you say hi/bye to people: "bye bye daddy"

  • When you see something outside: "hi doggy"

  • When you clean up a toy: "bye bye ball"

  • When you see yourself in a mirror: "hi baby"

  • When you throw something away: "bye bye tissue"

  • When you sing Wheels on the Bus: “the kids on the bus they wave bye bye”

2. Clapping -- "yay"

  • When you sing a song

  • When you finish an activity

  • When your baby does a skill

  • When you sing Pat-a-Cake or If You’re Happy and You Know It

3. Raising Hands -- "up"

  • When your baby finishes eating

  • When your baby is on the ground

  • When your baby is in a bouncer or seat

  • When you sing Wheels on the Bus: “the people on the bus go UP and down”

4. Shaking or Nodding Head -- "yes" and "no"

  • When your baby rejects a food or toy -- "no"

  • When you're reading a book with a yes/no question

  • When your baby does something dangerous -- "no"

5. Blowing Kisses -- "mwah"

  • When you play with dolls and stuffies

  • When you play peekaboo or hide-and-seek

  • When someone leaves the room

6. Pointing -- "look"

  • When you are going on a walk, point out what you see -- "look, a birdie!"

  • When you see your baby looking at a toy, point to it -- "look at your ball!"

  • When someone walks into the room, point to them -- "look, it's daddy!"

  • When you are reading a book -- "look, a dino!"

When To Get Support


As mentioned above, gesture use is directly related to verbal language acquisition. The ranges of acquisition may vary from child to child, but the rule of thumb is that we want to see approximately 16 gestures by 16 months.


If you are concerned about your child's development and not seeing these gestures emerging, we recommend you to seek out a speech language pathologist. Early intervention services are free in Massachusetts.


We can also help you out here at Talk Time Boston. Our parent module Birth to Birthday and Beyond is a great place to start learning specific ways to encourage gesture-use and verbal language for your baby (age 6-18 months). Starting in the late summer/early fall 2022, Talk Time Boston will also be available to provide parent consultations, evaluations, and speech therapy services.


Resources:


Capone, N. C. & McGregor, K. K. (2004). Gesture development: A review for clinical and research practices. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 47, 173-186.


Capone Singleton, N. & Saks, J. (2015). Co-speech gesture input as a support for language learning in children with and without early language delay. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 22, 61-71.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2015). Gesture as a window onto communicative abilities: Implications for diagnosis and intervention. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 22, 50-60.


Iverson J. M., Thal D. J. (1998). “Communicative transitions: There’s more to the hand than meets the eye” in Transitions in prelinguistic communication. eds. Wetherby A., Warren S., Reichle J. (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes)


McGillion, M., Herbert, J.S., Pine, J., Vihman, M., dePaolis, R., Keren-Portnoy, T., & Matthews, D. (2017). What Paves the Way to Conventional Language? The Predictive Value of Babble, Pointing, and Socioeconomic Status. Child Development, 88(1), 156-166.


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