Infants and toddlers communicate from birth, and they reach many communication milestones before they utter their first word. Each prelinguistic skill that develops during infancy builds into the next, and each lays a foundation for language learning. Among these skills, the development of deictic gestures is a significant achievement linked to a child’s word learning. Deictic gestures include reaching to a parent, caregiver or object, showing a toy or object, giving an object, and pointing to an object or an event.

Why are deictic gestures important for language learning?

  • Caregivers are more likely to respond to gestures with contingent language than other early communication forms like vocalizations (Olson & Masur, 2015; Wu & Gros-Louis, 2015).
  • When caregivers respond to or translate a child’s gestures with words, a child has contextual cues about what those words mean (Dimitrova et al., 2016; Lucca & Wilbourn, 2018, 2019).
  • Gestures are effective ways of showing their intent (pointing to a cup with a nice little wiggle makes the baby’s needs very clear).
  • Children that gesture more often have larger vocabularies (Rowe & Goldin-Meadow, 2009).

What can parents and caregivers do to help?

  • Use gestures while you talk! Lots of pointing while talking makes your meaning clear.
  • Create opportunities for a child to gesture by pausing before anticipating what a child wants (even if we already know).
  • Respond to gestures with a gesture! The clearer we can make the meaning of our words, the easier word learning is for babies!

What is MORE?

At CEC-RAP, we are investigating approaches to supporting gesture use by conducting experimental and descriptive studies. The acronym MORE stands for-

  • Model gestures while using a short phrase – we can model by pointing to label objects and events, giving objects to a toddler while labeling it, or holding up an object to show it to the child.
  • Create Opportunities to gesture by waiting, offering choices, and using other environmental arrangements
  • Respond/Expand a child’s gesture with contingent language and another gesture. It builds a child’s understanding of words and gives another model of a gesture. This strategy keeps the conversation going!

Published Research

Romano, M. K., & Windsor, K. S. (2020). Increasing deictic gesture use to support the language development of toddlers from high poverty backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly50, 129-139.

Our Partners

  • Kids Incorporated
  • Early Learning Coalition
  • FSU Childcare Center