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Baby Gestures Linked to Vocabulary Development

Kids from high-income families do better at both, but researchers not exactly sure why

THURSDAY, Feb. 12 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests the income and education levels of parents are connected to a baby's skills with gesturing, which in turn can indicate whether a child will develop strong language abilities.

"The children who are gesturing about more things in their environment have larger vocabularies later," said study author Meredith L. Rowe. "And we see that children from higher socioeconomic levels are gesturing more."

The research doesn't prove that children in less privileged families gesture less and therefore grow up with more limited vocabularies. Nor is every baby destined to follow the general patterns found by researchers.

"We're not saying that gesture is the whole story," added Rowe, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago. But the links uncovered in the study do help researchers "pinpoint some things that seem to matter," she said.

While they don't get quite as much attention as words, gestures are also an effective form of communication: Think of sign language, for instance. Babies, in fact, start gesturing before they speak, Rowe said.

In the new study, Rowe and researchers examined 50 children from the Chicago area when they were 14 months old and then again at 4.5 years. The researchers filmed 90-minute videos of the kids interacting with their parents at home for the first session, and tested their vocabulary in the second.

The findings were published in the Feb. 13 issue of Science.

The researchers found that the level of gesturing at 14 months is linked to the vocabulary level at 4.5 years; the income and education of parents also played a role. For instance, during the first session, the children from high-income households gestured 24 times, compared to 13 gestures from kids in low-income homes. And when both groups were tested for vocabulary, the kids from the high-income families scored 117, compared to 93 in the other group.

Spencer Kelly, a gesture researcher and an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University in New York, said children from more privileged households might live in homes with more objects, such as toys and furniture. As a result, they may "provide more opportunities for parent and child to use gestures when talking about things."

It's also possible that the children might have more opportunities for activities with their families, because there may be fewer children and more free time, Kelly said. "Much research has shown that these sorts of social activities help children learn language."

Why does all this matter? "Above and beyond what children and parents say with their words, what they do with their hands is important for how children develop language," Kelly said. "These results fit with recent research demonstrating that hand gestures enhance learning and memory in educational contexts, such as gaining new math skills or acquiring new words in a foreign language."

In the big picture, gesture appears to influence vocabulary, "which is a strong predictor of students' success," said Rowe. "If they're lagging in vocabulary, they might not have much of a chance to catch up."

The next step, she said, is to see if helping kids gesture more will help them develop better vocabulary.

More information

Learn more about language development in babies from the American Pregnancy Association.

SOURCES: Meredith L. Rowe, Ph.D., postdoctoral scholar, University of Chicago; Spencer Kelly, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.; Feb. 13, 2009, Science

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