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article imageToddlers Who Point, Will Talk Soon After

By Joan Firstenberg     Feb 13, 2009 in Lifestyle
A discovery into how and why some children are speaking well by the time they enter kindergarten, while others lag behind. Scientists say it has a lot to do with early gesturing.
Toddlers do a lot of gesturing...pointing, waving bye-bye, raising their arms to be picked up--but now, scientists say the more these tiny tots gesture, the sooner they will talk, and the better their vocabularies will be.
University of Chicago researchers also discovered that whether a family is poor or middle class plays a big role in determining how this goes. That's because a big key to this is how parents talk to their children from babyhood on. Previous research showed that parents with better educations and higher incomes tend to talk and read more to their children, and use more varied vocabulary and complex syntax.
To check into this, university psychology researchers Susan Goldin-Meadow and Meredith Rowe visited the homes of 50 Chicago-area families of varying socioeconomic status who had 14-month-olds. They videotaped the family for 90 minutes to count both parents' and children's words and gestures. Quantity aside, they also counted whether children made gestures with specific meanings.
What the researchers were looking for wasn't parents formally training their tots, Instead, they wanted to see them using everyday gestures to point something out or to illustrate a concept. For example, a child points to a dog, and the mother says, "Yes, that's a dog." Or if the child sees a bird, and the dad flaps his arms to indicate flying.
The researchers did find an income gap exists concerning gesturing even in toddlerhood, when children speak few words. The researchers reported in the journal "Science" that....
"Higher-income parents did gesture more and, more importantly, their children on average produced 25 meanings in gesture during that 90-minute session, compared with an average of 13 among poorer children."
The same researchers then returned to the homes when the children were age 4 1/2 to test the child's vocabulary comprehension. The poorer children scored worse, by about 24 points. Researchers blamed mostly socioeconomic status and parents' speech, but said gesturing contributed, too.
Peggy McCardle, with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded the work says..
"It's not just that richer parents gesture more. It's that there's a greater variety of types of gesture that would signal different types of meaning,. t sure looks like the kids are learning that and it's given them kind of a leg-up."
The study didn't actually prove that gesturing leads to better word-learning, but it is now seen as a strong hint. Scientists wonder if encouraging low-income parents to gesture more could translate to toddlers who do, too, and in turn improve school readiness.
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