WASHINGTON — Don't just talk to your toddler -- gesture, too. Pointing, waving bye-bye and other natural gestures seem to boost a budding vocabulary.
Scientists found that those tots who could convey more meaning with gestures at age 14 months went on to have a richer vocabulary as they prepared to start kindergarten. And intriguingly, whether a family is poor or middle class plays a role, the researchers reported recently.
Anyone who's ever watched a toddler perform the arms-raised "pick me up now" demand knows that youngsters figure out how to communicate well before they can talk. Gesturing also seems to be an important precursor to forming sentences, as children start combining one word plus a gesture for a second word.
University of Chicago researchers wondered if gesturing also played a role in a serious problem: Children from low-income families start school with smaller vocabularies than their better-off classmates. It's a gap that tends to persist as the students age. In fact, kindergarten vocabulary is a predictor of how well youngsters ultimately fare in school.
One big key to a child's vocabulary is how their parents talked to them from babyhood on. Previous research has shown that higher-income, better-educated parents tend to talk and read more to small children, and to use more varied vocabulary and complex syntax.
Do those parents also gesture more as they talk with and teach their children?
To see, 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 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.
This is not baby sign-language; parents weren't formally training their tots. Instead, they used everyday gestures to point something out or illustrate a concept. A child points to a dog and Mom says, "Yes, that's a dog." Or Dad flaps his arms to mimic flying. Or pointing illustrates less concrete concepts like "up" or "down" or "big."
The researchers found an income gap with gesturing even in toddlerhood, when children speak few words.
Higher-income parents did gesture more, and their children produced, on average, 25 meanings in gesture during the 90-minute session, compared with an average of 13 among poorer children, the researchers reported in the journal Science.
The researchers then returned to test vocabulary comprehension at age 4 1/2 . The poorer children scored worse, by about 24 points. Researchers blamed mostly socioeconomic status and parents' speech but said gesturing contributed too.
The study doesn't prove gesturing leads to better word-learning, but it's a strong hint.
Now scientists wonder if encouraging low-income parents to gesture more could help better prepare toddlers for school.
"It wouldn't hurt to encourage parents to talk more and gesture more," Rowe said.