Toddlers' gestures hold key to their future speech

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The type of hand gestures used by toddlers learning to talk can indicate whether the child will develop a bigger vocabulary in later life, a study has found. Scientists say that young children who convey more meaning in their hand gestures are more likely than others to end up with a wider range of words when they learn to talk.

A study of pre-school toddlers from 50 families found the use of hand gestures from the age of 14 months was a strong indicator of whether that child was likely to do well at school. Researchers found that children who tended to use hand gestures early in life to convey the most meaning were more likely to come from middle-class families with better-educated parents.

"Vocabulary is a key predictor of school success and is a primary reason why children from low-income families enter school at a greater risk of failure than their peers from advantaged families," said Professor Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago.

The study, published in the journal Science, did not analyse the meanings conveyed in individual gestures but did find a strong correlation between hand movements and speech.

"Child gesture could play an indirect role in word learning by eliciting timely speech from parents, for example, in response to her child's point at the doll, mother might say 'yes, that's a doll', thus providing a word for the object that is the focus of the child's attention," Professor Goldin-Meadow said.

One of the principal aims of the study was to investigate the phenomenon that children of poorer families start school with narrower vocabularies than children from families of higher socio-economic status. At 14 months, the scientists found no difference in speech between children of different backgrounds because at this age they can say only a few words, said Meredith Rowe of Chicago University, the co-author of the study. "But we did see differences in their gestures and that's what is so striking," she said.