It just amazes me the way newborn babies come into the world as natural communicators. After their first wail, they exhibit an increasing variety of gestures and sounds; quickly becoming full-bodied, kinesthetic communicators, successfully letting us know their needs and desires through a barrage of gestures and gesticulations.
Throughout his/her early growth spurts, a young child’s gesture vocabulary expands in complex and fascinating ways. Children begin with what is called deictic gestures (pointing at actual objects), and metaphoric gestures (movements in space to represent an abstract idea, such as gesturing upward to indicate “high”). Then, as their use of language and vocabulary become more fluid, they begin to slowly connect words to objects and abstract thoughts. Little ones form a fully integrated relationship between gestures and words as they grow from toddlers to preschoolers. This relationship with language will continue to be refined throughout life.
Recent research in language acquisition has revealed just how important gestures are in supporting word acquisition, as well as in other learning areas, including math. The Goldin-Meadow Laboratory at the University of Chicago, headed by Susan Goldin-Meadow, is an important research hub for the exploration of the role and value of gestures. The lab focuses on topics related to cognition, development, education and linguistics, including the study of non-verbal communication, like gestures.
In a 2011 TexXUChicago TED Talk, Goldin-Meadow makes the case that gestures not only reveal what is on a child’s mind, but can also help change a child’s mind in order to support instruction and learning. This exciting discovery reinforces and supports our innate impulse to use gesture as a way to convey meaning.
Families can play an active role in word recognition and vocabulary skills simply by incorporating gestures, creative movement and meaningful play experiences into a child’s world, whether at home or on the go! Here are five easy activities that use gesture to generate vocabulary practice and boost literacy skills over time.
- Trust your instincts: Use your own hands to gesture with your children. It’s not clowning around, it’s communicating! And nothing works better than modeling.
- Words and actions go together: When reading, encourage your child to point to images and identify them not only with words and sounds, but also by making shapes with their hands/bodies.
- Sing along: When in the car, play simple songs that encourage children to use gesture and movement. There are a ton of great silly songs – remember “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”?
- Play: Encourage make-believe play where kids are given the opportunity to pretend and act out ideas.
- Practice: Try ‘Simon Says’ using gestures. Practice is fun and it reinforces word and object recognition.
Whether you start with simple hand gestures or animated body language, by incorporating these elements into play and daily routine, you’ll be supporting your child’s literacy growth right in your own home!
Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a member of the Educational Advisory Board for the Goddard School, co-founder of The Johns Hopkins Neuro-Education Initiative and founder of Curiosityville.
Articles and Research Which Informed This Post