Headstart for Life

Gesturing: Its Importance For Language Development

Posted on Monday, June 5, 2017 by 3 minutes

“When will my child begin to talk?” This is a question speech-language pathologists are frequently asked by parents. In response to this question, I ask the question: “Is your child gesturing?”

A gesture is “a movement or position of the hand, arm, body, head, or face that is expressive of an idea, opinion, emotion.” Parents who are eager to hear their child say their first word commonly overlook non-verbal means of communication. It is actually an extremely exciting milestone when a child becomes an intentional communicator.  Children begin communicating months before speaking their first word using non-verbal gestures, facial expressions, and eye gaze.

          Palm up gesture


Photo credit: http://divorcedwomenonline.com/2010/07/06/did-you-know-child-support-can-be-modified/

A baby’s first gestures emerge at about 9 months of age, which function to point, show, and give something in his/her immediate environment.  Called deictic gestures, these can be as simple as pointing to a toy to request for it. As a child matures, his/her cognitive understanding of symbols develops, and he/she is able to use more advanced gestures that use symbols to represent a specific abstract meaning. Called representational gestures, they include conventional gestures, such as waving hello or goodbye and head shaking to indicate ‘no’, and iconic gestures, such as raising your hand high up spatially to describe a very tall person and shaping your hand in the shape of a cup when referring to a cup. See the table below for a guideline of gesture development from 9 months to 24 months.

Age Gestural Skill
9-12 Months •    Requests objects by pointing or reaching with hand

•    Gains attention by making physical contact (i.e. grabbing leg, pulling on adult)

•    Reaches to be picked up

•    Performs an action to indicate wanting something to happen again (i.e. banging on the table after you bang on the table)

•    Anticipates and initiates social games like peek-a-boo by covering face with a blanket

•    Waves bye

•    Imitates clapping

•    Shows and gives objects to adults

12- 15 Months •    Gives objects to adult to request help

•    Demonstrates functional use of objects. For example, brushes hair, stirs with a spoon etc…

•    Hugs stuffed animals

•    Claps to show excitement

•    Dances to music

15-18 Months •    Shakes head “no”

•    Points to get you to do something. For example, points to a door to indicate “open” or “out”

•    Smacks lips to indicate “food”

•    Points to object upon request, (i.e. “Show me your tummy!”)

•    Points to objects for adults to name or label

•    Indicates all done by putting hands up or shaking hands

18-24 Months •    Makes funny faces, silly sounds, sticks out tongue to gain attention

•    Representational gestures emerge. These include shrugging shoulders, putting hands up to indicate, “What’s that?” or “Where did it go?”

•    Blows kisses

•    Slaps palm for “high five”

•    Clarifies verbal messages by pointing to objects they attempt to verbally label

(Source: http://nspt4kids.com/speech-and-language/development-gestures-communication/)

As a speech-language pathologist, I often develop non-verbal communication in parallel with verbal communication for children with speech and language delays. When a child has difficulty speaking, he/she needs an alternative means to communicate his wants and needs; hence, teaching simple gestures can alleviate the child’s frustrations.


Frustration from being unable to communicate one’s needs and wants       Photo credit: https://media1.popsugar-assets.com/files/2013/02/06/1/192/1922398/netimgB73IHx.xxxlarge/i/How-Survive-Grocery-Store-Tantrum.jpg

Not only that, but gesture appears to facilitate development of spoken language as well.  Research shows that gesture precedes spoken language and plays a facilitating role in early language development. In their study, Iverson and Goldin-Meadow (2005) found that on average, children produced gestures for objects three months before they produced the word for that object (e.g., pointing to a cup before saying the word cup). They also found that for children moving from one word to two word phrases, gestures (e.g., point to bird) were paired with words (e.g., say sleep) to communicate a more complex meaning (e.g., bird is sleeping) as a transition to using two word combinations (e.g., saying bird sleep). The children who started speaking two word combinations the earliest could be predicted by looking at the type of gestures they produced.

Furthermore, a child’s gestural skills can predict the likelihood a child with delayed speech and language skills will continue to be delayed. Thal, Thobias, and Morrison (1991) studied children with delayed speech and language skills. The factor differentiating the children who were delayed in speech and language but caught up with their same aged peers by age 3 from those who did not catch up by age 3 was the frequency and complexity of their gestures. Those who were late bloomers (i.e., those who caught up by age 3) had more complex and more frequent gestures than those who were late talkers (i.e., those who did not catch up by age 3).

If your child is not producing words and is not gesturing, it would be more worrying and I would highly recommend seeing a speech-language pathologist for an assessment.

What can parents do at home to support a child’s communication skills when he/she is not speaking? Teach him/her to communicate needs and wants using gestures. This will give them a means to communicate with you in a way that is socially acceptable and at the same time, decrease frustration and undesirous behaviors such as crying and throwing a tantrum. See the table below for examples.

Communicative Function Example
a) Request for item Palm up
b) Request more of something Palm up

Tap table

c) Protest ‘no’ Shake head

Put hand in front of item

Wave hand in front of item

d) Request for help Give item to adult


e) Greet ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ Wave hand
f) Indicate completion Put hands up

Shake hands

Lastly, here are a few things to keep in mind when supporting your child’s gesture skills:

  • Be a good model to your child and show how these gestures are used. For example, if you want your child to give you something he/she is holding, model the gesture, such as putting your palm up in front of the child, and say “Mommy wants” and wait for your child to give the item to you. Take a step back and observe your own actions to see whether you are being a good model. If you have the tendency to grab the item from your child, it may be difficult for him/her to learn to request using gesture.
  • Pair your gestures with words.   For example, if you use the palm up gesture to request more of a snack, pair the gesture with the words, “I want more.”  This will help facilitate acquisition of verbal language simultaneously.

Please feel free to post comments and questions in the space below.  Our team at HeadStart for Life would love to hear from you!


B Jarzynski. (2013, March 17). Using gestures to predict and promote language in children. Retrieved from http://www.talkingkids.org/2013/03/using-gestures-to-predict-and-promote.html

Iverson, J. M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological Science, 16, 367-371.

J Jamicich. (2014, July 8). The development of gestures in communication. Retrieved from http://nspt4kids.com/speech-and-language/development-gestures-communication/

Thal, D., Tobias, S., & Morrison, D. (1991). Language and gesture in late talkers: A one-year follow up. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 34, 604–612.

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"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Jessica

Jessica is an experienced speech and language therapist who has been working with young children with speech-language delays and Autism Spectrum Disorders. She believes in developing a nurturing relationship with each child and his/her family and strongly believes in active parent involvement in therapy sessions. Jessica uses engaging activities that are meaningful to each individual to motivate and empower them to be effective communicators. She is a mother of a toddler boy, which she believes makes her a more empathetic clinician.

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