For Parents

For Parents

Do You Speak Toddler?

How to respond to your toddler’s gestures in order to foster language learning-

If you’ve already read the blog post from February 16th, “A Point on Vocabulary Growth”, then you probably already know that gesture is an important part of development and has connections to language learning. That study by LaBarton and colleagues showed a connection between gesture and vocabulary development and that the frequency of gesturing can be increased, in typically developing kids. Other research on typically developing kids tells us that the earlier they gesture at an object, the earlier that word appears in their vocabulary. These words are mostly likely to enter a child’s vocabulary if the caregiver “translates” what the child is pointing at. Caregivers who “translate” use the word for the object at which the child is gesturing in their response (for example a caregiver might say “I see your truck!” when her child points at his toy truck).

But what about children with neurodevelopmental delays, do their vocabularies also benefit from gesture?

What we know so far:

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) use similar gestures to their typically developing peers, but they tend to gesture less. The important thing is, the more they gesture, the bigger the vocabulary!

Children with Down Syndrome (DS) have been known to gesture as much or more than typically developing children. In these children, however, more gesturing does not always mean a bigger vocabulary.

A study recently published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders by Nevena Dimitrova and colleagues investigated this relationship between gesture and vocabulary size in typically developing kids, kids with ASD and kids with DS. The researchers recorded caregivers at play with their children several times over the course of a year.

On their first visit, the researchers noted which words the child used verbally and towards which objects they gestured. They were interested specifically in those words that the child did not use verbally but that described something he was pointing at. This specific list of words was recorded for each child and in each of the remaining visits, the researchers looked for those words to emerge verbally. Additionally, at each visit, the researchers also recorded how the caregivers responded to the children’s gestures. These responses were grouped into one of two categories, those which translated the gesture into specific words (“I see that bottle!”) and those which did not (“I see that over there!”).

Based on this information, the researchers concluded that:

  1. All three groups of children were more likely to gesture to objects for which they did not have labels.
  2. Caregivers responded verbally to these gestures the vast majority of the time. The majority of those responses were “translations” of the gesture.
  3. All three groups of children learned more words when their gestures were “translated” than when they were not.

These results are important because they highlight that 1) many parents are naturally getting it right 2) for parents or children who are struggling, we now have one more tool. This early vocabulary is extremely important for future language development and eventually academic achievement. When your toddler is pointing at something, they probably mean, “I want to know more about that,” giving you an excellent opportunity to say the word that matches the focus of that point and helping your child to connect the word they are hearing with the object that they have in mind.


Dimitrova, N., Özçalışkan, Ş., & Adamson, L. B. (2016). Parents’ translations of child gesture facilitate word learning in children with autism, Down syndrome and typical development. Journal of autism and developmental disorders46(1), 221-231.