Then the researchers 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.
It’s not just that richer parents gesture more, stressed Peggy McCardle of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded the work.
“It’s that there’s a greater variety of types of gesture that would signal different types of meaning,” McCardle said. “It sure looks like the kids are learning that and it’s given them kind of a leg-up.”
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 translate to toddlers who do, too, and in turn improve school readiness.
“It wouldn’t hurt to encourage parents to talk more and gesture more,” Rowe said.