Five Ways to Use Gestures to Help Your Child Learn to Talk

“How can I help my child learn to talk?” is one of the most common questions we are asked as speech pathologists. We meet with so many dedicated, committed parents who are seeking advice about how to use play activities, stories and conversations to support and grow their children’s speech and language skills.

But did you know that one of the best ways that we can support speech and language skills has nothing to do with spoken words? Interestingly, children learn language through a combination of verbal (spoken) models as well as non-verbal models. Non-verbal models can include eye contact, facial expressions, body language and my personal favourite, gestures. And with a little know-how, gestures can be a powerful tool to help your child learn to talk. Read on to discover more about gestures and five ways you can use them to help your child learn to talk.

What Are Gestures?

Gestures refer to using our hands or body in a way to convey a message. Most of us use gestures without even realising! If we see a friend from afar and wave to them to come over, we are gesturing to them. Other examples include pointing, waving or clapping. Gestures are different to Key Word Signs, which is a structured and specific signing system. Natural gestures are more informal as they can be individual to different people, for example, one person’s gesture for “cold” may be very different to another person’s gesture for the same word.

When Should My Child Start Using Gestures?

Research shows us that gestures are one of the essential building blocks to helping our children learn to talk. From as young as nine months of age, gestures become a way for your baby to communicate with you long before they can use their verbal words.

Your ten month old baby may use gestures to show you something, give you something or draw your attention to something through pointing.

By around 18 months of age, toddlers will start to pair their gesture with a word. An example is pointing at a bird in the sky and saying ‘bird’ or reaching for their bottle and saying “bot bot”.

As children develop their verbal language, their need to use visuals and gestures will naturally fade and eventually disappear. But for children with communication difficulties, introducing and continuing to use gestures can be a wonderful way to grow your child’s understanding and use of language.

But Won’t Gestures Stop My Child Using Words?

This is a topic that comes up a lot with our families! And whilst it may seem that focusing on non-verbal communication like gestures can ‘get in the way’ of learning to talk, research shows us that the opposite is true. Using gestures can be such a valuable way of growing your child’s communication in the following ways:

  • Gestures are a universal way of communicating
  • Gestures help to focus your child’s attention, increasing the chance that your child will tune in to your message
  • Gestures provide a visual prompt of the word, which helps children who learn in a visual way
  • Gestures teach vocabulary in a different way to the spoken message, which offers children an alternative way to learn new words
  • Gestures can help your child build confidence in their developing skills as they do not always need to rely on the spoken word to communicate their needs

Five Top Tips to Use Gestures to Help Your Child Learn to Talk

Like all strategies designed to grow your child’s speech and language, there are techniques that you can implement that will enhance the way you introduce and use gestures. We have compiled our five top tips to help you get started with using gestures with your child:

1. Start with words your child is interested in

Research shows us that children learn language when they are interested and motivated. When your child is playing, take some time to observe what they are playing with, wait and see what and how they play with the toys and listen to what sounds you hear. This will help you choose your first words to add gestures to. If your child is not interested in toy cars, choosing words like crash, beep beep and stop may not be of interest. But if your child loves their vehicles, these words could be a great place to start!

2. Get face to face with your child

Bending down to your child’s level and facing your child will increase the chance that your child will tune into your gesture and respond to your message.

3. Choose gestures that feel natural to you

When deciding on a gesture for an item or activity, take some time to choose an action that feels natural to you and your family. One person’s gesture for ‘cold’ may look very different to another person’s gesture for the same word and this is ok! By individualising the gestures, this increases the chance that you will remember them and naturally use them throughout the day.

4. Pair your gesture with your spoken word

Remember that gestures do not replace spoken word – they enhance them! When you say the word ‘car’, use your ‘car’ gesture at the same time, every time! This increases the chance that your child will link the gesture to the spoken word and build their understanding.

5. Get everyone on board!

Children learn language best when they are exposed to the same models in all environments. So teach Grandma and Grandpa, Daycare educators and school teachers the same gestures that you have developed. The more exposure your child receives, the more likely they are to learn, understand and use them to communicate.

Gestures can be a simple, effective way to support and grow your communication skills. With our top tips, you will be on your way to building understanding and vocabulary with your little ones. And if you’re feeling like you need extra support, be sure to reach out to us for more information.

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