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Coaching Parents to Use Declarative Gestures


Did you know that in most children, POINTING to show an object happens even BEFORE the use of expressive language? Gestures are really critical for language development in early communicators, and there is also new research that supports that parents’ use of gestures, rather than just the child’s use, can predict vocabulary skills measured later. (Choi, B. et al. 2021)

This means that coaching parents to use declarative gestures is extremely important in the world of speech and language therapy. I’m looking at you, early intervention SLPs.

What is a Declarative Gesture?

Gestures are considered “declarative” when the child’s goal is simply to direct another person’s attention to something in the environment that the child considers to be interesting. For example, if your child points out the window at the school bus driving by with excitement, that is a declarative gesture.

How Does Using Gestures Affect Your Speech?

The evidence about using gestures shows that these are essential for communication and that modeling them is critical. As stated above, there is a lot of research to prove that parents’ use of gestures, rather than just the child’s use, can predict vocabulary skills measured later.

Declarative vs. Imperative Gestures

As stated above, declarative pointing means trying to gain joint attention. Choi B. et al found that parents’ use of declarative gestures with their 12-month-olds can predict vocabulary skills at 36 months old. This study is different from previous ones because of the focus on parents’ use of gestures, rather than the child’s.

Imperative gestures are gestures used to direct the action of the child. For example, holding a hand out while saying, “Give me the block” or pointing while saying, “Put it in.” Interestingly enough, another study conducted by Colonnesi et al. (2010) has shown that the development of expressive language is related to declarative pointing but not to imperative pointing. Therefore, coaching parents to use declarative pointing or gestures with their children starting at the early childhood level is important for speech therapists to do.

The Parent Coaching Model of SLPs

In the study discussed above, parents used a similar number of imperative and declarative gestures during play, but only declarative gestures were predictive of vocabulary skills at age 3. This was the same for children with and without an immediate family history of autism. When interpreting these findings, it is also important to note that the children in the study scored within one standard deviation of the mean on both receptive and expressive skills, and the parents had high levels of education.

Here are some examples of things that parents can be doing to increase their child’s declarative gestures:

 — “I got a new hat!” (While tapping your hat)

— “The car is fast!” (While pointing to the car driving down the road)

— “Uh-oh! I spilled!” (While pointing towards the kitchen spill)

— “Look at the bird!” (While pointing to the bird outside)

— Pointing to a toy while saying, “The car is fast!”

Using declarative gestures in this way with young children, you will have a better chance of increasing their vocabulary and language skills.


Valerie Carballo is an SLP at Capernaum