Using Co-Speech Gestures to Build Language During Storytime

gesture picture

Do you have a child with an early language delay? Would you like to learn a new strategy that can help your child learn new vocabulary? Try using co-speech gestures!

I found an interesting article written by Nina Capone Singleton and Jessica Saks (2015) titled Co-Speech Gesture Input as a Support for Language Learning in Children With or Without Early Language Delay. The article studied how co-speech gestures significantly affects the vocabulary growth of young children with a language delay. What is considered to be an early language delay (ELD)? Children with an early language delay are usually referred for a speech and language evaluation at approximately 18-35 months of age due to concerns of few words or a delay to combine words into phrases (Rescorla, 2011). For more information about early language delay, check out ASHA’s website, Identify The Signs campaign.

According to Singleton and Saks (2015), “an adult’s co-speech gesturing provides a visual support to a child learning new concepts”. Co speech gestures can be simply pointing to the object and saying it. It can also be indicated with creating the objects function or shape with the word. Indicating a word by its shape is called a co speech shape gesture. What are some examples of co-speech gesturing?

1. Pointing to a teddy bar and saying “Look, a teddy bear!” This can also be represented with a cuddling gesture to indicate the softness of the bear.

2. Pointing to a ball and saying “Ball” and using your hand to indicate throwing or rolling a ball.

3. Pointing to bubbles and using a gesture such a rounding your lips and blowing like you are blowing bubbles through a wand.

4. Making a “V” gesture to indicate a bunnies ears when teaching the word “bunny”.

Nina Capone Singleton and Jessica Saks (2015) conducted a pilot study consisting of seven children with early language delays. According to Nina Capone Singleton and Jessica Saks (2015), the age range of the children in the study were consistent with identification of children with an early language delay. All children were receiving speech and language therapy and performed below the 10th percentile on an expressive vocabulary or formal language test. All children participated in co-speech shape gesture conditions and most of the children participated in the co-speech function gestures. Each child participated in a control condition that was either no gesture, a co-speech gesture or other co-speech gesture (such as function or shape). The results of the study indicated the following:

1. Six out of seven children learned a least one word with five of those six children learning words with co-speech gestures.

2. Six of the effective gestures were iconic gestures, and one word was learned with a co-speech point gesture.

3. Five out of seven children benefited from a shape gesture paired with a word model (saying the word while you are pointing to it and then indicating the shape)

Multi-Ethnic Group Of People's Arms Raised Holding Letters ThatHow can we apply this research to reading your child a book during mealtime? Here are some tips!

-Always pair the gesture with the word 

-When teaching your child a new word, point to the picture in the book, say it and then and use an iconic gesture. For example, if you are reading Brown Bear Brown Bear, point to the bear and say “Brown Bear”. Indicate the bear by acting out a bear sound or indicating the softness of the fur.


-Use co speech gestures as much as possible. I love the Priddy Books for children with and without language delays. I find the pictures to be very concrete, clear and engaging. For example, when reading this book, First Words by Priddy Books, point to the “ball” and indicate the shape of the ball by rounding your hands. For the word, “chair” indicate the word by pretending to sit down or using the sign for “chair”.

priddy first words


-Another example, in the same book by First Words by Priddy Books for the word “orange”, indicate peeling the orange when teaching the word. For the word “apple” indicate biting into an apple as a gesture. You can also indicate peeling the apple with a peeler if that is what your child associates an apple with.

orange apple

I hope you find these tips helpful!


Rescoral, L. (2011). Late talkers: Do good predictors of outcomes exist? Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 17, 141-150.

Singleton, N. & Saks, J. (2015). Co-Speech Gesture Input as a Support for Language Learning in Children With or Without Early Language Delay. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 22, 61-71.


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