Communication is not just about saying words! We all communicate in a variety of ways such as using facial expression, body language, eye contact and gestures. Children naturally use gestures and signs as it helps them to express themselves. When adults use gestures with them, that also helps them to learn the meanings of words.


So how can using gestures and signs help?

Many of us use gestures and signs naturally to accompany what we say, especially when talking to small children. This gives extra information which can be seen. When you talk, you may point, wave, beckon or use your hands to express yourself. Children also gesture or sign even before they produce their first words (Bates, 1976), e.g. ‘flapping arms’ for birds, ‘waving hands’ for bye-bye, and pointing to what they want.


Benefits of using gestures and signs

  • They actually accelerate language acquisition. Many parents express concern that using gestures or signs is going to delay or stop their children from talking. However, studies have found that children who use more gestures often begin to speak earlier and have larger expressive vocabularies (Acredolo et al., 2000, p.81).
  • They utilise more diverse areas of the brain for communication. When gestures and speech go together, language is not processed solely through listening, but also through the visual cues that gestures provide.
  • They enable more processing time for your child. Using gestures and signs along with your speech is likely to slow down your pace when you are talking. This, in turn, helps with your child’s language processing and learning.
  • Simple gestures and signs allow your child to easily express their immediate desires and needs, significantly lowering frustration levels for themselves and everyone around them. This, in turn, can reduce tantrums and help with emotional regulation.
  • Gestures can bridge a gap between two languages in a bilingual family. The words may be different, but the sign is the same. Knowing the sign for a word helps your child recognise the same word spoken in another language.


Important things to remember when using gestures and signs

  • Always talk at the same time you use gestures and signs. The aim is for your child to use speech. The sign gives them an extra clue and helps reinforce the meaning of the word for your child.
  • When your child uses a gesture, you can copy it and at the same time say the word that matches the gesture.
  • Use gestures or signs that show the features of the object such as shape or function of the object, e.g. make a writing action while you say “pencil”.
  • Use the gestures consistently. It may take a while for your child to begin to use them.


Gestures and signs are about communication and understanding between you and your child, so start now!

You can click here to find out more about the Makaton language programme which we use at the CDC.



Acredolo, L. P., Brown, C. A., & Goodwyn, S. W. (2000). Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development. Nonverbal Behavior, 81.

Bates, E. (1976). Language and Context: The Acquisition of Pragmatics. New York, NY: Academic Press.