About this episode
Before an infant can learn the link between a word and an object by following a pointing gesture, Professor Nancy Rader’s team has found that infants can learn this association through ‘show gestures’. Show gestures entail bringing an object towards the child and rotating it, while synchronizing the movements with speech. While the effect of show gestures decreases with age during childhood, Rader and her colleagues have found that non-verbal children on the autism spectrum are very sensitive to this information, performing as well in learning words as age-matched typically-developing children. More
For hundreds of years, psychologists have been trying to understand how infants learn the relationships between words and objects. Pointing at an object while saying its name can help to teach these relationships. However, young infants do not respond to pointing gestures. They also are unable to follow a person’s gaze the way older children can.
A paper by developmental psychologist Patricia Zukow-Goldring, published in 1997, highlighted the possible value of multi-sensory strategies for teaching infants word-object relationships. Her work specifically identified a type of gesture, which she called a ‘show gesture’. She hypothesized that show gestures could support early language learning.
The show gesture involves bringing an object towards a child, then rotating it around while saying its name, and finally retracting it. Zukow-Goldring suggests that it is the synchrony between the object movement and speech that helps infants perceive the link between the word and the object.
To determine the effect of show gestures on early language learning, Professor Nancy Rader at Ithaca College carried out a study with Zukow-Goldring. They found that infants between 10 and 15 months old benefited from the use of show gestures.
Recently, Rader and Zukow-Goldring and their colleague Theodore Alhanti conducted a further study to look at how show gestures might affect older children and non-verbal children with autism spectrum disorder – or ASD. They wondered whether the perceptual aspects of a show gesture might be less important for children who already have functional language skills, but very important for young children with ASD who have trouble with word learning.
For this study, Rader and her colleagues recruited two groups of participants. One group consisted of 36 children who were developing in a neurotypical way; the second group consisted of six non-verbal children diagnosed with ASD. The language level of each child was assessed using standardized questionnaires.
During the study, the children sat in front of a computer monitor and viewed a speaker introducing two new objects with nonsense words, which had been made up for the study. One object name was presented using a show gesture, while the other was presented by holding the object without moving it – a static gesture.
While the children watched the video, the research team followed their eye movements using an eye tracking system. After viewing the two gesture conditions, the children watched another video asking them to look at one of the objects that had been presented in the first part of the experiment. By seeing whether the children looked at the correct object, the researchers could determine which children had successfully learned the word.
Upon analyzing the data, Rader and her colleagues found that the show gesture was beneficial for the toddlers and children with ASD. With the static gesture, their word learning performance wasn’t any better than chance. This difference in word learning occurred despite the fact that the children looked at the videos with the different gestures for the same amount of time.
The older children did well with both the show and static gestures. Interestingly, the ASD children did just as well as the oldest group of neurotypically-developing children when a show gesture was used.
Overall, the results gathered by Rader and her colleagues highlight the benefits of show gestures for teaching both toddlers and ASD children the relationships between objects and words. Their work has important implications for the field of developmental psychology.
Their findings could inspire other research teams to assess the value of multi-sensory communication, particularly gestures synchronized with speech, for early language education. Also, this research may pave the way for the development of more effective interventions to teach autistic children word-object relationships.
Original Article Reference
This SciPod is a summary of the paper ‘Show gestures direct attention to word-object relations in typically developing and Autistic Spectrum Disorder children’, in the journal Language Sciences. doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2021.101414
For further information, you can connect with Professor Nancy Rader at [email protected]
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