Make a Point of It
It would be easy to say that Meredith Rowe’s new research project is to the point because that’s exactly what it is: a gesture training program to see if children’s vocabulary and pointing can be boosted by encouraging parents to point more. Rowe, Ed.M.’99, Ed.D.’03, joined the Ed School this summer as an associate professor after teaching for five years at the University of Maryland, where she also ran the Language Development and Parenting Lab. She says they know that interactions between parents and children shape children’s development. Now she wants to go one step further.
“The goal is to see if encouraging parents to use more pointing gestures with their infants, and explaining why this is important, results in an increase in their use of gesture, their children’s use of gesture, and their children’s vocabulary development,” she says. “It turns out that there is a tight link between parent pointing and child pointing, and between children’s use of pointing and their vocabulary growth.”
But how can something nonverbal — a parent pointing to the dog or at dinner — actually help young kids learn more words?
“Pointing to or about objects in the environment gives children a chance to practice communicating nonverbally before they are able to do so with words,” Rowe says. “Pointing can also serve as a means for children to acquire information, in that children’s points often elicit a verbal response, or label, from a parent.”
So what advice does Rowe have for parents who want to help build their children’s vocabulary by pointing more?
“As a parent myself, I understand it's natural to be concerned about your children’s language development,” she says. “The key is to realize that you can make a big difference. Pointing often and at a variety of objects can have dramatic short-term and long-term impacts on language development.”
Her related research papers
“A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity and quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development,” Child Development (2012)
“Differences in early gesture explain SES disparities in child vocabulary size at school entry,” Science (2009)
Favorite Harvard Square spots
Darwin’s and Peet’s. “I’m (still) a coffee addict.”