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Give me the beat (gestures)!

Early use of beat gestures predicts children’s later narrative abilities.

July 11, 2021

We know the importance of gestures in early communication development as indicators and predictors of language abilities. Typically when we talk about gestures, we’re talking about iconic (the gesture represents the word) and deictic (involves pointing to or showing a referent) gestures. There is another type of gesture, though, that gets little press in the SLP world, and that’s beat gestures.


Beat gestures are up-and-down hand movements that give emphasis to word(s). We use these all the time, likely without realizing it. Imagine telling someone “I had the best ice cream yesterday.” You might move your hand up and down to emphasize the bolded words in that sentence. Unlike iconic and deictic gestures, beat gestures are “non-referential” which means they don’t refer to a specific word or object, but instead serve pragmatic and discourse functions. Children tend to start using these around age two.


What do these little beat gestures have to do with language development? Vilà‐Giménez et al. found that children’s spontaneous use of beat gestures between 14 and 58…

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