Multi-modal communication -conveyed both verbally (e.g., speech) and visually (e.g., facial expressions, gestures)- can facilitate children's language learning and development. In particular, accompanying auditory speech with visual cues (e.g., gestures) enhances children's vocabulary development, especially children from racial/ethnic minority groups and lower income households. Typically, these children possess substantially smaller vocabularies than their White middle-class peers. This pervasive "word gap" is evident before children enter school and has potent implications for later achievement and education attainment. Thus, exposing at-risk children to interventions involving multi-modal communication, such as gesture-accompanied speech, may be particularly effective in increasing vocabulary knowledge and bridging the persistent word/achievement gap.

The proposed research examines the relationship between gesture and language across racial and socioeconomic status (SES) groups from infancy through first grade. Observational studies will examine how 10- to 24-month-old infants and their mothers communicate through gesture and language during naturalistic interactions (e.g., book reading, play). Experimental studies will examine the impact of multi-modal communication (i.e., gesture + words) on preschool children's ability to learn new words. Finally, a classroom-based intervention study will assess the efficacy of multi-modal (i.e., gesture-accompanied speech) vocabulary instruction with low-SES African American children, who continue to be at risk for poorer academic and educational outcomes.

This research will provide valuable insights into the utility of multi-modal communication (i.e., gesture-accompanied speech) in children's early vocabulary and language development. Moreover, this research has the potential to transform educational practices by creating early and effective learning interventions for all children at risk for language delays or deficits. Furthermore, this program of research will increase research participation of underrepresented, racially and economically diverse groups and provide undergraduates students from underrepresented groups with hands-on laboratory- and community-based research experience through a collaborative partnership with North Carolina Central University, a historically black university.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Laura Namy
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Duke University
United States
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