Hostname: page-component-797576ffbb-xmkxb Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-11T13:43:38.669Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

A tale of two hands: children's early gesture use in narrative production predicts later narrative structure in speech*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2014

Department of Psychology, University of Chicago
Department of Psychology, University of Chicago
Department of Psychology, University of Chicago
Address for correspondence: Özlem Ece Demir, Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, Northwestern University, 2240 Campus Drive, Evanston, Illinois, 60208, USA. e-mail:


Speakers of all ages spontaneously gesture as they talk. These gestures predict children's milestones in vocabulary and sentence structure. We ask whether gesture serves a similar role in the development of narrative skill. Children were asked to retell a story conveyed in a wordless cartoon at age five and then again at six, seven, and eight. Children's narrative structure in speech improved across these ages. At age five, many of the children expressed a character's viewpoint in gesture, and these children were more likely to tell better-structured stories at the later ages than children who did not produce character-viewpoint gestures at age five. In contrast, framing narratives from a character's perspective in speech at age five did not predict later narrative structure in speech. Gesture thus continues to act as a harbinger of change even as it assumes new roles in relation to discourse.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



This research was supported by P01HD40605 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (PI: Goldin-Meadow). This paper is adapted from a doctoral dissertation by Özlem Ece Demir submitted to the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. We thank the participating families for sharing their child's language development with us; Karyn Brasky, Megan Broughan, Laura Chang, Elaine Croft, Kristin Duboc, Sam Engel, Lauren Graham, Jennifer Griffin, Sarah Gripshover, Kelsey Harden, Whitney Hansen, Lauren King, Alice Lee, Max Masich, Carrie Meanwell, Erica Mellum, Molly Nikolas, Jana Oberholtzer, Lilia Rissman, Becky Seibel, Meredith Simone, Calla Trofatter, Kevin Uttich, Julie Wallman, and Kristin Walters, Alyssa Welding, Annie Yaniga for help in collecting and transcribing the data; Kristi Schonwald, Jodi Khan, and Jason Voigt for administrative and technical assistance; and Fey Parrill for comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.



Alibali, M. W. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (1993). Gesture-speech mismatch and mechanisms of learning: what hands reveal about a child's state of mind. Cognitive Psychology 25, 468523.Google Scholar
Applebee, A. N. (1978). The child's concept of story: ages two to seventeen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Baayen, R. H. (2008). Analyzing linguistic data: a practical introduction to statistics using R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Bamberg, M. & Damrad-Frye, R. (1991). On the ability to provide evaluative comments: further explorations of children's narrative competencies. Journal of Child Language 18, 689710.Google Scholar
Bamberg, M. & Marchman, V. (1990). What holds a narrative together? The linguistic encoding of episode boundaries. Papers in Pragmatics 4(1/2), 58121.Google Scholar
Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology 59, 617–45.Google Scholar
Beilock, S. L., Lyons, I. M., Mattarella-Micke, A., Nusbaum, H. C. & Small, S. L. (2008). Sports experience changes the neural processing of action language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105(36), 13269–73.Google Scholar
Berman, R. A. & Slobin, D. I. (1994). Relating events in narrative: a crosslinguistic developmental study. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
Black, J. B., Turner, T. J. & Bower, G. H. (1979). Point of view in narrative comprehension, memory, and production. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 18(2), 187–98.Google Scholar
Brunyé, T. T., Ditman, T., Mahoney, C. R., Augustyn, J. S. & Taylor, H. A. (2009). When you and I share perspectives: pronouns modulate perspective taking during narrative comprehension. Psychological Science 20(1), 2732.Google Scholar
Capirci, O., Colletta, J. M., Cristilli, C., Demir, Ö. E., Guidetti, M. &Levine, S. C. (2010). L'incidence de la culture et de la langue dans les récitsparlés et les gestesd'enfantsfrançais, italiens et américainsâgés de 6 et 10 ans. [The effect of culture and language on the spoken narratives and gestures of 6- to 10-year-old French, Italian and American children]. Lidil 42, 139–58.Google Scholar
Cartmill, E. A., Demir, Ö. E. & Goldin-Meadow, S., (2012). Studying gesture. In Hoff, E. (ed.), Research methods in child language: a practical guide, 208–25. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
Cartmill, E. A., Hunsicker, D. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). Pointing and naming are not redundant: children use gesture to modify nouns before they modify nouns in speech. Developmental Psychology 50(6), 1660–6.Google Scholar
Cassell, J. & McNeill, D. (1991). Gesture and the poetics of prose. Poetics Today 12(3), 375404.Google Scholar
Clark, H. H. & Gerrig, R. J. (1990). Quotations as demonstrations. Language 66(4), 764805.Google Scholar
Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2008). Gesturing makes learning last. Cognition 106(2), 1047–58.Google Scholar
Demir, Ö. E., Levine, S. C. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). Narrative skill in children with early unilateral brain injury: a possible limit to functional plasticity. Developmental Science 13(4), 636–47.Google Scholar
Demir, Ö. E., So, W. C., Özyürek, A. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2012). Turkish- and English-speaking children display sensitivity to perceptual context in the referring expressions they produce in speech and gesture. Journal of Language and Cognitive Processes 27(6), 844–67.Google Scholar
Dickinson, D. K. & Snow, C. E. (1987). Interrelationships among pre-reading and oral language skills in kindergartners from two social classes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 2, 125.Google Scholar
Ditman, T., Brunyé, T. T., Mahoney, C. R. & Taylor, H. A. (2010). Simulating an enactment effect: pronouns guide action simulation during narrative comprehension. Cognition 115(1), 172–8.Google Scholar
Gernsbacher, M. A. (1990). Language comprehension as structure building. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.Google Scholar
Glenberg, A. & Kaschak, M. P. (2002). Grounding language in action. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 96, 558–65.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language: what gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S. (2012). How gesture helps children learn language. Arnon, I., Tice, M., Kurumada, C. & Estigarribia, B. (eds), Language in interaction: studies in honor of Eve V. Clark, 157–72. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S., Alibali, M. W. & Church, R. B. (1993). Transitions in concept acquisition: using the hand to read the mind. Psychological Review 100(2), 279–97.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S. & Butcher, C. (2003). Pointing toward two-word speech in young children. In Kita, S. (ed.), Pointing: where language, culture, and cognition meet, 85107. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S., Cook, S. W. & Mitchell, Z. A. (2009). Gesturing gives children new ideas about math. Psychological Science 20(3), 267–72.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S., Levine, S. C., Hedges, L., Huttenlocher, J., Raudenbush, S. & Small, S. (2014). New evidence about language and cognitive development based on a longitudinal study: hypothesis for intervention. American Psychologist in press.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S., Levine, S. C., Zinchenko, E., Yip, T. K., Hemani, N. & Factor, L. (2012). Doing gesture promotes learning a mental transformation task better than seeing gesture. Developmental Science 15(6), 876–84.Google Scholar
Goldin-Meadow, S. & McNeill, D. (1999). The role of gesture and mimetic representation in making language the province of speech. In Corballis, Michael C. & Lea, Stephen (eds), The descent of mind, 155–72. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Griffin, T. M., Hemphill, L., Camp, L. & Wolf, D. P. (2004). Oral discourse in the preschool years and later literacy skills. First Language 24, 123–47.Google Scholar
Holt, L. E. & Beilock, S. L. (2006). Expertise and its embodiment: examining the impact of sensorimotor skill expertise on the representation of action-related text. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 13(4), 694701.Google Scholar
Horton, W. S. & Rapp, D. N. (2003). Out of sight, out of mind: occlusion and the accessibility of information in narrative comprehension. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 10, 104–10.Google Scholar
Hostetter, A. B. & Alibali, M. W. (2008). Visible embodiment: gestures as simulated action. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 15(3), 495514.Google Scholar
Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva, M., Cymerman, E. & Levine, S. (2002). Language input and child syntax. Cognitive Psychology 45, 337–74.Google Scholar
Huttenlocher, J., Waterfall, H., Vasilyeva, M., Vevea, J. & Hedges, L. V. (2010). Sources of variability in children's language growth. Cognitive Psychology 61(4), 343–65.Google Scholar
Iverson, J. M. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological Science 16(5), 367–71.Google Scholar
Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental models: toward a cognitive science of language, inference and xonsciousness. Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Kintsch, W. (1988). The role of knowledge in discourse comprehension: a construction-integration model. Psychological Review 95, 163–82.Google Scholar
Kita, S. & Özyürek, A. (2003). What does cross-linguistic variation in semantic coordination of speech and gesture reveal? Evidence for an interface representation of spatial thinking and speaking. Journal of Memory and Language 48(1), 1632.Google Scholar
Labov, W. & Waletzky, J. (1997). Narrative analysis: oral versions of personal experience. Journal of Narrative and Life History 7(1/4), 338.Google Scholar
Landis, J. R. & Koch, G. G. (1977). The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data. Biometrics 33, 159–74.Google Scholar
McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Morrow, D. G., Bower, G. H. & Greenspan, S. L. (1989). Updating situation models during narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language 28(3), 292312.Google Scholar
Morrow, D. G., Greenspan, S. L. & Bower, G. H. (1987). Accessibility and situation models in narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language 26, 165–87.Google Scholar
Ninio, A. & Snow, C. (1996). Pragmatic development. Boulder, CO: Westview.Google Scholar
O'Neill, D. K. & Shultis, R. M. (2007). The emergence of the ability to track a character's mental perspective in narrative. Developmental Psychology 43(4), 1032–7.Google Scholar
Özçalışkan, Ş. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Gesture is at the cutting edge of early language development. Cognition 96(3), B101–13.Google Scholar
Özçalışkan, S. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009). When gesture–speech combinations do and do not index linguistic change. Language and Cognitive Processes 24(2), 125.Google Scholar
Özçalışkan, S., Levine, S. C. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2013). Gesturing with an injured brain: how gesture helps children with early brain injury learn linguistic constructions. Journal of Child Language 40(1), 69105.Google Scholar
Parrill, F. (2010). Viewpoint in speech–gesture integration: linguistic structure, discourse structure, and event structure. Language and Cognitive Processes 25(5), 650–68.Google Scholar
Pine, K. J., Lufkin, N. & Messer, D. (2004). More gestures than answers: children learning about balance. Developmental Psychology 40, 1059–106.Google Scholar
Rall, J. & Harris, P. L. (2000). In Cinderella's slippers? Story comprehension from the protagonist's point of view. Developmental Psychology 36, 202–8.Google Scholar
Reilly, J. S. (1992). How to tell a good story: the intersection of language and affect in children's narrative. Journal of Narrative and Life History 2(4), 355–77.Google Scholar
Reilly, J. S., Zamora, A. & McGivern, R. F. (2005). Acquiring perspective in English: the development of stance. Journal of Pragmatics 37(2), 185208.Google Scholar
Rowe, M. L. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009). Early gesture selectively predicts later language learning. Developmental Science 12(1), 182–7.Google Scholar
Rowe, M. L., Levine, S. C., Fisher, J. A. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009). Does linguistic input play the same role in language learning for children with and without early brain injury? Developmental Psychology 45(1), 90102.Google Scholar
Sauer, E., Levine, S. C. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). Early gesture predicts language delay in children with pre- or perinatal brain lesions. Child Development 81(2), 528–39.Google Scholar
So, W. C., Demir, Ö. E. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). When speech is ambiguous gesture steps in: sensitivity to discourse–pragmatic principles in early childhood. Applied Psycholinguistics 31, 209–24.Google Scholar
So, W. C., Kita, S. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2009). Using the hands to identify who does what to whom: gesture and speech go hand-in-hand. Cognitive Science 33, 115–25.Google Scholar
Speer, N. K., Reynolds, J. R., Swallow, K. M. & Zacks, J. M. (2009). Reading stories activates neural representations of visual and motor experiences. Psychological Science 20(8), 989–99.Google Scholar
Stein, N. L. & Albro, E. R. (1989). Building coherence – talking about goals, actions, and outcomes. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 27(6).Google Scholar
Stein, N. L. & Glenn, C. G. (1979). An analysis of story comprehension in elementary children, vol. 2. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.Google Scholar
Warden, D. (1976). The influence of context on children's use of identifying expressions and references. British Journal of Psychology 67, 101–12.Google Scholar
Wesson, M. & Salmon, K. (2001). Drawing and showing: helping children to report emotionally laden events. Applied Cognitive Psychology 15(3), 301–19.Google Scholar
Zwaan, R. A. & Rapp, D. N. (2006). Discourse comprehension. In Traxler, M. & Gernsbacher, M. A. (eds), Handbook of psycholinguistics, 2nd ed., 725–64. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.Google Scholar