Publication Date


Document Type


Publication Title

Developmental Science




Variation in how frequently caregivers engage with their children is associated with variation in children's later language outcomes. One explanation for this link is that caregivers use both verbal behaviors, such as labels, and non-verbal behaviors, such as gestures, to help children establish reference to objects or events in the world. However, few studies have directly explored whether language outcomes are more strongly associated with referential behaviors that are expressed verbally, such as labels, or non-verbally, such as gestures, or whether both are equally predictive. Here, we observed caregivers from 42 Spanish-speaking families in the US engage with their 18-month-old children during 5-min lab-based, play sessions. Children's language processing speed and vocabulary size were assessed when children were 25 months. Bayesian model comparisons assessed the extent to which the frequencies of caregivers’ referential labels, referential gestures, or labels and gestures together, were more strongly associated with children's language outcomes than a model with caregiver total words, or overall talkativeness. The best-fitting models showed that children who heard more referential labels at 18 months were faster in language processing and had larger vocabularies at 25 months. Models including gestures, or labels and gestures together, showed weaker fits to the data. Caregivers’ total words predicted children's language processing speed, but predicted vocabulary size less well. These results suggest that the frequency with which caregivers of 18-month-old children use referential labels, more so than referential gestures, is a critical feature of caregiver verbal engagement that contributes to language processing development and vocabulary growth. Research Highlights: We examined the frequency of referential communicative behaviors, via labels and/or gestures, produced by caregivers during a 5-min play interaction with their 18-month-old children. We assessed predictive relations between labels, gestures, their combination, as well as total words spoken, and children's processing speed and vocabulary growth at 25 months. Bayesian model comparisons showed that caregivers’ referential labels at 18 months best predicted both 25-month vocabulary measures, although total words also predicted later processing speed. Frequent use of referential labels by caregivers, more so than referential gestures, is a critical feature of communicative behavior that supports children's later vocabulary learning.

Funding Number

HD 069150

Funding Sponsor

National Institutes of Health


communicative reference, gestures, labels, language processing, vocabulary size, word learning

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License


Child and Adolescent Development