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Children’s use of gestures in telling stories

Elena Nicoladis (Alberta), Paula Marentette (Alberta), and Samuel Navarro (UBC)

Friday, May 18th
Buchanan A201 

Telling a story orally often involves using visual-spatial imagery to
create/remember the events in a story (Rubin, 1995). Oral story-tellers often use a variety
of verbal and non-verbal means to convey their stories effectively, such as prosody and
co-speech gestures (Scheub, 1977). Co-speech gestures may serve a variety of functions
in adults’ story-telling, including helping speakers access language for speaking (Krauss,
Chen, & Gottesman, 2001), particularly with concepts that are difficult (Kita, 2000). One
study showed a strong link between the rate of co-speech gestures and the use of imagery
(as measured by how long a story they chose to tell) in adults’ oral narratives (Smithson,

Children’s linguistic means for telling stories improves dramatically in terms of
length, coherence, and complexity between the ages of 4 and 10 years (e.g., Berman &
Slobin, 1994). Children’s use of imagery also changes over that age span, with memory
capacity of imagery increasing and becoming more dynamic (Vecchi, Phillips, &
Cornoldi, 2001). The primary purpose of the present study was to test several possible
predictors of children’s co-speech gesture use in an oral narrative context. Children might
become increasingly reliant on gestures as a strategy or as the complexity of their
narratives increases. If so, either age and/or narrative complexity would be related to their
gesture rate. Alternatively, they might use gestures more frequently as they rely more on
imagery in remembering and creating the events to recount. If so, like adults, their story
length would be related to their gesture use. A secondary purpose of this study was to test
for possible cultural or linguistic differences in gesture rate. Anecdotally, speakers of
Romance languages might gesture more than English speakers.

In this study we tested the strength of three predictors of children’s gesture use in
a narrative context: age, narrative complexity (discourse connectors), and use of imagery
(story length). French-, Spanish-, and English-speaking children between 4 and 10 years
of age participated in this study. The French-speaking children lived in Quebec, the
Spanish-speaking children in Chile, and the English-speaking children in Alberta. The
inclusion of these three groups allows us to test for the generalizability of our results and
for cross-linguistic differences in the rates of gesture use. All the children watched a Pink
Panther cartoon and told the story. The results showed that the length of the story (in
word tokens) was a significant predictor of children’s gesture rate while language group,
age, and discourse connectors were not. There were no differences between language
groups in their rate of gestures.

These results suggest that within this age range, children’s gesture frequency is
primarily linked to activation of imagery, rather than narrative complexity or age. That is,
children’s story-telling, like adults’ story-telling, involves activating mental images to
remember/create the events in the story. We argue that as children’s story-telling abilities
develop, they learn both verbal and non-verbal means to convey an interesting story
(Colletta, 2009).


Berman, R. A. & Slobin, D. I. (1994). Relating events in narrative: A
crosslinguistic developmental study. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Colletta, J.-M. (2009). Comparative analysis of children’s narratives at different
ages: A multimodal approach. Gesture, 9, 61-96.

Kita, S. (2000). How representational gestures help speaking. In D. McNeill (Ed.),
Language and gesture (pp. 162-185). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Krauss, R. M., Chen, Y., & Gottesman, R. F. (2001). Lexical gestures and lexical
access: A process model. In D. McNeill (Ed.), Language and gesture (pp. 261-283).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rubin, D. C. (1995). Memory in oral traditions: The cognitive psychology of epic,
ballads, and counting-out rhymes. New York: OUP.

Scheub, H. (1977). Body and image in oral narrative performance. New Literary
History, 8, 345-367.
Smithson, L. (2010). Telling Tales: Do working memory, gesture production, and
bilingualism predict individual differences in narrative length? Unpublished paper.
University of Alberta.

Vecchi, T., Phillips, L. H., & Cornoldi, C. (2001). Individual differences in visuospatial
working memory. In M. Denis, C. Cornoldi, M. de Vega, & J. Engelkamp (Eds.),
Imagery, language and visuo-spatial thinking (pp. 29-58). East Sussex, UK: Psychology

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