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Early Communicative Gestures Prospectively Predict Language Development and Executive Function in Early Childhood


  • Support for this research was provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grants R01 HD51502 and P01 HD39667, with cofunding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Family Life Project (FLP) Phase I Key Investigators include: Lynne Vernon-Feagans, The University of North Carolina; Martha Cox, The University of North Carolina; Clancy Blair, The Pennsylvania State University; Peg Burchinal, The University of North Carolina; Linda Burton, Duke University; Keith Crnic, The Arizona State University; Ann Crouter, The Pennsylvania State University; Patricia Garrett-Peters, The University of North Carolina; Mark Greenberg, The Pennsylvania State University; Stephanie Lanza, The Pennsylvania State University; Roger Mills-Koonce, The University of North Carolina; Emily Werner, The Pennsylvania State University; and Michael Willoughby, The University of North Carolina. We would also like to thank Kathleen Gallagher, Vrinda Kalia, and the Wild Writing Group for their helpful comments on the manuscript.


Using an epidemiological sample (= 1,117) and a prospective longitudinal design, this study tested the direct and indirect effects of preverbal and verbal communication (15 months to 3 years) on executive function (EF) at age 4 years. Results indicated that whereas gestures (15 months), as well as language (2 and 3 years), were correlated with later EF (φs ≥ .44), the effect was entirely mediated through later language. In contrast, language had significant direct and indirect effects on later EF. Exploratory analyses indicated that the pattern of results was comparable for low- and not-low-income families. The results were consistent with theoretical accounts of language as a precursor of EF ability, and highlighted gesture as an early indicator of EF.