Children 2021, 8, 148. https://doi.org/10.3390/children8020148 www.mdpi.com/journal/children
The Value of Non-Referential Gestures: A Systematic Review
of Their Cognitive and Linguistic Effects in Children’s
* and Pilar Prieto
Department of Translation and Language Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 08018 Barcelona, Spain; pi-
Department of Subject-Specific Education, Universitat de Girona, 17004 Girona, Spain
Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA), 08010 Barcelona, Spain
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract: Speakers produce both referential gestures, which depict properties of a referent, and non-
referential gestures, which lack semantic content. While a large number of studies have demon-
strated the cognitive and linguistic benefits of referential gestures as well as their precursor and
predictive role in both typically developing (TD) and non-TD children, less is known about non-
referential gestures in cognitive and complex linguistic domains, such as narrative development.
This paper is a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the research concerned with assessing
the effects of non-referential gestures in such domains. A search of the literature turned up 11 stud-
ies, collectively involving 898 2- to 8-year-old TD children. Although they yielded contradictory
evidence, pointing to the need for further investigations, the results of the six studies–in which ex-
perimental tasks and materials were pragmatically based–revealed that non-referential gestures not
only enhance information recall and narrative comprehension but also act as predictors and causal
mechanisms for narrative performance. This suggests that their bootstrapping role in language de-
velopment is due to the fact that they have important discourse–pragmatic functions that help frame
discourse. These findings should be of particular interest to teachers and future studies could extend
their impact to non-TD children.
Keywords: non-referential gestures; prosody; pragmatics; children; language development; cogni-
tive development; narrative development; information recall; narrative discourse comprehension;
oral narrative discourse performance
Gesture is a powerful embodied form of communication. Apart from their rich com-
municative value, gestures have been shown to act as cognitive bootstrappers, as they can
contribute to changes in children’s linguistic knowledge (see [1–3], for reviews). Under-
standing the relative value of different types of co-speech gestures is crucial to unraveling
how gestures pave the way for language development. However, the field of language
development has tended to focus on the role of referential gestures, such as deictic or
iconic gestures, which imagistically represent the properties of a referent and thus bear a
close relationship to the semantic content of the speech. The value of non-referential ges-
tures, such as hand movements which typically associate with prosodically prominent
positions in speech but do not encode specific semantic content, has been comparatively
neglected. It is the small amount of research on the latter––non-referential gestures––that
we will systematically review in this article, limiting our focus to typically developing
children (henceforth TD), since to our knowledge no studies have been conducted on the
role of non-referential gestures in non-TD children. By means of this review, we hope to
Citation: Vilà-Giménez, I.; Prieto, P.
The Value of Non-Referential
Gestures: A Systematic Review of
Their Cognitive and Linguistic
Effects in Children’s Language
Development. Children 2021, 8, 148.
Academic Editors: Eva Aguilar Me-
diavilla, Miguel Pérez Pereira, Elisa-
bet Serrat-Sellabona and Daniel
Received: 31 December 2020
Accepted: 11 February 2021
Published: 17 February 2021
Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays
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claims in published maps and
Copyright: © 2021 by the authors.
Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.
This article is an open access article
distributed under the terms and con-
ditions of the Creative Commons At-
tribution (CC BY) license (http://cre-
Children 2021, 8, 148 2 of 25
gain insight into the link between the important discourse–framing properties of non-ref-
erential gestures and their potential bootstrapping role in cognitive and language devel-
opment. An understanding of this relationship will allow us to point to some practical
implications for the teaching of TD children, as well as ideas for promoting multimodally-
based narrative and pragmatic trainings, and some directions for future research. Future
investigations could also extend these findings to non-TD children.
Current research has demonstrated that co-speech gestures are tightly linked to
speech production and perception, suggesting that the two modalities are very closely
intertwined in creating meaning and make up a well-integrated communicative system
(see [4–6], and many others). Previous studies focusing on referential gestures have shown
that children’s gestures serve as forerunners of future linguistic skills in many populations
including not only TD children (e.g., [7–9]; see  for a review), but also late talking tod-
dlers (e.g., ), and children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis (e.g.,
[12–14]; see  for a review). It has also been well established by a variety of studies that
referential gestures have a positive effect on adults’ and children’s cognitive and linguistic
abilities (see  for a meta-analysis review), boosting memory recall, for example, in TD
Typically developing children start producing their first gestures, typically deictic or
pointing gestures that identify objects, people, events, or locations, between 9 and 12
months of age and before they produce their first words [22–24]. These gestures help chil-
dren carry out successful dyadic interactions with their parents and caregivers (see ,
for a review on the development of deictic pointing in infancy). Already in the transition
between the babbling stage and single-word period, infants start to semantically and tem-
porally coordinate their pointing-speech combinations, and gesture is used to comple-
ment or reinforce speech [26,27]. Deictic declarative gestures have proven to be a reliable
predictor of language skills not only in TD [7,28–30], but also in children with speech and
language impairments, such as ASD infants  (see also  for a meta-analysis review).
This type of gesture has also been identified as the most markedly impaired in ASD [32–
34]. Importantly, the fact that deictic gestures place high social and interactive demands
on early interactions is an indication that these gestures constitute a powerful tool for early
interventions in ASD programs (see also the positive effects of a pointing gesture inter-
vention in generating larger vocabulary repertoires in TD children by ).
At this early stage, TD children also start producing iconic gestures that allow them
to represent information about a referent in speech, such as an object, an action, or a space.
Early iconic gestures are used to depict actions or attributes associated with objects, such
as raising arms to indicate big size or flapping arms to represent a bird flying (see )
[22,23,37,38]. At around two years of age, there is a sharp increase in the number of iconic
gestures produced (e.g., [39–41]), corresponding with the period in which children also
show an increased sensitivity to iconicity in gesture comprehension [42,43]. For instance,
a study assessing spontaneous gestures performed by 40 TD children observed from 14 to
34 months of age reported a spurt in iconic gesture production at roughly 26 months, with
children past this threshold not only using iconic gestures more frequently but also em-
ploying them to convey a more varied set of meanings . Moreover, a longitudinal
study by  also found an increase in the production of iconic gestures between 22 and
26 months of age, which were usually used to convey action meanings not yet conveyed
in the first verbs (e.g., “go like this” + move fisted empty hand in circles as if stirring, p.
9). Other studies have reported that TD children benefit from observing referential iconic
gestures in complex linguistic processes, such as narrative comprehension [44,45]. There
is also evidence that a specific type of iconic gesture (“character-viewpoint” or CVPT ges-
tures, in which the gesturer takes on the role of a character in a story; see ) can serve as
the precursor  and predictor  of more complex narrative abilities undergoing de-
velopment. Concerning non-TD children, while research shows that young children with
ASD produce deictic gestures less often than TD children, empirical evidence about the
role of other forms of gesture in ASD language development comes from only one study.
Children 2021, 8, 148 3 of 25
The study by  explored the gesture-language relation in autistic children by tracking
gesture type production (deictic, give, iconic, or conventional) and subsequent language
outcomes of 18-month-old TD and 30-month-old ASD children (n = 23). They found that
only deictic gestures predicted vocabulary growth in both TD and ASD children, but such
gestures occurred at significantly lower prevalence (70% ASD vs. 96% TD) and frequency
(45% ASD vs. 60% TD) rates in the ASD group.
Later on, between 2 and 3 years of age, another type of gesture starts to emerge, the
non-referential gesture, often called a beat gesture (McNeill  describes this type of gesture
as being a rhythmically short and quick “simple flick of the hand or fingers up and down, or back
and forth” (p. 15) that lacks referentiality and associates with prosodic prominent positions in
speech. For this reason, following a McNeillian classification of gestures, many studies have called
such gestures “beat” gestures (i.e., as if marking a beat). More recently, this traditional view of non-
referentials has been challenged and a more inclusive definition of non-referential gestures has been
adopted that emphasizes their rhythmic, pragmatic and discursive properties. Within this view,
“beat gestures” are considered as non-referential gestures that do not only act mainly as rhythmic
highlighters, but also contribute clear pragmatic and discursive meanings that help frame oral dis-
course structure [48–51].) [52,53]. The study by  documented the appearance of beat ges-
tures in French-English bilingual children in the period from 2 years to 3 years 6 months
of age, and observed that the children began to produce these gestures once they were
able to perform sentence-like or more linguistically complex spoken utterances (in other
words, when the mean length of their utterances increased). The literature on the acquisi-
tion of these gestures is sparse and has focused on how children gesture with non-refer-
ential gestures while they are narrating. Some studies have shown that non-referential
gestures start appearing in complex narrative discourses at around 4–5 to 6 years of age
[6,54,55] (see also  for specifically language-impaired children). A cross-sectional
study with French-speaking children aged 6 and 10, and adults by  found that, in con-
trast to the average number of representational (i.e., iconic) gestures, the average number
of non-representational gestures (i.e., non-referential gestures) increased with age and
that these gestures served both discursive functions (by accompanying connectors, high-
lighting important linguistic units, or performing anaphoric functions) and framing func-
tions. Similarly, another cross-sectional study by  with 5- and 10-year-old French,
American, and Italian children demonstrated that the older children tended to produce
more non-referential gestures that helped to structure speech or mark cohesion in dis-
course than the younger ones. Recently, a longitudinal study assessing multimodal nar-
rative development in children 5–6 to 7–9 years of age revealed that, in contrast with ref-
erential iconic gestures, the use of non-referential gestures increased noticeably with age,
as narrative skills matured  (see also  for similar results).
As mentioned above, the literature on multimodal language development has tended
to focus on the value of referential gestures in paving the way for early language devel-
opment in children, with less attention being paid to the precursor and predictive role of
non-referential gestures as well as their bootstrapping impact on language development.
The obvious question is whether non-referential gestures have the same beneficial role in
cognitive and linguistic dimensions as referential (i.e., deictic and iconic) gestures. This
research gap was already noted a decade ago in a meta-analysis study conducted by ,
who called for further research to examine the nature and impact of non-referential ges-
In our view, there are strong reasons to believe that non-referential gestures are im-
portant in children’s language development. Though the classic McNeillian classification
of gestures  has highlighted the rhythmic character of non-referential “beat” gestures
and their consequent link to prosody, the fact that non-referential gestures have been rel-
atively understudied may be due to the general theoretical claim coming from this view
that these gestures lack abstract semantic content. Indeed, many studies have assumed
that because these gestures lack referential meaning, their contribution to language learn-
ing and development is negligible (e.g., [20,45,60–62], and others). However, it is well
known that non-referential gestures in adult discourse mark information structure and
Children 2021, 8, 148 4 of 25
focused information, as well as new or accessible referents [62,63]. In this way, non-refer-
ential gestures can act as multimodal pragmatic cues which highlight important linguistic
functions in speech that help frame complex oral discourse in later stages of language
development ([6,50,51,64–67], among others) (e.g., ). We thus hypothesize that non-
referential gestures are important in the processing and acquisition of more complex lan-
guage skills such as narratives, as they play an important role in framing discourse.
The present review will systematically assess, evaluate, and compare the available
research concerned with the scaffolding role of non-referential gestures in three important
areas of child learning and language development, namely information recall, narrative
discourse comprehension, and oral narrative discourse performance. With regard to the
second and third of these areas, it should be noted that the development of narrative dis-
course abilities as an oral language skill is an important achievement for children, as it has
been typically associated with children’s complex linguistic development and successful
school literacy [69,70] (see  for a review). Simultaneously, we will seek answers for
three main research questions related respectively to the association, predictive, and
causal effects of non-referential gestures, as follows.
(1) Association effects. Does observing another speaker’s non-referential gestures en-
hance information recall and narrative discourse comprehension in TD children?
(2) Predictive effects. Does the frequency of use of non-referential gestures by TD chil-
dren predict better narrative production skills later in development?
(3) Causal effects. Can training TD children with non-referential gestures bring about an
improvement in narrative production scores in a subsequent posttest?
The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA)
statement (e.g., [72,73]) guided the methodology and reporting of this systematic review.
2.1. Identification of Studies and Inclusion Criteria
As stated above, the principal aim of this systematic review was to address and com-
pare the available research devoted to the effects of non-referential gestures on children’s
cognitive and linguistic skills. The process of identifying studies is summarized in the
PRISMA flow diagram in Figure 1. First, a comprehensive search strategy was conducted
during the second semester of 2020 using four electronic databases: Scopus, Web of Sci-
ence, PubMed, and PsycInfo. The database searches were limited to English language
works dated between 1970 and 2020. Search terms used in the databases included: (“chil-
dren*” OR “preschooler*”) AND (“beat gesture*” OR “non-referential beat gesture*” OR
“non-referential gesture*” OR “non-referential beat*”) AND (“memory recall” OR “recall”
OR “comprehension” OR “narrative comprehension” OR “narrative performance” OR
“produc*” OR “observ*”). The reference lists of articles retrieved were screened to identify
any relevant additional studies on the topic. Both conference proceedings and papers that
were under review were also included in the identification process (one conference pro-
ceeding paper was identified via Google Scholar).
Once the literature had been identified, the titles and abstracts of the compiled list of
retrieved articles were screened for relevance by the first author and duplicated or irrele-
vant articles were removed using Mendeley reference software. Articles which warranted
further examination were selected for full-text review.
To this end, all the potentially relevant articles that were identified and that could
answer the questions were assessed as full text independently by the two authors accord-
ing to the following eligibility criteria, so as to reduce the risk of inclusion bias:
The article was written in English and published (or under review) in a peer-reviewed
journal or in peer-reviewed conference proceedings.
The study was published by 1970 or later.
Children 2021, 8, 148 5 of 25
The study reported in the article followed an experimental design yielding quantita-
tive data. Thus, studies which assessed gesture use and development in a merely de-
scriptive fashion without manipulating variables (e.g., [54,55]) were excluded.
Participants were TD children, aged from 2 to 8 years who did not present any lan-
guage or developmental disorder that affects communication. To our knowledge,
there is no previous research that has dealt with the effects of non-referential gestures
in children with language disorders.
The experimental design involved speech with the presence or absence of non-refer-
ential gestures (either by investigating the children’s observation of another speaker’s
gestures or the children’s own gesture production) as an isolated variable. Thus, stud-
ies that tested the impact of all kinds of gestures simultaneously (i.e., multimodal
training studies) were excluded.
The outcome of the experiment was measured in terms of memory recall, comprehen-
sion, or language production.
Figure 1. PRISMA Flow Diagram.
2.2. Data Extraction
The assessment process yielded a total of 11 full text articles which met the inclusion
criteria. All were published between 2012 and 2020 except for one, which is currently un-
dergoing the final review process prior to publication. Likewise, in all 11 studies a non-
referential gesture experimental condition was compared to other gesture or no gesture
conditions. The total sample size of all the studies was 898 children between 2 and 8 years
of age whose native language was English, Catalan (Catalan-Spanish bilingual), or Turk-
ish. One study was conducted in Singapore, three in Australia, six in Catalonia, and one
Children 2021, 8, 148 6 of 25
in Turkey. The Standard Quality Assessment criteria for evaluating primary research pa-
pers from a variety of fields (Kmet checklist Appraisal Tool) was used to assess the meth-
odological quality of the studies . The overall quality of the studies was found to be
acceptable, with clearly stated research questions and appropriately used experimental
For each study, the following information was extracted:
Reference: author(s) and year of publication
Aim of the study
Study population, including number, gender, age range (mean and standard devia-
tion), and language of participants
Control and experimental conditions
This data (except study aims) can be seen in Table 1, with the main results framed in
terms of the extent to which they answered the question “Did non-referential gestures
have a positive effect on children’s outcome measure?” All the information summarized
in the tabular form was observed to find the main similarities between studies meeting
the inclusion criteria.
Formal meta-analysis was not considered feasible and therefore not undertaken due
to the low number of studies and to the fact that the study designs and reported outcome
measures varied markedly. Thus, a narrative synthesis seemed to be the most appropriate
way to compare the results of these studies and draw overall conclusions.
Children 2021, 8, 148 7 of 25
Table 1. Empirical studies included in the systematic review.
Author, Year Study Population Study Design Control and Experimental
Conditions Outcome Measure Did Non-Referential Gestures Have a Posi-
tive Effect on Children’s Outcome Measure?
91 children (49 girls and 44 boys); M =
4 years 3 months, SD = 4 months;
range = 3 years 4 months to 4 years 9
months; Australian-English speakers
(1) No gesture; (2) Beat
gesture; (3) Combined ges-
ture (5 beats, 5 deictics, 5
metaphorics, and 5 iconics)
Spatial information recall
Yes Beat gesture condition and Combined
gesture condition (vs. No gesture condition)
172 children (original sample: 77 girls
and 97 boys); M = 4 years 5 months,
SD = 4 months, range = 3 years 0
months to 5 years 4 months; Austral-
(1) Iconic/deictic gesture;
(2) Beat gesture; (3) No
Spatial information recall
and cued recall
No Iconic/deictic gesture condition (vs.
Beat gesture condition and No gesture condi-
Igualada et al.
106 children (47 girls, 59 boys); 3
years: M = 41.74, SD = 3.58; 4 years, M
= 53.93, SD = 3.79; 5 years: M = 64.91,
SD = 3.16; Catalan speakers
experiment (1) Beat; (2) No-beat Word recall Yes Beat condition (vs. No-beat condition)
67 children (original sample: 36 girls
and 35 boys); M = 64.00 months, SD =
4.97; Turkish speakers
(1) Iconic gesture; (2) Beat
gesture; (3) No gesture
Path and event infor-
No Iconic gesture condition (vs. Beat ges-
ture condition and No gesture condition)
mina et al.
51 preschool children; M = 4.57, SD =
0.26; Catalan-Spanish bilingual speak-
ers (Experiment 1)
(1) Non-prominent speech;
(2) Prominence in speech
alone; (3) Prominence in
oth speech and gesture
(beat gestures) (Experi-
Information recall in con-
trastive discourse (Exper-
Yes Prominence in both speech and gesture
condition (vs. Non-prominent speech and
Prominence in speech alone conditions)
55 children; M = 5.84, SD = 0.56; Cata-
lan-Spanish bilingual speakers (Ex-
(1) Beat; (2) No-beat (Ex-
sion (Experiment 2) Yes Beat condition (vs. No-beat condition)
101 children (57 girls and 44 boys);
girls: M = 4.62, SD = 0.40; boys: M =
(1) Iconic gesture; (2) Deic-
tic gesture; (3) Beat ges-
ture; (4) No gesture
Narrative recall and nar-
No Iconic gesture condition and Deictic
gesture condition (vs. Beat gesture condition
and No gesture condition)
Children 2021, 8, 148 8 of 25
4.70, SD = 0.57; total M = 4.65, SD =
0.47; Australian-English speakers
So et al. (2012) 36 children (18 girls and 18 boys); 4 to
5 years; English speakers
(1) Iconic gesture; (2) Beat
gesture; (3) No gesture
No Iconic gesture condition (vs. Beat ges-
ture condition and No gesture condition)
et al. (2020)
83 children (43 girls, 40 boys); Time 1:
= 5.9, SD = 0.55; Time 2: M = 7.98,
SD = 0.60; Catalan-Spanish bilingual
(1) Non-referential beat
gesture; (2) Referential
Later oral narrative pro-
ductions (narrative struc-
No Referential iconic gestures (vs. Non-ref-
erential beat gestures)
et al. (under re-
45 children; Time 1: between 14 to 58
months of age; Time 2: M = 6, SD =
0.42; American-English monolingual
(1) Non-referential beat
gesture; (2) Non-referential
flip gesture; (3) Referential
Later oral narrative pro-
ductions (narrative struc-
Yes Non-referential beat gestures (vs. non-
referential flips and referential iconics)
et al. (2019)
44 children (20 girls and 24 boys); M =
5.94 years; SD = 0.57; Catalan-Spanish
(1) Beat; (2) No-beat
Oral narrative perfor-
mance (narrative struc-
Yes Beat condition (vs. No-beat condition)
& Prieto (2020)
47 children; M = 5.92, SD = 0.54; Cata-
lan-Spanish bilingual speakers
(1) Beat encouraging; (2)
Oral narrative perfor-
mance (narrative struc-
ture and fluency scores)
Yes Beat encouraging condition (vs. Beat
Children 2021, 8, 148 9 of 25
Because these 11 studies did not use the same outcome measures, they were divided
into three groups on that basis for purposes of comparison. It is important to mention that
only comparable variables within experimental designs were extracted for all studies. Be-
low, we first compare studies that reported results related to the association effects be-
tween non-referential gestures and children’s cognitive and linguistic abilities, such as
information recall and narrative discourse comprehension (Section 3.1). Next, we compare
studies that examined the predictive value of non-referential gestures in children’s later
narrative productions (Section 3.2). Finally, we compare studies that examined the causal
effects of gesture training paradigms using non-referential gestures on children’s oral nar-
rative discourse performance (Section 3.3).
3.1. Association Effects
3.1.1. Information Recall
Seven of the 11 studies of this systematic review assessed the effects of observing
non-referential gestures on information recall in TD children aged between 3 and 6 years.
While three of these studies examined the effects on children’s recall of words [20,75,76],
three others dealt with their ability to memorize spoken spatial directions or paths and
event information [77–79], and the remaining one focused on their free recall of narratives
. Overall, 3 of the 7 experimental studies (two dealing with word recall and one with
verbal spoken spatial directions) showed a positive effect of observing non-referential ges-
tures on children’s information recall, whereas the remaining studies (one on word recall,
two on verbal spoken paths and event information, and one on free narrative recall) did
Regarding the three studies that reported non-referential gestures having beneficial
effects on recall, it is noteworthy that they presented the information in contexts that were
pragmatically relevant for children. Two of them followed a within-subject experimental
design [75,76], while the other one had a between-subjects design . The study by 
examined whether the presence of different gesture types in the verbal descriptions of a
target path (presented in a single small-scale spatial array constructed from Lego materi-
als and with a Lego character taking a certain route through the spatial array) would have
an impact on the extent to which spatial information about this route (i.e., location and
movement terms) was recalled by both adults and children. Participants were given the
verbal description of the target path in the assigned condition and were then asked to
recall the path (e.g., “Can you tell me the path that Lego man took through the scene with-
out taking Lego man along with you?,” “Can you now show me the path that Lego man
takes through the scene, taking Lego man along with you?”). A total of 95 adults (M = 28
years; SD = 7.6; range = 17 to 49) and 93 children (M = 4 years 3 months, SD = 4 months,
range = 3 years 4 months to 4 years 9 months) participated in the experiment; however,
the final sample consisted of 94 adults and 91 children. Participants were randomly as-
signed to one of three conditions: combined gesture (including 5 deictic, 5 beat, 5 iconic,
and 5 metaphoric gestures), beat gesture, or no gesture. Results revealed that children in
either the combined gesture condition or the beat gesture condition showed better verbal
recall of spoken spatial directions than children in the no gesture condition. Overall sta-
tistical analysis using ANOVA found a large main effect of age group (F(1, 173) = 272.73,
p < 0.001, partial η2 = 0.61), showing that the children recalled less information than the
adults, and a small main effect of gesture condition (F(2, 173) = 3.17, p = 0.045, partial η2 =
0.03), revealing that gesture conditions (beat or combined) were more beneficial than the
no gesture condition for information recall (ANOVA effect sizes are interpreted following the
benchmarks suggested by .). The researchers took the average of the two gesture condi-
tions and created a new “gesture” vs. “no gesture” variable and calculated the interaction
between this new variable and age. A significant interaction between age group and the
Children 2021, 8, 148 10 of 25
difference between the no gesture condition and the average of the two gesture conditions
was found (F(1, 179) = 5.16, p = 0.024), with a small effect (partial η2 = 0.03), revealing that
the difference in recall between age groups was greater for the no gesture condition than
for the gesture conditions. Simple effects showed that for the total recall of spatial infor-
mation by children there was a significant difference between the no gesture condition
and the average of the two gesture conditions (F(1, 179) = 9.75, p = 0.002), with a small
effect (partial η2 = 0.05). As for the adults, no significant differences were found between
the no gesture condition and the average of the two gesture conditions on the total recall
of spatial information (F(1, 179) = 0.006, p = 0.934, partial η2 < 0.01). Further, no significant
difference between the two gesture conditions was found (p > 0.05) and there was no in-
teraction between age and the two gesture conditions (F(1, 179) = 0.36, p = 0.551, partial η2
In their within-subject study,  investigated whether the presence of non-referen-
tial gestures would improve word recall in 106 children aged 3 to 5 years (3-year-olds: M
= 41.74 months, SD = 3.58; 4-year-olds: M = 53.93 months, SD = 3.79; 5-year-olds: M = 64.91
months, SD = 3.16) when presented with a list of things that Elmer, an absent-minded
elephant, needed to remember before he went on a trip. Children completed the experi-
mental task under two different audiovisual conditions, a beat condition and a no-beat
condition, presented successively in counterbalanced orders. In the beat condition, each
target word was accompanied by a beat gesture, whereas in the no-beat condition no beat
gestures were used. Children were asked whether they could help Elmer to remember all
the items on his to-do list, as he was very absent-minded and would really appreciate their
help. Statistical analysis of the results using a Generalized Linear Mixed Model (GLMM)
only showed a main effect of condition (F(1, 418) = 4.01, p < 0.05), indicating that the chil-
dren recalled significantly more words in the beat condition than in the no-beat condition
(β = 0.124, SE = 0.062, p < 0.05; no-beat condition: M = 0.38, SD = 0.48; beat condition: M =
0.49, SD = 0.50) (If the beta coefficient is positive, the interpretation is that for every 1-unit increase
in the predictor variable, the outcome variable will increase by the beta coefficient value.). No effect
of age (F(2, 418) = 2.80, p = 0.062) and no interaction between gesture condition and age
(F(2, 418) = 0.11, p = 0.849) were found. Importantly, these findings show that observing
non-referential gestures had a positive impact on word recall in children aged 3 to 5 years.
Along the same lines, the study by  showed that observing non-referential ges-
tures can positively influence the memorization of contrastively focused items as well as
information related to those items within contrastive discourse (i.e., containing a set of
contrastively focused items). In this experiment, 51 4-year-old children (M = 4.57 years,
SD = 0.26) were presented with discourse contexts in which a female human reminds
Elmer the elephant about what they have done in their trips together (e.g., “Elmer, do you
remember our trip to the field? In the morning, we went for a walk in the field. […] We
noticed that near the lake there were roses and leaves, and you picked the roses […]”).
These contexts contained a set of contrastively focused items (e.g., “roses and leaves”) in
three conditions in a counterbalanced order: non-prominent speech, prominence in
speech alone, and prominence in both speech and gesture (beat gestures). The children
were then asked whether they could help Elmer to remember the questions that were re-
lated to what he and his friend had done together (e.g., “Now, help Elmer remember what
he picked up when he went to the field. What did he pick up?”). A GLMM analysis of the
results showed a significant main effect of condition (F(2, 288) = 5.28, p = 0.006), revealing
that the children recalled more contrastively focused items in the prominence in both
speech and gesture condition, compared to either of the speech-alone conditions (promi-
nence in both speech and gesture vs. prominence only in speech, β = 0.241, SE = 0.077, p =
0.006; prominence in both speech and gesture vs. non-prominent speech, β = 0.191, SE =
0.081, p = 0.038). Moreover, regarding the proportion of items recalled between the prom-
inence only in speech vs. non-prominent speech conditions, no difference was found (β =
−0.050, SE = 0.082, p = 0.537).
Children 2021, 8, 148 11 of 25
By contrast, the 4 other studies found that observing non-referential gestures had no
beneficial effect on children’s recall of information. In a study involving 30 adults (Exper-
iment 1) and 36 4- to 5-year-old children (Experiment 2),  tested whether beat gestures
and iconic gestures would enhance word recall by showing a video presentation of a list
of verbs shown in isolation without a relevant discourse context in three counterbalanced
within-subject experimental conditions: the verbs were accompanied by either an iconic
gesture, a beat gesture or no gesture. Concerning the findings for the children, a main
effect of gesture condition was found (F(2, 68) = 20.16, p < 0.001), with a large effect (η2 =
0.37), revealing that the children recalled a higher proportion of words in the iconic ges-
ture condition than in either the beat gesture condition or the no gesture condition (p >
0.001). No significant difference between the beat gesture condition and the control con-
dition was found, which indicates that non-referential gestures (i.e., the beat gesture con-
dition) did not facilitate children’s word memory recall. However, results for the adults
found a large main effect of condition (F(2, 56) = 7.87, p = 0.001, η2 = 0.21), showing that the
participants displayed better recall scores when words were accompanied with iconic ges-
tures than in the no gesture condition (p = 0.002), and when they were accompanied with
beat gestures compared with the no gesture condition (p = 0.009). No difference between
the number of items recalled in both gesture conditions was found. Further analyses com-
paring results from children and adults showed a large main effect of age group, revealing
that the adults recalled a higher proportion of words than the children (F(1, 64) = 192.69,
p < 0.001, η2 = 0.75), and a large main effect of condition (F(2, 128) = 22.11, p < 0.001, η2 =
0.26). A significant interaction between condition and group was found (F(2, 128) = 6.91,
p = 0.001, η2 = 0.10). All in all, the proportion of words recalled was higher in the iconic
gesture condition than in the no gesture condition for all participants. While the children
recalled comparable proportions of words in the beat gesture and no gesture conditions,
the adults recalled more words in the beat gesture condition than in the no gesture condi-
tion. These results suggest that non-referential gestures may entail a higher cognitive de-
mand for children than for adults, who benefited from the presence of either iconic or beat
gestures. In contrast to previous experimental designs, in this study each word was ac-
companied by a beat gesture, which may have reduced the highlighting function of beats.
Moreover, the list of verbs was presented in isolation and not in a pragmatically natural
Null results for non-referential gestures were also found in a study carried out by
 in a between-subjects route direction task in which the participants were presented
with a set of instructions to guide visitors through a zoo and then asked to recall and
reconstruct the instructions. Like in , the goal was to examine the effects of gesture
observation on the recall of the spatial information, but in this case the spatial direction
task performed was larger in scale (i.e., when the spatial environment cannot be viewed
from a single viewpoint). Participants were 172 3- to 5-year-old children (M = 4 years 5
months, SD = 4 months, range = 3 years 0 months to 5 years 4 months), who were randomly
assigned to either the iconic/deictic gesture condition, the beat gesture condition, or the
no gesture condition, and were presented with three videos of the head zoo-keeper ver-
bally giving route directions through the zoo. In the two gesture conditions, key spatial
or movements descriptors in the instructions were accompanied by nine gestures (e.g.,
“walk forward for a little bit,” “go past the frogs,” with underlined words indicating ges-
ture points), which were either iconic/deictic or beat gestures, depending on the condition.
A mixed-design ANOVA of the results revealed a main effect of gesture condition (F(2,
169) = 3.85, p = 0.023), with a small effect (partial η2 = 0.04), demonstrating that the children
verbally recalled more items in the iconic/deictic gesture condition than in the beat gesture
condition (F(1, 169) = 6.30, p = 0.013), with a small effect (partial η2 = 0.04). Moreover, no
difference between the no gesture condition and the average of the two gesture conditions
was found in terms of the number of verbally recalled items (F(1, 169) = 1.56, p = 0.213,
partial η2 = 0.01). A possible explanation given by the authors for these findings is that
referential gestures “may be processed more deeply due to their semantic value, leading
Children 2021, 8, 148 12 of 25
to great recall without the presence of environmental cues”  (p. 10). To explain the lack
of effects of non-referential gestures, the authors point out that “it is possible that the com-
munication of spatial information accompanied by either no gestures or beat gestures may
have seemed unusual or odd to preschoolers given that they would usually experience
such messages accompanied by iconic and deictic gestures” (p. 11).
Interestingly, a second experiment was performed within this study involving the
same route direction task but using a more pragmatically relevant instruction for the child.
In this case, the child was asked to go to a location in the zoo where he/she remembered
the zookeeper giving a particular instruction, and the experimenter recorded the path of
movement on a paper map of the zoo. A mixed-design ANOVA regarding cued recall (i.e.,
the amount of route recalled verbally and during physical route retracing) showed a me-
dium-sized main effect of condition (F(2, 169) = 5.72, p = 0.004, partial η2 = 0.07), indicating
that the children presented with the materials in the two gesture conditions (beat condi-
tion or iconic/deictic condition) reported more at cued recall than the children presented
with no gesture (F(1, 169) = 10.06, p = 0.002), with a medium effect size (partial η2 = 0.06).
No difference between the amount recalled at cued recall in the iconic/deictic and beat
gesture conditions was found (F(1, 169) = 1.60, p = 0.208, partial η2 = 0.01). Importantly, in
this second experiment, although iconic gestures improved the children’s recall most, beat
gestures also had some positive effect, suggesting that “the benefit of beat gestures may
be apparent only when recall is cued by the environment”  (p. 10).
In the study by , a total of 67 4- to 6-year-old (54–73 months) children (M = 64.00
months, SD = 4.97) and 54 adults (M = 21.50 years, SD = 1.95) were asked to listen to a story
about a character who followed different paths to find her friend’s house and then recount
the information they had heard. The story included path descriptions (five alternative
routes with various details) which were followed by event sequences with no spatial con-
tent (e.g., path: “she walked around the mountains;” event: “she saw a bank and took a
rest on the bank;” again, underlined words indicate gesture points). In total, the story con-
sisted of ten sentences each accompanied by one gesture (the underlined segment in the
preceding examples). In a between-subjects design, participants were randomly assigned
to one of these three conditions: iconic gesture condition, in which participants observed
the stories with iconic gestures depicting the described path or action; beat gesture condi-
tion, in which speech was accompanied with rhythmic hand movements; or no gesture
condition, in which the participant heard the narrative without any gesture. Participants
were then asked a free recall-eliciting question (e.g., “Can you tell me everything you re-
member from the story?”) and their answers were subsequently scored for amount of con-
tent by a researcher. A mixed-design ANOVA found a large main effect of age group (F(1,
119) = 117.31, p < 0.01, partial η2 = 0.51), showing that the adults recalled more information
than the children, and also a medium-sized main effect of gesture condition (F(2, 119) =
3.92, p = 0.022, partial η2 = 0.07). Post hoc analyses showed that when participants observed
iconic gestures, they recalled more information than in the other conditions (beat gesture
and no gesture condition) (Bonferroni, ps < 0.05). No significant interaction between age
group and gesture condition was found (F(2, 119) = 0.39, p = 0.676, partial η2 = 0.007). De-
scriptive statistics showed that, for the children, the mean total free recall was 27.06 (SD =
12.30, min = 0, max = 45) in the iconic gesture condition, 21.63 (SD = 15.38, min = 0, max =
52.5) in the beat gesture condition, and 20.34 (SD = 12.82, min = 0, max = 45) in the no
gesture condition. As for the adults, the mean total free recall was 60.29 (SD = 14.22, min
= 40, max = 92.5) in the iconic gesture condition, 45.00 (SD = 22.64, min = 0, max = 95) in
the beat gesture condition, and 48.44 (SD = 18.84, min = 15, max = 72.5) in the no gesture
condition. It is important to mention that in this experiment, iconic gestures merely rein-
forced content and did not provide additional information. Therefore, these findings sug-
gest that iconic gestures not only provide semantic cue, but also direct attention to certain
parts of the story. By contrast, although the beat gestures were embedded in sentences to
highlight target information in a naturalistic fashion, they made no contribution to partic-
ipants’ recall performance.
Children 2021, 8, 148 13 of 25
Finally, the study by  reported no enhancement effects of beat gestures on the free
narrative recall of 101 preschoolers aged 3.25 to 5.58 years (M = 4.65 years, SD = 0.47). In
this experiment with a between-subjects design, children were asked to watch a video of
a storyteller telling a two-minute narrative about a girl’s afternoon at the park with her
family in one of four randomly assigned gesture conditions: iconic gesture, deictic gesture,
beat gesture, or no gesture. In all conditions, gestures occurred at a total of ten points in
the story. In the iconic gesture condition, the gestures represented the shape or action of
the object described in the speech; in the deictic gesture condition, the gestures indicated
the position of items referred to in the speech; and in the beat gesture condition the nar-
rator produced rhythmic hand movements with no representational meaning and in fo-
cused positions. The different gesture types occurred at the same points in the narrative
across conditions. After they had watched the video, the children were asked a free recall-
eliciting question (e.g., “Please tell me everything you remember about the story you saw
told on the computer”). Results demonstrated that children in the iconic and deictic ges-
ture conditions scored higher on recall task than children in either the beat gesture or no
gesture condition, between which there were no differences. A one-way between-groups
ANOVA showed a main large effect of gesture condition on narrative recall (F(3, 97) =
6.69, p < 0.0005, partial η2 = 0.17). Further analyses showed that observing iconic gestures
(F(1, 97) = 10.14, p = 0.010, partial η2 = 0.09, with a medium effect size) or deictic gestures
(F(1, 97) = 18.17, p < 0.0005, partial η2 = 0.16, with a large effect size) increased narrative
recall compared with no gesture condition. No other comparisons were found to be sig-
nificant (p > 0.10). Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the recall of information available only
through gestures and not present in the content of the narrative was analyzed, pairwise
comparisons in a binary logistic regression (χ2(3) = 14.33, p = 0.002) found that the odds of
reporting this information was higher for the deictic (B = 2.23, Wald = 10.59, p = 0.001, odds
ratio = 9.33) and iconic (B = 1.74, Wald = 6.60, p = 0.01, odds ratio = 5.69) conditions than
for the no gesture condition (The odds of success are defined as the ratio of the probability of
success over the probability of failure. An odds ratio greater than 1 is a positive association (i.e.,
higher number of the predictor means group 1 in the outcome), while an odds ratio less than 1 is a
negative association (i.e., higher number for the predictor means group 0 in the outcome). How-
ever, results for the beat gesture condition did not differ in this regard from those for the
control condition (B = 1.02, Wald = 2.24, p = 0.14, odds ratio = 2.78), indicating that these
gestures conferred no advantage.
All in all, it is worth noting that the three abovementioned studies reporting benefits
of exposure to non-referential gestures relied on naturalistic uses of non-referential ges-
tures in their experimental materials and assessed their role within discourse contexts that
were pragmatically relevant for preschool and school children (e.g., small-scale route di-
rections, list of things that an elephant needed to do before travelling, contrastive dis-
3.1.2. Narrative Discourse Comprehension
Two of 11 of the papers included in this systematic review addressed the potential
role of observing non-referential gestures on narrative comprehension processes using a
between-subjects experimental design. These two papers were also reviewed in the pre-
ceding section (see 3.1.1) because they analyzed the effects of observing non-referential
gestures on information recall. As in that section, while the study by  showed positive
effects of non-referential gestures in 5- and 6-year-old children’s narrative comprehension,
the study by  found no such benefits (though the age of their participants was some-
what lower at 3.25–5.58 years).
The second part of the study by  tested the benefits of observing beat gestures in
55 5- and 6-year-old children (M = 5.84 years, SD = 0.56) in a narrative discourse task. Each
participant was randomly assigned to one of two between-subjects conditions: beat ges-
ture condition and no-beat gesture condition. In the no-beat condition, discourses were
presented with prosodic prominence and no beat gestures in the target words, while in
Children 2021, 8, 148 14 of 25
the beat condition, discourses were with prosodic prominence and with beat gestures in
the target words (i.e., both performed on discourse markers and focal content words). The
children were first shown a set of videos in which a storyteller told––with or without ges-
tures accompanying discourse markers and focal content words––short six one-minute
stories involving some farm animals that were friends of a sheep. After viewing each
video, the children were asked to help the sheep find out what had happened to each
animal and were asked two comprehension questions (e.g., “Why did the pig have to go
home back early?” and “So how did the pig solve his problem?”). The children’s responses
to the questions were then scored for comprehension. The results of a statistical GLMM
analysis revealed a significant main effect of condition (F(1, 657) = 4.21, β = 0.572, SE =
0.279, p = 0.041, odds ratio = 1.772), indicating that the children comprehended the stories
better when they were performed with beat gestures. It is important to note that in order
to design the experimental materials, a preliminary study was conducted to determine
what kinds of beat gestures naturally accompany child-directed narratives and at what
points in the narratives they are typically used. This preliminary study guided both the
form of the non-referential gestures and the placement of those gestures within the narra-
These results contrast with the findings of a second task reported in , in which (as
described above) preschool children were asked to listen to a two-minute story in either
iconic gesture, deictic gesture, beat gesture, or no gesture conditions. However, this sec-
ond task was intended to test the effect of gesture conditions on the children’s narrative
comprehension. Thus, in this task, after they had been exposed to the story, the children
were asked 15 randomized specific questions related to the content of the narrative. As
previously mentioned, the gestures only occurred at ten places in the narrative. Im-
portantly, in the beat gesture condition, rhythmic hand movements without reflecting
contextual meaning of the speech were performed in focused positions within discourse.
Five of these questions took into account general story content (non-gesture-related ques-
tions), another five concerned gestures that reinforced but did not add to story content
(redundant gesture-related questions), and the other five concerned gestures that con-
veyed information not present in the verbal narrative (non-redundant gesture-related
questions). Results demonstrated that while the beat gesture condition and no gesture
condition yielded similar narrative comprehension scores, meaning that beat gestures in
no way enhanced comprehension, iconic and deictic gestures led to higher scores. Anal-
yses to determine the effect of condition on non-gesture-related question scores using a
one-way between-groups ANOVA found no significant difference between conditions in
terms of narrative comprehension (F(3, 97) = 2.19, p = 0.093, partial η2 = 0.06). Finally, re-
sults on the effect of condition on gesture-related question scores using a one-way be-
tween-groups ANOVA showed a main large effect of gesture condition (F(3, 97) = 6.45, p
< 0.0005, partial η2 = 0.17). Further analyses found the same outcomes as in the free recall
results (iconic, F(1, 97) = 10.37, p = 0.009, partial η2 = 0.10, with a medium effect size; deic-
tics, F(1, 97) = 6.98, p = 0.047, partial η2 = 0.07, with a medium effect size). Moreover, chil-
dren produced higher comprehension scores on gesture-related items when they were
accompanied by iconic (F(1, 97) = 12.34, p = 0.004, partial η2 = 0.11, with a medium effect
size) or deictic (F(1, 97) = 8.58, p = 0.022, partial η2 = 0.08, with a medium effect size) ges-
tures relative to children in the beat gesture and no gesture conditions, scores from which
showed no significant differences (p = 0.994). Differences between scores in the iconic and
deictic gesture conditions were likewise not significant (p = 0.938).
A potential reason for the difference between the results yielded respectively by 
and  lies in the experimental materials employed. While (as noted above) the former
study conducted a preliminary study in order to construct a more natural set of experi-
mental materials, this was not the case in the latter study. In our view, it is important that
beat gestures in discourse are assessed in terms of both the shape of the hand during the
gesture and the point in the narrative at which the gesture occur, because both factors can
mediate the gesture’s effect.
Children 2021, 8, 148 15 of 25
3.2. Predictive Effects
Two of the articles selected for this review were recent longitudinal studies that ex-
amined the predictive effects of the early frequency of use of non-referential beat gestures
in children’s later more complex linguistic skills [68,81]. While both studies addressed
predictive effects, they differed in two aspects. While the study by  examined the ef-
fects of 45 children’s production of non-referential gestures between 14 and 58 months of
age in parent-child naturalistic interactions, the study by  tested the effects of the pro-
duction of these gestures in older 5- to 6-year-old children while performing narrative
The main objective of the longitudinal study by  was to investigate whether the
early production of non-referential beat and flip gestures (Non-referential flip gestures, a sub-
type of non-referential gestures, are performed by turning the wrist of the hand and opening it up
to present the flat palm, accompanied or not with a shrug of the shoulders. They typically convey a
judgmental or epistemic value of ignorance (e.g., )) (vs. referential iconic gestures) pro-
duced by 45 children in the total developmental window from 14 to 58 months of age
predicted later narrative productions at 60 months (5 years old), measured in terms of
narrative structure scores. On average, the children produced 1.19 beat gestures per ses-
sion (SD = 1.74, range = 0 to 10.23), 1.86 flips per session (SD = 1.87, range = 0.15 to 9.15)
and 3.58 iconic gestures per session (SD = 2.73, range = 0.31 to 11.46). Results from a
GLMM analysis showed that the average number of beat gestures produced at baseline
significantly predicted narrative skills at age 5 (β = 0.299, SE = 0.111, z = 2.689, p < 0.01). By
contrast, the average number of flips (β = −0.163, SE = 0.109, z = −1.489, p = 0.137) and iconic
gestures (β = 0.029, SE = 0.077, z = 0.381, p = 0.703) did not predict later narrative produc-
tions. This model explained 88.4% of the variance in children’s narrative outcomes (R2 =
0.884). Moreover, a second GLMM analysis also showed that the average number of non-
referential beat gestures produced between 14 and 42 months of age were still predictors
of children’s later narrative productions at age 5 (β = 1.386, SE = 0.583, z = 2.377, p = 0.017),
while no significant effect was found for flips (β = −0.136, SE = 0.112, z = −1.212, p = 0.225)
or iconic gestures (β = 0.009, SE = 0.067, z = 0.137, p = 0.891). This model explained 80.1%
of the variance in children’s narrative outcomes (R2 = 0.801).
The second longitudinal study  reported the predictive value of both referential
and non-referential gestures produced during narrative discourse by 5- to 6-year-olds (M
= 5.9 years, SD = 0.55) on their later narrative productions (measured in terms of structural
wellformedness) two years later, at 7 to 9 years of age (M = 7.98 years, SD = 0.60). On
average, when they were 5–6 years the children produced 0.90 referential iconic gestures
(SD = 1.54, n = 149) and 0.63 non-referential beat gestures (SD = 0.91, n = 105) in their
narratives. A linear stepwise regression analysis was run to predict their narrative abilities
at 7–9 years old based on the number of referential iconic gestures and non-referential
beat gestures the children produced in their narratives at 5–6 years of age (F(1, 81) = 5.64,
p = 0.020). Results demonstrated that the use of referential iconic gestures during narrative
performance at 5–6 years predicted narrative structure scores two years later, when chil-
dren were 7–9 years of age (β = 0.154, SE = 0.065, p = 0.020). However, no significant results
were found for non-referential beat gestures (p = 0.432).
3.3. Causal Effects
Only two of the studies included in this review assessed the possible causal effects of
narrative training that includes non-referential beat gestures in children’s narrative per-
formance. Both studies involved 5- and 6-year-old children and used a between-subjects
pretest-posttest experimental design. However, the studies differed in the main goal of
the research. While the study by  examined the effects of having children observe beat
gestures as part of a short narrative training task on their narrative performance in a post-
test, the study by  investigated whether encouraging children to produce beat gestures
could also affect their subsequent narrative performance.
Children 2021, 8, 148 16 of 25
In the first of these studies , following a pretest measuring their ability to produce
a well-formed narrative, 44 5- and 6-year-old children (M = 5.94 years, SD = 0.57) under-
went training which involved watching six one-minute stories presented under two ran-
domly assigned experimental conditions: a beat gesture condition, in which a storyteller
performed a narrative with prosodic prominence and beat gestures whenever she said a
discourse marker or focal content word, and a no-beat gesture condition, where narratives
were performed with prosodic prominence and no beat gestures in target positions within
the story. Again, a preliminary study was carried out to identify the types of beat gestures
that are spontaneously produced in child-directed narratives as well as to detect at what
points in the narrative discourse these beat gestures tend to occur in natural circum-
stances. Children were simply asked to observe the stories. Children’s pretest and posttest
narratives were then scored and compared by a researcher in terms of their structural
wellformedness. Results of a GLMM analysis examining condition against structural well-
formedness scores showed a main effect of condition (F(1, 172) = 8.04, p = 0.005), specifi-
cally in the beat gesture condition (β = 0.441, SE = 0.156, p = 0.005); and a main effect of test
(F(1, 172) = 19.69, p < 0.001), with better posttest narrative structure scores than pretest
scores (β = 0.597, SE = 0.135, p < 0.001). Moreover, the interaction between condition and
test was found to be significant (F(1, 172) = 4.71, p = 0.031). Further post hoc analyses
showed that gesture conditions differed in the posttest part, showing that higher narrative
structure scores were produced by children in the beat gesture condition (β = 0.733, SE =
0.207, p < 0.001) than in the no-beat gesture condition. However, differences in gesture
conditions were not reflected in pretest scores (β = 0.149, SE = 0.205, p = 0.467). Significant
differences between pretest and posttest narrative scores were found in the beat gesture
condition, with better scores in the posttest (β = 0.889, SE = 0.186, p < 0.001) than in the
pretest. Differences between pretest and posttest scores in the no-beat gesture condition
were not found to be significant (p = 0.119).
The second study  used the same narrative training paradigm employed in the
previous study but assessed whether having children not only observe but also encour-
aging them to produce beat gestures would enhance the effects seen in . In this case,
47 5- to 6-year-old children (M = 5.92 years, SD = 0.54) were randomly assigned to one of
two experimental conditions: beat encouraging condition and beat non-encouraging con-
dition. Following a pretest which measured not only structural wellformedness but also
fluency on their narrative output, the children were shown videos of the same six narra-
tives used in the previous study, though in this case both groups saw the version of the
video in which the storyteller performed prosodic prominence and beat gestures in target
positions. Children were then asked to retell the story they had just heard. However, while
children in the beat non-encouraging condition were asked to retell the stories without
any instructions regarding gesture, in the beat encouraging condition they were encour-
aged to use hand movements (i.e., beat gestures) like those they had seen the storyteller
use while recounting what they had heard. Children’s pretest and posttest narratives were
then scored and compared. Results from a first GLMM analysis found a main effect of test
(F(1, 184) = 25.19, p < 0.001), with higher narrative structure scores in the posttest (β = 0.834,
SE = 0.166, p < 0.001) than in the pretest, and a significant interaction between condition
and test (F(1, 184) = 6.17, p = 0.014). Further post hoc analyses revealed that the gesture
conditions differed in posttest narrative structure scores, with higher narrative structure
scores in the beat encouraging condition (β = 0.697, SE = 0.265, p = 0.009) than in the beat
non-encouraging condition. However, conditions did not differ in terms of pretest scores
(β = 0.129, SE = 0.265, p = 0.628). Significant differences between pretest and posttest nar-
rative scores were found in the beat encouraging condition, with higher scores in the post-
test (β = 1.246, SE = 0.240, p < 0.001) than in the pretest. Differences between pretest and
posttest scores in the beat non-encouraging condition were not found to be significant (p
= 0.069). A second GLMM analysis revealed a main effect of test (F(1, 184) = 18.28, p <
0.001), with higher fluency scores in the posttest (β = 0.803, SE = 0.188, p < 0.001) than in
Children 2021, 8, 148 17 of 25
the pretest, and an interaction between condition and test (F(1, 184) = 4.65, p = 0.032). Fur-
ther post hoc analyses showed no significant difference between pretest scores (β = 0.214,
SE = 0.468, p = 0.647) and also posttest scores (β = 0.596, SE = 0.533, p = 0.265) across condi-
tions. Moreover, pretest and posttest scores for the beat non-encouraging condition did
not significantly differ (β = 0.398, SE = 0.249, p = 0.112). However, pretest and posttest
scores did differ for the beat encouraging condition, with higher fluency scores in the
posttest (β = 1.208, SE = 0.281, p < 0.001) than in the pretest.
Overall, the two studies showed that either asking children to observe, or encourag-
ing them to produce non-referential gestures in a short narrative training task, had imme-
diate short-term effects on their narrative performance in terms of both narrative structure
and narrative fluency.
4. Discussion and Conclusions
The aim of this systematic review was to search for and compare the findings of any
experimental research that addressed the question of whether non-referential gestures can
play a scaffolding role in both children’s cognitive and linguistic abilities, as well as in the
development of more complex language skills, like narrative performance. A total of 11
articles, all published within the last decade, met the eligibility requirements for inclusion.
These studies ––some within-subject and others between–subjects in design––measured
the effect of non-referential gestures on three different domains of cognitive or linguistic
skill, namely information recall, narrative discourse comprehension, and oral narrative
discourse performance. Immediate comparison of study findings was therefore only pos-
sible when the studies explored the same domains. At the same time, their findings re-
vealed the presence or absence of three sorts of effects, namely association effects, predic-
tive effects, or causal effects, leading to our three fundamental research questions. Im-
portantly, it should be noted that there is a discrepancy in the number of studies concern-
ing the different outcome measures. While seven papers are reporting recall and compre-
hension effects, only two articles focus on causal effects, and two more on predictive ef-
fects. In what follows, we will discuss what light this collective body of research sheds on
each of these areas.
It must first be noted that the results of these 11 studies are not in full agreement.
With regard to the effect of observing non-referential gestures on information recall, the
contradictory findings can be explained by two factors, namely the pragmatic appropri-
ateness and complexity of the task for child participants on the one hand; and on the other
the choice of stimuli/materials used in each study. First of all, the studies that reported
positive results [75–77] used ecologically valid instances of non-referential gestures in
tasks that were pragmatically appropriate for children (small-scale route directions in ;
a list of things that an elephant needs to do before travelling in ; contrastive discourse
in ). On the other hand, although both studies by Austin and Sweller used pragmati-
cally appropriate contexts, it may be that the larger scale route directions that the children
had to recall in  nullified the potential benefit of non-referential gestures, which was
not the case for the less complex and small-scale spatial array employed in . The null
results in  and  could also be explained by the lack of pragmatic appropriateness
in the task for 4- to 6-year-olds. While  presented the gesture stimuli in isolation (i.e.,
lists of verbs accompanied by iconic gestures, beat gestures, or no gestures) and not in a
pragmatically felicitous discourse context,  asked children to remember a list of sen-
tences of a story that included both path descriptions and event sequences. Moreover, in
relation to the naturalness of the experimental materials, and specifically the appropriate-
ness of gesture co-occurrence with specific target words, the study by  and another
study with null results  used beat gestures in co-occurrence with both path and event
information (e.g., with target prepositions encoding spatial information, like “walk for-
ward for a little bit”, with underlined word indicating gesture point), which the authors
themselves acknowledged might be perceived as unnatural. For instance,  note that
Children 2021, 8, 148 18 of 25
“the communication of spatial information accompanied by either no gestures or beat ges-
tures may have seemed unusual or odd to preschoolers given that they would usually
experience such messages accompanied by iconic and deictic gestures” (p. 10). Therefore,
it could be that beat gestures co-occurring with these target words did not seem natural
to the participating children.
Regarding the influence of non-referential gestures in narrative comprehension pro-
cesses, the contradictory results might again be related to the stimuli used. First, as we
have noted, in order to ensure the validity and naturalness of the experimental materials,
the study by  conducted a preliminary study prior to the experiment in order to deter-
mine precisely what kinds of non-referential gestures naturally accompany child-directed
narratives and at what points they typically occur within the discourse. On the basis of
this preliminary study, beat gestures were used in the experiment to highlight both focal
content words and discourse markers. In , by contrast, gestures were simply placed at
ten places in the narrative. Moreover, another issue to be considered is the number of
gestures relative to the length of the narrative: while the stories in  were relatively
short narratives containing between eight and eleven beat gestures each, the stories in 
were four times longer and contained ten gestures each.
The two longitudinal studies that aimed to address the predictive role of non-refer-
ential gestures also yielded contradictory results. On the one hand,  provided evidence
that the early frequency of use of non-referential beat gestures produced during natural-
istic parent-child interactions in the developmental window from 14 to 58 months was
predictive of higher narrative skill levels later at 60 months. These results contrasted with
the lack of predictive value offered by non-referential flip gestures and referential iconic
gestures. On the other hand,  examined the predictive value of both referential iconic
gestures and non-referential beat gestures produced in narrative discourses by children
aged 5–6 for the quality of their narrative production at 7–9 years. In this case, results did
not show non-referential gestures having significant predictive value. These null results
may be due to the higher number of referential iconic gestures produced at 5–6 years of
age, which might have been triggered by the narrative retelling task. Another explanation
for the different predictive results between studies could be related to the fact that in nat-
uralistic parent-child interactions, children might have included all kinds of referential
iconic gesture types, whereas referential iconics produced in narrative corpora could also
include different viewpoints in narrative (e.g., CVPT or “observer-viewpoint”, OVPT, ges-
tures , in line with ). All these factors might have reduced the effect of non-referen-
tial gestures, whose use has been demonstrated to significantly increase with age in nar-
rative development . All in all, further studies should investigate the predictive effects
of the use of non-referential gestures for later stages of narrative production, when such
gestures occur more frequently and are thus more stably acquired in complex narrative
Finally, the two training studies in our selection revealed that training in oral narra-
tives using non-referential gestures offers benefits, in terms of not only narrative structure
but also oral fluency [83,84]. Both studies showed that a brief training session with non-
referential gestures is valuable for narrative production, revealing a causal link between
these gestures and narrative gains in the production of narratives ––a complex linguistic
skill––at 5 to 6 years of age.
Overall, though the findings reviewed in this manuscript are mixed regarding the
effects of observing non-referential gestures for recall and comprehension, results were
positive when these were used in pragmatically relevant and non-complex tasks for chil-
dren and when they reflected a natural co-occurrence with target words. Six of the 11
studies assessed in this systematic review provide evidence of the positive effects of non-
referential gestures in children’s information recall, narrative discourse comprehension
processes, and oral narrative discourse performance. Even though the empirical evidence
of the value of non-referential gestures is not yet as strong as the evidence in favor of
referential gestures, it is clear that there are sufficient grounds to claim that non-referential
Children 2021, 8, 148 19 of 25
gestures play an important role in boosting children’s learning and language develop-
ment. It is of interest to note that the mixed findings obtained in the developmental liter-
ature resemble the contradictory patterns reported by studies assessing the role of non-
referential gestures in adult speech processing (see  for a review). While some research
has shown that non-referential gestures positively affect adults’ ability to recall infor-
mation [20,86,87], this has not been true of other studies [77,79,88] (see also ). Accord-
ing to , a potential reason for the lack of the beneficial effect of non-referential gestures
reported in some studies could be related to the stimuli used, as positive results have gen-
erally been shown when non-referential gestures are used in pragmatically natural and
restricted contexts, such as for marking contrastively focused information. Similar to the
child experiments reviewed here, it is clear that experiments involving non-referential
gestures that use ecologically valid tasks and materials have reported positive results.
In general, the present systematic review points to the need for further research to
assess the role of non-referential gestures. In terms of methodology, experiment design
must clearly take into account task appropriateness as well as the pragmatic function of
non-referential gestures in discourse. This is because non-referential gestures emphasiz-
ing some spatial or event information can be perceived as unnatural in discourse, and thus
it is important to assess which parts of the discourse the speaker should accompany with
non-referential gestures. Conducting previous preliminary analyses can help to precisely
define the visual features of gestures as well as their patterns of association with target
words in a natural and spontaneous context (see the preliminary study used by ),
thereby ensuring the ecological validity of the experimental materials.
All things considered, the evidence presented here would seem to support the view
that the significant bootstrapping and predictive role of non-referential gestures is related
to the pragmatic, discursive, and prosodic functions they perform in discourse. Non-ref-
erential gestures may serve important linguistic functions in discourse, associated with
rhythmic marking, discourse structure marking, and information structure marking
([6,48,50,51,62,63,67], and others), such as new or accessible referents in discourse [62,63].
The developmental findings reported in the present review also lend support to the hy-
pothesis that non-referential gestures develop in parallel with narrative development
[54,57] (see also ). Importantly, non-referential gestures can help children focus on
critical parts of a story, by providing them with visual markers that facilitate the parsing
and processing of narrative discourse.
Though the studies here represent a first step in this direction, further research is
needed to evaluate the potential of narrative training and sociopragmatic paradigms that
include a strong multimodal component involving both referential and non-referential
gestures. The fact that non-referential gestures are a strong discourse framing mechanism
([48,51,67], and others) is an indication that they might constitute a powerful tool for as-
sessment in TD populations. We reviewed here two studies in which non-referential ges-
tures were successfully used in narratives to improve the narrative production skills of
TD children [83,84]. Moreover, future investigations could extend these findings to pop-
ulations with language disorders. In this sense, the inclusion of non-referential gestures
could be of benefit in language intervention programs for non-TD children. Reinforcing
the production of these types of gestures during narratives might provide children with
an important means of non-verbal discourse marking that can help them improve their
narrative and interactional abilities.
Interestingly, some recent studies assessing multimodal training have suggested that
such techniques can enhance children’s social cognition and expressive pragmatic skills
 and that having children observe audio-visual stimuli involving all kinds of gestures
can improve their narrative productions . On the one hand, the study by  showed
that 3- to 4-year-old preschoolers improved their expressive pragmatic skill through train-
ing in which they were asked to embody mental states using prosodic and gestural cues.
On the other hand, findings in  revealed that both 5-year-old children with early brain
injury (who had difficulty in structuring narrative) and TD children were more likely to
Children 2021, 8, 148 20 of 25
produce better-structured narrative retelling when the storyteller performed story-rele-
vant gestures while speaking. All in all, additional research exploring the multimodal
components of narrative and sociopragmatic treatments is needed. Our view is that the
spontaneous use of gesture in discourse involves a combination of referential and non-
referential gestures, and that non-referential gestures cannot be neglected as they have an
important function in multimodal trainings.
Concerning the findings of the reported quantitative studies, we consider that future
research could address the application of gesture-based narrative interventions under
more specific populations, considering for example non-TD children’s language and com-
munication, which could be of help for clinicians, teachers, families, and researchers con-
cerned with language development in such children. Various classroom training studies
involving narratives have already been successfully carried out with preschool non-TD
children (e.g., [91,92]). In this regard,  demonstrated that narrative interventions are a
promising and effective strategy to teach oral narration to children with risk factors and
narrative language delays, who may benefit from it in terms of their short-term and long-
term narrative retelling skills (see also [93–96]). We claim that more effective interventions
should include training focused on not only children’s speech but also their gestures and
general multimodal behavior. An example of this is the study by , which proposed an
intervention based on activities combining voluntary storytelling with group story-acting
carried out as a regular part of the preschool curriculum (see also , for the benefits in
social competence of theatre-based intervention involving role-playing, improvisation,
and play performance with autistic children). The results showed that story-acting train-
ing (i.e., story dictation and dramatization) promoted the abilities of preschool children
from low-income and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds in three major areas that
contribute to their readiness for success in formal education, namely narrative and other
oral language skills, emergent literacy, and social competence.
Previous systematic review and meta-analysis studies [98–100] have provided evi-
dence that using social pragmatic, pragmatic language, and narrative interventions can
support the social communication and language abilities of children with ASD or with
other language disorders. However, to our knowledge, there are no studies that have as-
sessed whether multimodal (gesture-based) training with non-TD children could also con-
tribute to their language development. We claim that paying attention to the gestures that
learners produce can help professionals determine any existing underlying delays in ac-
quiring more complex linguistic or cognitive skills in populations with atypical develop-
ment. As gestures are likely to give clues not yet evident in their speech about a learner’s
understanding of a task, this can help professionals determine whether learners are ready
to take further steps in their learning. Also, gestures can help diagnose any existing lan-
guage or cognitive difficulties (see [101–105] for reviews) that result in an atypical lan-
guage profile (e.g., children with early brain injury, autism, Down syndrome, etc.;
[106,107]). Because both narrative production and gesture can index individual differ-
ences in typical development profiles, a better understanding of gesture-speech develop-
ment could help improve clinical practices regarding children’s language assessment and
intervention. All things considered, these reviewed studies may extend the findings of the
TD children to non-TD children, by offering clinicians and speech-language therapists
some guidance by highlighting the importance of including gestures in their cognitive and
linguistic assessment tasks.
Although there are two training studies with TD children that have been reviewed
in this paper [83,84], training studies conducted with non-TD children have to date not
focused specifically on the role of multimodality. For instance, no previous training stud-
ies involving gestures as an empirical condition have assessed the value of narrative and
sociopragmatic training in ASD or in language disorders [98–100]. The long-term effects
of these interventions and the extent to which learning thus acquired is generalized to
new contexts is largely unknown, and thus assessing multimodal interventions could help
teachers, clinicians, speech-language therapists, and also families to adapt new teaching
Children 2021, 8, 148 21 of 25
methodologies that emphasize the importance of the role of gestures in multimodal nar-
rative abilities in children. This suggests that the present study would be aptly comple-
mented by a systematic review covering research on multimodal interventions/training in
both TD and non-TD populations.
In conclusion, the present systematic review should clarify the state of the art with
regard to the link between non-referential gestures and children’s language development.
Based on this review, we feel that it is safe to claim that non-referential gestures are likely
to be helpful in both children’s cognitive development and their acquisition of complex
linguistic skills, although further investigation is needed to confirm this conclusion. This
impact could be deemed in both TD and extended to non-TD populations, as non-refer-
ential gestures can represent an important multimodal tool that can be used to build up
and frame children’s processing and production of complex language.
Author Contributions: I.V.-G. and P.P. contributed equally to the development of the research ques-
tions, the methodological design and the discussion of the results. I.V.-G. was in charge of writing
the article, with substantive feedback from P.P. All have made a substantial, direct and intellectual
contribution to the work, and approved it for publication. All authors have read and agreed to the
published version of the manuscript.
Funding: This research was funded by Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities,
Agencia Estatal de Investigación, and Fondo Europeo de Desarrollo Regional, grant number
PGC2018-097007-B-100; and by a grant awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya, grant number
2017 SGR_971 to the Prosodic Studies Group.
Institutional Review Board Statement: Not applicable.
Informed Consent Statement: Not applicable.
Data Availability Statement: Not applicable.
Acknowledgments: We gratefully acknowledge the anonymous reviewers and the editor for their
helpful input and feedback on the content of this systematic review paper. We also thank Júlia Florit-
Pons for her help in reviewing the final version of the manuscript.
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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