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Staff Newsletter: Teaching Babies to "Speak" With Signs
By Carolyn Tomlin

When Angela picked up her son from child care one evening, she noticed a young mother using sign language while speaking to her one-year-old son.            

“Excuse me,” she said, “but does your child really understand those hand signals?”           

“Yes,” the mom responded with an appreciative smile. “I started using signs when he was eight months. Now he recognizes and repeats 25 signs.”

Researchers are now beginning to realize that very young children have the capacity to understand and repeat language, however, their vocal muscles lack the development necessary for speech. It seems that babies want to communicate long before they are able to speak. In fact, infants as young as seven months have been known to communicate basic needs, such as indicating that they are hungry or tired, before they can speak. 

Meredith Layton, a speech pathologist and author of the book, Baby’s First Words, believes that teachers and parents can enhance an infant’s or toddler’s communication skills through the use of sign language. And a longitudinal study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and conducted by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn found that signing increases intelligence. The results of the study showed that children who signed as babies had an average IQ of 114 by the age of seven or eight compared to the nonsigning control group’s average IQ of 102.

 

Using Sign at Home and School

Supporters of the signing approach to teaching suggest that early childhood teachers and parents start signing to infants and toddlers using simple signs for common objects and practical things like “more,” “eat,” “blanket,” “juice,” or “milk.” When teaching children to use signs, as with any other new task, repetition is the key to success. Be sure to repeat the words and reinforce them each time they are spoken. Make eye contact so the spoken word is seen and heard. Soon the baby will be imitating the signs you are using and modeling your behavior. It is also important for teachers and parents to work as a team. Teachers and parents can make up their own sign for an object using hand motions and repeating the word, or they can learn American Sign Language. One word of caution: Make certain you always give the same sign for common words – otherwise the baby is confused.

 

Tips for Using Sign Language in the Curriculum

Signing is still a new teaching method, however, more and more teachers and parents are realizing the benefits of teaching sign language to babies and toddlers. “I’ve seen a reduction in crying and fussing since we started using sign language,” said one young father. “When our child center works with us, and we both use the same sign, we communicate with my child instead of trying to guess his needs.” The following suggestions will help you implement signing into your curriculum and help parents teach sign language at home.

·         Establish a warm, friendly classroom atmosphere for all children.

·         Begin teaching sign language for common objects familiar to the baby or toddler, such as “bottle,” “milk,” “food,” “more,” “blanket,” or another practical item.

·         Show or display the object as you sign.

·         Maintain eye contact as you repeat the word and incorporate the sign.

·         Provide positive reinforcement, such as a smile or hug when the child participates.

·         Teach signs such as “please” and “thank-you” along with common objects.

·         Don’t overload the child with too many signs. Move slowly. Reteach when necessary.

·         Plan training sessions for parents – encouraging them to teach and reinforce the same sign at home.

 

Carolyn Ross Tomlin has taught child psychology and early childhood education at Union University. She writes for numerous education publications.