Once Upon A Sign – Sign Language For Tots

Circa 2006

An eight-month-old infant clearly tells her mother she’s hungry and would like a banana. When she’s full, she lets her mother know. When her father comes home, she indicates a desire to play with her dolls, and a few hours later she signals she’s tired and wants to go to bed. This child isn’t a genius with sensational verbal skills who will graduate from Harvard at the age of 12. She is one of thousands of babies nationwide who has been taught sign language and uses it to communicate until she is physically able to talk.

While Robert DeNiro and his on-screen son made baby sign language well-known in the movie Meet the Fockers, many parents across the country were already dis covering the value of teaching their children sign language at a preverbal age-as early as eight months in some cases. During the infancy months before babies are able to form words, and during years two and three when a limited ability to communicate meets with a growing sense of independence, basic sign language can enable children to let their parents know what they want or need-sans the crying and temper tantrums. Like wise, parents are able to avoid the frustration they feel when they are unable to decipher the needs or desires of their children.

Linda Acredolo, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis, discovered the possibility of using sign language with her infant in 1985. She teamed up with Susan Goodwyn, PhD, from California State University-Stanislaus and began research on the topic. In one study, they divided 103 infants into three study groups: a control group, a verbal-stimulation group and a gesture-stimulation group. Parents of children in the control group didn’t change verbal or gesturing habits. Parents of children in the verbal-stimulation group flooded their babies with words while using the same number of gestures as usual. Finally, parents in the gesture-stimulation group used basic signs and gestures at every opportunity. Goodwyn and Acredolo discovered that, contrary to their fear that sign language use would deter verbal development, babies who were taught sign language as early as 11 months displayed slightly more advanced verbal skills when tested over the course of two years.

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The use of sign language by very young children hasn’t been studied long enough to conclusively prove that signing improves verbal skills or other developmental milestones. But research by scientists like Goodwyn and Acredolo has shown that the use of signing certainly doesn’t stunt a baby’s verbal ability later in life.

Sign language is a successful method of communication for babies and young children for two reasons. First, before age five language development is at its peak, meaning children can learn language any language with greater ease than people at any other age in life. Teaching sign language at an early age capitalizes on this window of opportunity. The second reason sign language is effective for children is that their ability to process language develops at a rate faster than their ability to speak. While many parents associate the ability to speak with intelligence level or mental development, a child’s ability to speak actually has as much to do with the ability to articulate words and form sounds with the mouth and related muscles. According to a Psychology Today article titled “From the Hands of Babes,” babies actually have more control sooner of arms and hands than of mouths and tongues. Babies who are taught to sign are given a method by which they are able to bypass the barrier of undeveloped oral dexterity.


Just as very young, typical children can benefit from signing, so can children who are pre-verbal or experience difficulty enunciating words due to disabilities or developmental delays. Various disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism can affect children’s ability to speak clearly, often causing them severe frustration at the inability to express everyday needs and feelings. Parents who utilize sign language with their children are providing a method of communication that will not only meet their immediate needs for self-expression, but help develop a foundation for future language development.

Tanner is a five-year-old boy who has Down syndrome, a lot on his mind and an inability to express it through typical speech. While ongoing speech therapy continues to help him articulate individual sounds, dual and multiple sound combinations and even more difficult word combinations are elusive. Tanner’s mother taught him basic American Sign Language (ASL) signs, and while the number of words he can articulate through speech can be counted on one hand, Tanner is able to use his two hands to sign more than 100 words and word combinations ranging from all done to ice cream, French fries, train and every parent’s favorite: I love you. While his mother and educators look forward to the time when he can communicate using his speech, Tanner will not be without a means to convey whatever might be important to him…even if it’s just needing help fixing his train track.

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Not all signing is necessarily beneficial. Advocates often suggest following the signs of ASL or other established sign languages as opposed to making up home signs, invented gestures that are unique between parent and child. The benefit of utilizing ASL signs is that the child’s method of communication in the home becomes transferable to his or her academic environment, Furthermore, children utilizing home signs may experience frustration when their method of signing is not recognized or understood outside of the home.

For those children whose parents don’t come standard equipped with a background in ASL, there is hope-and it can be found in a variety of methods available for parents who desire to learn. Videos, books, local classes and the Internet all serve as useful tools for learning sign language. Furthermore, many videos such as the Signing Time series have been developed specifically for children and engage them with familiar songs and choreography while simultaneously introducing fundamental signs..

Learning to sign can not only be a fun experience for both parent and child, but also a practical solution to common communication dilemmas. This technique gives a whole new meaning to the question What’s your sign? ABILITY

by Noelle Kelly



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