Signing with Your Child: Myths and Realities

“Isn’t it too late to start signing with my child?”

“If I can’t learn lots of signs, it’s not worth doing at all.”

“My child’s not signing back yet – I should just give up.”

False, false, and false.

Despite the spread of information about signing with young children, there are still lots of myths out there.  Colleen Brunetti, M.Ed., C.H.C. debunks five of the most common in her great post on the Signing Time website: Click here to read “5 Myths About Signing With Your Child” – and spread the word!

The “Baby Fingers” Series: Cute AND Accurate

Over the years I have made no secret of my disappointment with a certain high-profile, slickly produced series of glossy board boards about signing with young children that completely disrespect American Sign Language and its users by mingling made-up gestures with actual signs and not indicating which is which.

That’s why I am so glad that the Baby Fingers series by Lora Heller (Sterling Publishing Company) exists!  This board book series combines adorable photos of young children signing with instructions for basic ASL signs that parents and children can use every day to make communication easier, reduce frustration, and increase bonding.  With topics ranging from feelings to signs to use throughout the day, this series proves that sign language board books can be both adorable and accurate.

51XGC94VF4L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_51WC0-lB22L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_51VDG86KGKL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_51P01YZYZ5L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_51MmAofV-gL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

How Signing Enhances Early Literacy

Excerpted from Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Little Hands and Big Hands coverTogether by Kathy MacMillan (Chicago, IL: Huron Street Press, 2013)

Whenever you communicate with your child in an involving way, you are helping her develop early literacy skills.  Because signing encourages communication and engagement, it supports early literacy.  But that’s not the only way signing helps your child develop language and literacy skills.  In her groundbreaking book, Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy (2001), Marilyn Daniels describes her research on using American Sign Language in preschool classrooms with hearing children.  More often than not, her research was disrupted when the parents of her control group (a preschool classroom where the teacher was not using sign language with the students) heard about the amazing gains the signing classrooms in the study were making, and insisted that their children be exposed to sign too!   She found that hearing preschoolers and kindergarteners in the signing groups achieved significantly higher scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test than those who knew no sign.  In addition, teachers in the signing classroom reported that their students were less frustrated, got along better, and were more excited about learning than their previous, non-signing classes.

How did signing with these groups produce such extraordinary results?

  • Sign language supports different learning styles.  Signs provide a visual cue and give kinesthetic learners, who learn best through physical activity, a way to interact with letters and vocabulary.
  • Knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet is an important first step on the road to literacy.  Using the manual alphabet with children helps them learn, remember, and use the letters – long before they have developed the fine motor skills to write them clearly.
  • As children move into the preschool and early elementary years, knowing signs and the manual alphabet allows them to access two different “memory stores” in their brains for reading, spelling, and vocabulary.  For example, if a child cannot identify a letter’s sound, signing it to himself may help jog his memory to make the connection.
  • American Sign Language, like any language, stimulates the language centers of the brain, strengthening synaptic connections and preparing them for further language learning.
  • Young children tend to be more visually attuned than adults, and so signing to them naturally captures their attention.  In addition, our visual sense works best when our eyes are moving, as when one is observing signs.
  • The areas of the brain that control movement develop earlier than those that control speech.  This is why even six to seven month old babies can produce signs.  As children grow up, their motor centers continue to develop ahead of their speech centers, allowing them to express more thoughts more clearly through signs than they can through speech.
  • Adults tend to use writing as a way to process and understand information.  Young children do not have access to this tool yet, but they can use signs to serve the same function.
  • The hands are connected to the brain.  Developing the tactile sense (touch) and the kinesthetic sense (movement) helps the different hemispheres of the brain communicate with one another, allowing for more seamless processing of information.
  • Before children can understand the abstract shapes of letters, they must first develop their proprioceptive system, or a sense of where they are in space.  When a child moves, proprioceptive development is triggered as muscles, joints, and tendons make contact and brain connections develop (Johnson 2007).  The movement of signs naturally encourages proprioceptive development.
  • Signing in itself seems to be intrinsically motivating for children; as one United Kingdom study reports, “Children’s motivation for acquiring basic signing skills does not appear to stem from interaction with Deaf children or adults as much as from the language itself” (Daniels 2003).
  • Signing with children facilitates a sense of play.  Play is far more than just simple entertainment – it is the number one way children learn about the world in the first five years of life.  Play allows children to make connections between concepts and understand how the pieces of the world fit together – and if children figure these things out for themselves, the resulting brain connections last far longer than if they had received direct instruction.

For more about the benefits of signing with young children, as well as fun signing activities to use with children, see Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together by Kathy MacMillan (Chicago, IL: Huron Street Press, 2013), available now!

Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together

by Kathy MacMillan. Huron Street Press, 2013.

Order now from the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore (autographed copies that support a great cause!) or from amazon.com.

Little Hands and Big Hands coverResearch shows that signing with young children can

-reduce frustration for both parent and child

-increase IQ

-stimulate language learning

-enhance bonding

-raise a child’s self-esteem

All those reasons are great, but the best reason to start signing with your child is that signing with babies, toddlers, and young children improves everyday life and communication. A child who can express him or herself with the aid of signs is far less likely to get frustrated and throw tantrums, and can initiate conversations about topics that interest him or her, which leads to adults talking more about those topics, which leads to a motivated and interested child absorbing more spoken language, which helps develop spoken language skills.

Signing with children naturally complements other language and literacy activities such as books, fingerplays, rhymes, and songs. Little Hands and Big Hands offers solid background information on signing with children ages birth to five, along with hands-on games, fingerplays, songs, and more that parents can use throughout the day to smooth transitions, calm a fussy child, or engage a stubborn one. Each activity is accompanied by photos of the relevant signs.

Even better: the book features American Sign Language, which, as a real language, stimulates children’s language development in a way that made-up gestures can’t. Author Kathy MacMillan is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter and has been sharing the joys of signing for years through her “Little Hands Signing” programs for children and families. Find out more about her signing classes and storytelling programs here.

Resources for Signing with Babies and Young Children

Ault, Kelly. Let’s Sign! Every Baby’s Guide to Communicating with Grownups. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Bahan, Ben, and Joe Dannis. Signs for Me: Basic Sign Vocabulary for Children, Parents, and Teachers. San Diego, CA : DawnSignPress, 1990.

Berg, Laura.  The Baby Signing Bible.  New York: Penguin, 2012.

Beyer, Monica. Baby Talk: A Guide to Using Basic Sign Language to Communicate with Your Baby. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press, 2015.

Beyer, Monica. Teach Your Baby to Sign. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press, 2007.

Bingham, Sara. The Baby Signing Book. Toronto, ON: Robert Rose, 2007.

Breindel, Tina Jo. Let’s Eat! DawnSignPress, 2008.

Breindel, Tina Jo. Outside. DawnSignPress, 2008.

Briant, Monta Z. Baby Sign Language Basics. Carlsbad, CA : Hay House, 2004.

Briant, Monta Z. Sign, Sing, and Play! Fun Signing Activities for You and Your Baby. Carlsbad, CA : Hay House, 2006.

Briant, Monta Z. and Susan Z. Songs for Little Hands Activity Guide and CD. Carlsbad, CA : Hay House, 2008.

Chafin, Suzie. Baby Sign Language. Guilford, CT: Morris Book Publishing, 2010.

Daniels, Marilyn. Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2001.

Dennis, Kirsten, and Tressa Azpiri. Sign to Learn: American Sign Language in the Early Childhood Classroom. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2005.

Fixell, Andrea, and Ted Stafford. Baby Signing: How to Talk with Your Baby in American Sign Language. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Garcia, Joseph. Sign with Your Baby: How to Communicate with Infants Before They Can Speak. Mukilteo, WA: Northlight Communications, 1999.

Kubler, Annie. My First Signs. Auburn, ME: Child’s Play, 2005.

Kubler, Annie. Sign and Singalong: Baa, Baa Black Sheep. Auburn, ME: Child’s Play, 2004.

Kubler, Annie. Sign and Singalong: Itsy Bitsy Spider. Auburn, ME: Child’s Play, 2004.

Kubler, Annie. Sign and Singalong: Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear. Auburn, ME: Child’s Play, 2004.

Kubler, Annie. Sign and Singalong: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Auburn, ME: Child’s Play, 2004.

MacMillan, Kathy.  Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together.  Chicago, IL: Huron Street Press, 2013.

Malloy, Tiara V. “Sign Language Use for Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Hearing Babies: The Evidence Supports It.” American Society for Deaf Children, July 2003. Available online at http://ccc-manitoba.wikispaces.com/file/view/Sign+Language+Use-Evidence.pdf.

Miller, Anne Meeker. Mealtime and Bedtime Sing and Sign. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Miller, Anne Meeker. Toddler Sing and Sign. New York: Marlowe and Company, 2007.

Murray, Carol Garboden. Simple Signing with Young Children: A Guide for Infant,Toddler, and Preschool Teachers. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House, 2007.

Prochovnic, Dawn Babb. Story Time with Signs and Rhymes (series). Minneapolis, MN: Magic Wagon.

Thompson, Stacy A. Teach Your Tot to Sign: The Parents’ Guide to American Sign Language. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2005.

Votry, Kim. Baby’s First Signs. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2001.

Votry, Kim. A Book of Colors. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2003.

Votry, Kim. More Baby’s First Signs. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2003.

Votry, Kim. Out for a Walk. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2003.

Warner, Penny. Baby’s Favorite Rhymes to Sign. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010.

Wheeler, Cindy. More Simple Signs. New York: Viking, 1998.

Wheeler, Cindy. Simple Signs. New York: Viking, 1995.

Little Hands and Big Hands Sneak Preview: Taking Turns Bounce

Little Hands and Big Hands coverHere’s a fun and engaging bounce rhyme for babies and toddlers from my upcoming book, Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together (which you can pre-order here!).

Put your child in your lap and bounce side to side to the rhythm as you say the rhyme.

Taking turns is fun to do

First it’s me (MY-TURN) and then it’s you (YOUR-TURN)

Back and forth and to and fro

MY TURN, YOUR TURN, here we go!

Now let’s do it slowly! (Repeat the rhyme slowly)

Now let’s do it quickly! (Repeat the rhyme quickly)

MY TURN: Tip a sideways L-handshape towards your chest.

MY TURN: Tip a sideways L-handshape towards your chest.

Tip a sideways L-handshape towards the other person.

Tip a sideways L-handshape towards the other person.

A note about the signs: The signs MY-TURN and YOUR-TURN are both wonderful examples of the economy of space and directionality in American Sign Language!  When signing MY-TURN, the palm of the hand should be facing you.  When signing YOUR-TURN, the back of your hand should be facing the person whose turn it is.  You can also show a group of people taking turns by tipping the sign toward each person in turn.

Why it works:

This activity allows your child to experience and internalize language with multiple senses – hearing the words in a rhythmic way, feeling the rhythm as you bounce her along, and seeing the signs.  The back-and-forth nature of the rhyme and the bounce also emphasizes the directionality of the sign, so that when you use it in context, your child will understand it clearly.

See a video tutorial for this bounce here.

Check out Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together for lots more fun ideas to promote early literacy through signing!

Developmental Milestones in American Sign Language

If you are signing with your baby, sometimes it can be hard to gauge your child’s progress since most language development benchmarks tend to focus on spoken language only.  The Ontario Infant Hearing Program offers comprehensive lists of developmental milestones from birth to 24 months in both sign language and spoken language on its website here.  This is a great tool to help parents and educators learn what to expect from their little signers at various ages!

Signing with Young Children

Why Do It?

  • Children can learn to sign long before they have the ability to speak. Using sign language with your baby can reduce frustration for both of you. Your baby can tell you exactly what he wants!
  • Children exposed to sign language early in life will not only find it easy to learn ASL later, they will find it easier to learn ANY language later.
  • Early exposure to language may increase I.Q., social skills, and create deeper bonds between parent and child.
  • Sign language is not only good for your baby, it’s fun! And it’s not just for babies either – keep up the learning as your child begins to speak, and you and your child can develop a second language together.

Tips for Signing with Your Child

  • Teach the signs for everyday objects and activities first. Use the objects to reinforce the signs often, until your child begins to sign it back. Remember, they can understand you before they sign it back, so keeping using it.
  • If the child begins to sign back, reward him or her with lots of smiles and hugs and kisses.
  • Be consistent. Make sure you use the same sign each time for the same object.
  • Use your face. 80% of ASL is on your face and body, NOT your hands. The sign “HAPPY” doesn’t mean “happy” unless you’re smiling!
  • Accept your baby’s signing style. Babies won’t always make a sign correctly the first time they sign it, just like they won’t speak a word correctly the first time they speak it. Keep signing it the correct way and your baby will soon learn.
  • Reinforce signs throughout the day to help you both remember them. You can learn signs from books, though videos and live people are usually a lot easier. See the other side of this sheet for great resources to help you both learn.
  • There are lots of places to sign! You can use sign language at home, in the car, at the park, while reading stories. You can also make the signs in different places to help your baby understand. Sometimes sign it on her, on the book, or on yourself.
  • When using signs with your baby, it’s a good idea to use American Sign Language. There’s a big difference between American Sign Language, which is a whole language, and Signed English, which is just a manual code to represent English words. By using ASL, you’re giving your child (and yourself) a chance to learn another language!

Great Websites for Signing with Young Children

Sign With Your Baby

http://www.sign2me.com    Dr. Joseph Garcia’s official website features discussion groups, products, and the latest research showing how signing benefits both deaf and hearing babies.

Signing Savvy

http://www.signingsavvy.com  This online video dictionary of signs is clear, accurate, and easy to use. Though the free access is limited to five searches per day, you can access as many signs as you want through the alphabetical index.

Signing Time

http://www.signingtime.com/ The online home of the highly recommended “Signing Time” DVD series features downloadable song lyrics, FAQ pages, and lots of activities for kids.