Teaching Sign Language

Claire Donovan, S-LP(C)
Disability Solutions, January/February 1998, Volume 2, Issue 5, p. 1, 3-7.
Printed with the permission of Joan E. Medlen, R.D., Editor
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"Michael used sign language when he was young. We started when he was about a year old. Using sign language seemed to keep him from becoming frustrated trying to tell us what he wanted. He learned the alphabet and several words in sign language while he was in preschool. He did not continue to use sign language once he began speaking. He used his signs when he did not have the ability to say the words. Michael is 19 now. He never uses sign language anymore, except in church. There, he signs "toilet" to let us know he is leaving to go to the bathroom."
Vicki Johnson, mother to Michael,
Castaic, California

For children who are deaf, have a hearing loss, have oral-motor difficulties, or have developmental disabilities, sign language may be used to augment communication. The use of sign language can be found everywhere. In fact, American Sign Language is now recognized as a viable second language option for students in many North American universities. Children often learn some sign language as part of a project or to accompany songs in after school clubs or group activities. It is a popular component on Sesame Street.

Sign language uses the hands to send information and the eyes to receive them. There are two forms of sign language: American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed English. In North America, people who are deaf or have a hearing loss often communicate using American Sign Language. It is a visual manual language system with its own sentence structure and word order. For children with other disabilities, Signed English is used. Signed English uses signs in the same order as spoken English. Usually words are signed and spoken at the same time. Using this method for young children with disabilities is sometimes referred to as total communication. This works well for children who are strong visual learners; using sign language together with the spoken word exploits their strength by presenting information visually (by seeing it) as well as auditorily (by hearing it).

Sign Language & Down Syndrome

Young children with Down syndrome are usually excellent communicators. They use facial expressions, gestures, mime, and vocalizations to express their ideas. Because spoken language often develops more slowly than receptive language or a desire to communicate, sign language is often the tool they need to build their confidence communicating.

When sign language is introduced at birth, it helps babies with Down syndrome, as well as babies without a disability, learn to communicate. It builds a bond between the family and caregivers and the baby. It also encourages eye contact and attention to movements long before she can coordinate all the movements required for speech. Understanding signs is easier for children too. Many signs look like the object or action they represent, whereas spoken words may be heard as meaningless combinations of sounds. Signing helps young children with Down syndrome attach meaning to spoken words. They become more attentive and responsive to their environment, which helps language learning move along. For example, all children wave "bye-bye" before they speak the word. Sign language builds on the natural gestures we all use such as "bye," "hi," and "come here" to create a visual message that accompanies the spoken word. It helps children learn the power, fun, and social aspects of communicating. Using sign language expands what children can say with their hands. Through nonverbal communication, children can get dad's attention, ask for another cookie, stop big brother from bugging them (sometimes), make people laugh, and learn.

"One day, my son Erick's early intervention teacher came to get him from his day care classroom as she had done many days. He was happy to see her and quickly greeted her with a verbal hello. As they walked, the teacher told Erick they were going to do some work. After a while, Erick stopped, pulled her hand, and signed "work," "all done," and "play." At first, the teacher was distracted by her excitement that he had put three signs together. She quickly realized that he was telling her, "No work. Let's play!"
Sandra Dodd, mom to Erick (2½)
North Plainfield, New Jersey

Some parents worry that teaching their child sign language will discourage them from using verbal language. Research has shown that children who have learned sign language decrease their use of gestures and signs spontaneously as they develop the ability to speak clearly and are understood by others. Signing does not slow children down as they learn to talk. It motivates them to practice new and more efficient ways to communicate because others understand them more quickly.

Getting Started

Many parents are overwhelmed trying to think of ways to teach their child to use sign language. However, it doesn't need to be a carefully designed or tedious task. Although using sign language is important for communication, it can also be an adventure for everyone involved with your family. Here are some suggestions that may help you feel more confident as you begin:

At first your child may just look quizzically at you when you sign. Don't be discouraged if he doesn't sign back right away. If he seems ready to begin copying your movements, you can encourage him by getting down to his physical level and repeating the sign several times. Sometimes your child will let you physically show him how to do a sign-hand over hand.

When using sign language as a stepping stone to verbal language, it is not necessary to sign every word you say. It is, however, important to use signs that clarify the message. For instance:

You might say:With the sign:
"Want some milk?"
"Here's your milk"
"Drink it up!"
"Umm, good milk"

Accept your child's attempt to sign even if it is not perfect. Watch for movements that are similar to the signs you are using with your child. The first time your child uses a sign, it may not look like you imagined or be at a time when you expect to see it. As with speech, as she practices and improves, her motor control will get better.

"We had been working on the sign "more" for quite a while, but I wasn't sure Albert was trying to make the sign or doing something else. We had been playing with bubbles to encourage him to ask for "more." Then we would say "bubbles" and "pop" to teach the buh/puh sounds. One day, he signed "more," with no help from us, several times. I thought he might have been signing "more" by clapping, but he put his fingers together to make the "more" sign. I can't wait to learn more!"
Lisa Huffman, Mom to Albert (17 months)
Bloomington, Indiana

It is very important to reinforce any signs that your child uses by responding immediately. As you do, you might repeat the sign your child used and say the word for it:

 Child signs:   Your response
"up"   Lift child up, sign and say "up"
"bye"   Sign and say "bye."
 Or you might add to your child's sign:
"dog"   Point to the dog and say and sign "yes, dog"
"more"   Give child more and sign and say, "more milk?"

Choosing Signs

It is important to make careful choices about which words you will sign so too much information does not overwhelm your child at one time. Think about what interests your child and try to use signs in those activities. For instance, many children begin with signs such as "more" and "help," which give them some control over what will happen in a situation. Signs for favorite toys, foods, or activities will be motivating. Choose signs that help your child communicate what she is interested in. If you are unsure of where to begin, spend a week writing down activities your child enjoys and signs that could be used with them.

Another way to decide is to choose signs that will reduce your child's frustration when she is not understood. When children with Down syndrome are learning to communicate, they use their behavior to send a message. Frustration, temper tantrums, or refusal to respond to a request are communicating a message. Observe when your child gets frustrated because she cannot get her message across and introduce signs that will help in those situations. Avoiding these frustrating moments while sending the desired message is motivating for everyone.

"One day when Mike was about three, we were riding in the car doing errands. He was in the back seat. Suddenly I heard his "growl" that he uses when he's mad or frustrated. When I looked in the rear view mirror, I saw he had been signing that he wanted to listen to his Wee Sing tape. Of course I couldn't see him because I was driving, but it made him mad as a hornet that I wasn't responding to his request. I also learned the importance of choosing what signs to teach and who to share them with carefully. Mike and his grandmother were always signing "want cookie?" behind my back."
Cathy Hilde, mother to Mike (now 6)
Maple Valley, Washington

Other signs that are easy to introduce resemble natural gestures or look like the object or action they represent. For instance, the signs for "ball," "house," and "drink" are all similar to what they represent and are things that children are often interested in talking about. Do not focus on signs for ideas that your child can already communicate successfully in another way. For instance, if your child shakes his head to say "no," she doesn't need to learn the sign "no." However, if your child pushes or bites to indicate "no," then teaching her a more acceptable way of saying that is desirable.

Choose signs that allow your child to express a variety of actions, functions, and feelings. Children need to be able to protest ("no" or "stop"), comment ("pretty" or "yuck"), greet ("hi" or "bye"), ask questions ("where" or "why"), express their feelings ("happy" or "hurt"), as well as label the objects in their world ("toys," "dog," or "car").

Children are not always as motivated to use signs that parents feel are important. However, parents often find that using the sign while communicating is worthwhile to avoid frustrating moments. Children with Down syndrome understand language more quickly when signs accompany the words. Some examples of signs parents find more interesting than children include "please," "thank you," "sorry," and "toilet."

For sign language to have meaning and be powerful to your child, it is essential everyone who is important in your child's life knows the signs that your child is using and understands. Keep a list of signs with their description for your child's IEP/IFSP. Your child may get confused or discouraged if people do not understand what he means when he signs.

There are lots of resources available to help parents learn and use sign language to augment their child's communication. Libraries have a lot of information on sign language or you can order books to build a library of your own. Sign language can be an enjoyable way of communicating for the whole family. Try it!

"We take pictures of people, toys, and familiar objects and mount them on half pages of construction paper along with a picture of the sign we use, the name of the object, and, in some cases, a picture symbol. The first edition of Colin's sign book included Mom, Dad, brother Thomas, favorite foods, and friends. Colin loves to look at this book. When he reads it with friends, babysitters, and relatives, they learn the signs too. He will sit down with the book and read it by signing and saying some of the words as he turns the pages. As his vocabulary grows, we add more pages to the book. I'd recommend that you make two: one for home and one to go with your child when they are away from home."
Anne Kuppinger, Mom to Colin (2½)
Albany, New York
Claire Donovan, S-LP(C) is a speech-language pathologist, the author of Communicating with Signs, Sounds and Symbols, teaches augmentative communciation at Malaspina Universty-College, and has a private practice. She resides in British Columbia, Canada.