The Benefits of Sign Language for ALL Children

By Christine Jones, PCD (DONA)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of The Monthly Communicator, a publication of the New Jersey Department of Human Services.

On January 29, 2006, I had the pleasure of presenting an introductory workshop on the benefits of using ASL signs with babies and toddlers of all abilities. The workshop was part of the Toms River Public Library’s Grand Re-Opening Weekend festivities. This one-hour session entitled, “Time to Sign: Using American Sign Language with Your Baby,” was based on the idea that, “Preverbal infants can tell you what they want long before they can talk!” and that “Signs used in American Sign Language (ASL) build on a baby’s natural tendency to gesture and are just as easy for baby to learn as waving, clapping and pointing.”

Using current evidence based research, my colleague, Cristen Gallin (a NJ Certified Teacher of the Deaf) and I created a fun, interactive program designed for parents and children with no previous sign language experience, to learn together.

A lively group of families enjoyed informal, hands-on demonstrations of simple ways parents, siblings, other family members, caregivers and teachers can incorporate basic ASL signs into their daily interactions and special activities with babies and toddlers. Attendees learned the many benefits of signing with their little ones, regardless of the child’s ability and even if they had already begun speaking.

Helpful hints and tips included everyday signs to get started, three simple songs to sing and sign with children, popular games, and more. Parents were shown how to incorporate signs naturally, without pressuring children to use signs but recognizing when their child is trying to sign to them. Participants left feeling confident that signing can be a fun and rewarding way to bond and communicate with children. They were given a list of free or low-cost resources they could use to continue their learning at home, as well as additional handouts.

In the last few years, the field of “baby signing” for hearing children and children with developmental issues has grown. While this has been applauded by most medical and childcare professionals, some see baby signing as a “fad” because they don’t realize the true, long term benefits of signing with children. These benefits include enhanced bonding and communication, development of fine motor skills, and assistance with reading and comprehension well into the elementary school years.

However, signing is not about creating “Super Babies” nor is it just a tool. Advocates believe that there are other important benefits, such as the promotion of ASL, the ability to learn about Deaf culture, and the ability to bridge the communication gap between hearing and some children with hearing loss.

Deaf parents have been teaching their children to sign from birth long before the mainstream baby signing programs we know today, so it should not come as a surprise that signing with children is beneficial in numerous ways. However, recent interest in “baby sign language” generated by celebrities, media coverage, and movies like Meet the Fockers is creating a demand for more high-quality ASL products that are being used successfully by hearing, Deaf and developmentally delayed children alike.

Luckily there are companies meeting this need that care about more than just “cashing in.” For example, the Signing Time! video series (now being shown across the country on PBS stations) was created by singer and actress, Rachel Coleman of Salt Lake City, Utah. Coleman and her family learned how to sign soon after they realized their daughter, Leah was Deaf. But they wanted more; they wanted Leah’s friends at school to be able to sign with her. They saw that children enjoyed learning signs and were less hesitant to approach Leah if they could communicate easily with her. Coleman wanted all children to have a chance to know their daughter through signs. Two Little Hands was created, and soon after, a separate foundation that builds accessible playgrounds with portions of the proceeds from video sales and special events.

The fact that the Signing Time’s! Yahoo! Group has over 1,000 parents (hearing, Deaf and hard of hearing) whose children are of all abilities proves that baby signing is more than just a passing fad -- it is truly promoting understanding and compassion for children of all abilities through education, and the sharing of stories and experiences. It is dispelling common myths in the hearing community about deafness and signing, at the same time promoting the use of ASL and ASL signs vs. “modified gestures.” Not only can the use of these modified gestures be confusing, they are generally inconsistent and do not allow for further interaction with other children and adults who also sign. Furthermore, many members of the Deaf community have expressed the use of such gestures as substitutes for established signs as offensive and disrespectful. (Researcher Marilyn Daniel’s comprehensive study of the use of signing programs for hearing children in mainstream schools showed that students who learned ASL signs vs. modified gestures experienced the greatest educational benefit.)

Perhaps you are wondering what my own experience with signing is? Well, I have a background in children’s advocacy and counseling, and I am a certified postpartum doula. (I provide support to parents and families with new babies and children). I teach parents how signing is one way to help them be more responsive to their children. However, more important is the fact that I’m just a mom who began learning signs with my daughter when she was a few months old. I found that using signs truly bridged the gap between her preverbal and verbal stages. It also helped her learn to express her feelings in ways she could not do as easily without signs. My “baby” is now four years-old and knows hundreds of signs. What started as the two of us learning a few signs together blossomed into a genuine respect for the Deaf community and Deaf culture. It all started with “hot,” “milk,” “eat,” and “more.” My daughter went on to appear in a new Signing Time! video series for babies, and I become a member of the Sign2Me Presenters’ Network.

Sign2Me is an organization that promotes the use of authentic ASL signs, as opposed to modified or “made up” gestures, with preverbal babies and children. It empowers parents to interact with their children in ways that build confidence and self-esteem. Unlike other programs which simply require the purchase of a starter kit to become “certified,” Sign2Me has a strict qualification process which includes professional experience working with children and a mandatory knowledge of ASL. A large number of individuals who are teaching these classes are Deaf or hard of hearing, Childrenof Deaf Adults, ASL Certified Interpreters, Speech-Language Pathologists, Deaf Specialists, and Early Childhood Educators, just to name a few.

In April 2005 I had the pleasure of presenting a session on creating baby signing programs for approximately 30 children’s librarians and staff members at the New Jersey Librarians’ Association annual conference. I encouraged librarians to bring in more books and media promoting ASL and Deaf culture, geared toward children. And, this year I began a formal study of ASL at Ocean County College. Now, do all parents who use baby signs with their children continue the on with the language? Do many children “drop” their signs when they become verbal? Sure, but the less tangible benefits they have gained from the experience do not go away. Additionally, some children continue to build on the basics of sign language in preschool and elementary schools, where signing is becoming a regular part of the curriculums of public and private schools.

So, what exactly is it that parents of hearing children hope to accomplish by using signs? Educated parents do recognize the difference between learning a few ASL signs and learning the full, complex language itself. They are aware that ASL is a living language that cannot be mastered with a few videos. Nor do they assume that learning signs grants them access to the Deaf community. What they hope to accomplish, as well as what educators myself hope to teach, is that communication takes on many shapes and forms. Signing is a natural, beautiful language that can be shared in ways that foster understanding and respect. That is one of the greatest, unpublicized benefits. Perhaps a baby learning signs today will be signing with your Deaf child at the playground tomorrow One of those children, or maybe even their parents, will continue on with their learning, as I have. Most importantly, as Rachel Coleman has said so efficiently, “All children want to be understood.” Supporting the use of sign language among all children can help us reach this goal.

Author’s Note: For a list of recommended resources for baby signing, please feel free to e-mail Christine at: chris_j8@tmail.com. For additional information on the benefits of signing with babies and toddlers using ASL signs, check out www.sign2me.com. To find out more about Signing Time’s! ASL awareness projects, the annual children’s summer camp in Utah, and “boundless” playgrounds, log on to www.signingtime.com.



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