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Why Sign with Your Child?

Sign language in early childhood has been carefully researched for over 25 years, documenting a multitude of benefits for both parent and child.

By: Cyndi Johnson, Advanced Signing Time Instructor

Some parents and caregivers have the impression that signing with infants and young children is a just a trend in parenting—a passing fad. But if you think about it, the simple act of using nonverbal gestures to communicate with little ones has been going on for decades (just think of how excited grandma gets when her 9-month-old granddaughter waves bye-bye for the first time!). And sign language in early childhood has been carefully researched for over 25 years, documenting a multitude of benefits for both parent and child.

When I first began signing with my son, A (now age 5), I admit that I was caught up in the “hype” of “baby signing” and taught myself the basics while I was yet pregnant. After he was born, we took a music/signing class together, and I began using several signs with him at home. Much to my delight, Aidan signed “milk” around 6 months of age and continued learning new “words” at an astonishing rate. By 13 months, he was using over 100 signs! However, around 18 months of age, he was speaking in full sentences and quickly lost interest in signing.

Then along came my daughter R, born with Down syndrome. I knew instinctively that signing with her was anything but faddish. When I learned that hearing loss is common among children with Down syndrome, and that their speech and language is significantly delayed, I was determined to provide R the tools to communicate with her hands. Now at age 3, her primary means of communication is sign language, as she uses nearly 300 signs to say just about anything she needs or wants. However, she surprises me every day with her new spoken words, and is even learning to “read” using sign language–she signs the words when we’re practicing her sight-word flashcards!

But what does all this have to do with signing with your child? Besides the joy of spending quality, bonding time face to face in the miracle of two-way communication with your preverbal infant or child, American Sign Language (ASL) is the 3rd most frequently used language in the United States. So signing with your child provides them experience with a hands-on second language. But there’s much more.

The carefully documented research on signing is universally positive. Overall, studies suggest that typically-developing children who learn to sign in early childhood

  • may have higher IQ scores than those who do not sign
  • may have reduced tantrums
  • speak sooner, have larger vocabularies, and use longer sentences than those who do not sign
  • tend to be better-adjusted socially
  • tend to read at an earlier age

A brief summary of the research is below, but if you wish to learn more, visit www.signingtime.com/resources/sign-language-research/.

8-13 POINT INCREASE IN I.Q. STILL EVIDENT AT AGE EIGHT.

Linda P. Acredolo and Susan W. Goodwyn found that the claim of increased I.Q. held up through age eight. Children who learned physical gesturing and signs showed an increased I.Q. of between 8 and 13 points, compared to the equivalent groups who were not taught signing. This not only greatly increased early language skills but the I.Q. difference was still apparent when the same groups were tested years later.

Further, the results... strongly support the hypothesis that symbolic gesturing facilitates the early stages of verbal language development. In a significant proportion of the comparisons between these two groups, infants who augmented their fledgling vocal vocabularies with symbolic gestures outperformed those who did not. The fact that no such advantage was found for the infants in the Verbal Training group provides reassuring evidence that the superior performance of the ST infants was not simply a function of their families being involved in a language-centered intervention program. The explanation seems to lie instead within the gesturing experience itself.

TODDLER TEMPERS LESSENED, COMMUNICATION INCREASED.

Acredolo, Goodwin, and Catherine Brown found that the availability of symbolic gestures for at least some of the important things in their child’s life made communication easier and interactions more positive. Request gestures (e.g., MORE, OUT) helped children get their needs met without crying, symbols for specific foods (e.g., CRACKERS, CHEERIOS) provided important clarification, animal gestures (e.g., MONKEY, GIRAFFE) helped them become active partners during book-reading, descriptive gestures (e.g., HOT, AFRAID) helped them share important insights about their environment, and all of the gestures helped clarify the children’s initial, crude verbal labels (e.g., “Oh! You’re doing your TURTLE gesture. I guess Tata means ‘turtle!’).

CHILDREN WHO SIGN IN EARLY CHILDHOOD SPEAK SOONER.

Signing 
seems to “jump start” their verbal skills and love of communicating. From the same papers by Acredolo, Goodwyn and Brown, they reported: Parents need not worry about jeopardizing their child’s vocal language development in order to take advantage of this easy alternative to words.  In fact, the data demonstrate clearly that the symbolic gesturing experience seems to “jump start” verbal development.

All research information is provided courtesy of Two Little Hands Productions.

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