by LeeAnn Mason
Baby sign language has lots of benefits and many people are on board with signing with babies. But what about using sign language for children who have developed some spoken language? Should you still sign? While there may naturally not be a need to continue using sign after spoken language emerges, we say stick with it! The benefits are vast.
Claire Vallotton, Ph.D. states, “There are many benefits of using signs with students – from as young as preverbal infants, to those in early elementary, all the way to adult students who struggle with reading or those who are learning a new language. Research has also shown benefits for children with special needs including dyslexia, language impairments, Down syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorders, as well as for both hearing and deaf children in an inclusive education environment. Thus signs can be used to enhance education for learners of a wide range of ages and abilities.
The benefits of signing are not just for the students, but for teachers, too. When children can communicate more clearly, teachers can respond to them more easily, and teachers’ feel more competent in their own work.
In the last three decades, we’ve witnessed an amazing partnership between families, teachers, and researchers. This partnership created the impetus for the early research and the momentum for studies that followed. As we move into the future, our work will continue, fed by breakthroughs in neuroscience and technology which will lead to even more exciting discoveries about how signing influences human interactions and learning.”
While research has shown there are many benefits, we are just going to focus on 5.
1- Helps children communicate before they can talk
We know from many studies that children who are hearing and typically-developing naturally use their hands to communicate before they can talk. Still, when the idea of signing with infants and toddlers first began to take hold, parents wondered if signing would prevent or delay speech. In response, researchers Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn conducted an experimental study to test whether using signs with hearing infants before they could talk would delay their language milestones. They taught 32 families to use signs with their children from the age of 11 months, and compared their development to 32 children whose parents were taught to label everything in the child’s environment with spoken words, and another group of 37 children whose families were not told to do anything in particular. What they found was that, on average, the children in the group of families using signs had better language skills than the other groups. For example, children in the signing group had bigger vocabularies and used longer sentences when they were two years old. In the studies that have been done on using signs with infants and young children, none have shown that using signs causes a delay in language development.
2- Reduces frustration and tantrums
Parents who use signs with their hearing children before they can talk report lots of different benefits for themselves and their children. For example, parents report that their signing children have fewer tantrums and better social skills, and that both the children and parents are less frustrated. Researchers have tested some of these claims by comparing families who use signs to families who don’t use signs. Parents who use signs with their children have less parenting-related stress, their interactions are more affectionate, and parents have an easier time responding to their children when children are upset. Also, studies by Claire Vallotton have shown that children who use signs before they talk can use signs to express their feelings and to control their own behavior in order to comply with adults’ requests.
3 – Signing impacts language and literacy
Research showing that using signs with preschoolers and kindergartners aids their language and literacy development and indicates that it is helpful, not harmful, to continue using signs with children who are signing. Several studies have also shown that signing can help kindergartners, and even older children, gain bigger vocabularies, and improve their spelling and reading skills.
A study by Marilyn Daniels showed that preschoolers whose teachers use both signs and speech in the classroom have bigger spoken vocabularies toward the end of the school year, and these gains in vocabulary were sustained into kindergarten.
4- Opens a window to your child’s heart and mind
Sign language gives your child a voice when they may not be able to vocally communicate. It is often easier for a child to sign they are overwhelmed due to a stressful situation such as illness. They can also express their emotions through signing.
5- Teaches a second language (American Sign Language)
Learning American Sign Language as a second language will not only allow you to communicate with people who are Deaf it can be the most used language you learn. You can communicate across a crowded room, while you are on a phone call, and at cultural events when silence is required by signing.
Just last month my daughter, who has been learning signs since she was a year old and is now in her 3rd year of ASL in High School, needed to communicate with a Deaf Family while working. Her co-worker was helping the family, but could not understand what they needed. The mother was looking for a pen and paper when my daughter saw them signing to each other. She stepped in to assist, and was able to understand what they needed using ASL.