by Jennifer Vroom, MS, CCC-SLP
Most people assume that only the Deaf Community uses sign language; however, this
is not true. Before babies communicate meaningful words to get their needs met,
they develop the ability to gesture. In fact, both hearing and deaf individuals
are able to use sign language as early as 8 months of age. Other populations that
may benefit from sign language include those with autism, Down’s syndrome, developmental
apraxia of speech, cochlear implants, oral-motor weakness, and hearing children
with deaf parents.
Three Common Types of Sign Language
Similar to spoken languages, sign languages vary depending on the age, location,
ethnicity, and gender of the speaker. In the U.S., the most commonly used types
of signs include the following:
- ASL: American Sign Language is accepted as the standard language for Deaf Culture
in North America. It is as different from spoken English as French or Spanish. With
its own unique set of rules, it relies on visual versus auditory communication.
Signing Exact English or Conceptually Accurate Sign English (CASE): CASE mimics
the sentence structure of standard spoken English to include articles, plurals,
tenses, etc. In other words, you sign exactly how you would speak the same word/sentence.
Signed English: Also referred to as Pidgin Sign English (PSE), this method combines
the two types of signs defined above.
Why use signs?
A common concern for parents and caregivers is that using sign language will hamper
a child’s speech development. Yet, whether a child is pre-verbal, verbal, hearing,
or deaf, there are many good reasons to use sign language. Here are some ways sign
language benefits a child:
- Decreases frustration: Does your child whine or scream when he/she wants something?
For children unable to communicate their needs verbally, sign language helps reduce
- Builds vocabulary: Rather than just pointing to something,
signs teach children how to use symbols for objects, descriptors, actions, etc.
Increases social skills: Successful communication with family members and people
in a child’s environment creates a sense of belonging. It also allows him/her to
manipulate language for various social functions including sharing information,
commenting, requesting, and turn taking.
- Increases early literacy skills: Research
supports that learning signs before learning to talk may encourage literacy/reading
skills later in life.
- Increases motor development: By creating signs, the child
practices coordination of hand and body movements, which not only improve overall
motor skills, but ultimately help stimulate speech production.
- Increase length
of utterances: Signs may help a child transition to using longer phrases and sentences.
For example, instead of using one word to request ("Cookie!"), you may ask the child
to imitate two or more words through signs ("Cookie, please").
Where do I begin?
Once you make the decision to start signing to your child, you need to choose vocabulary
that’s basic and general enough to use in a variety of situations. For instance,
use the sign/word "more" to request "more juice, more kisses, more music, turn the
t.v. back on," etc.
Start off easy and increase complexity as your child progresses. To prevent frustration
and confusion, remember to collaborate with your caretaker, therapist, and/or teacher
making sure each person teaches the same signs. Finally, if speech is your child’s
ultimate goal, always model words verbally while signing! Some simple starter signs
- Mom / Dad
- Finished or all done
- My / Mine
It won’t happen overnight, but eventually words will come. For most children. If
your child is not talking, or he/she continues to struggle during interactions,
contact a Speech Pathologist for answers specific to your child.
Every child is different. You cannot force a child to talk if they are not ready,
but you can encourage communication by creating opportunities to talk. For instance,
keep toys and snacks out of reach. When the child shows interest in these, model
a sign while also saying the word. Remember to provide a delay, giving the child
some time to imitate your gesture.
The child’s signs may not be exactly like your model, so accept signs that are similar.
Once the child attempts to create the sign, provide a reward by giving him / her the
requested object or action immediately. This strengthens the association between
the symbol (sign) and the object or action. Some children need "hand-over-hand"
assistance. In such cases, an adult guides the child’s hands to create a sign befo
re giving him / her the requested object / action.
Riekehof, L.L., (1993). The Joy of Signing: 2nd edition: Springfield, Gospel
Publishing House, pp. 9-14.