Signing with Babies, My Favorite Topic

October 15, 2007 @ 8:06 am | Filed under: , , ,

After watching Rilla, Monica asked:

I was wondering what the research says about how hearing kids learning sign affects (if it does at all) their verbal speech acquisition. I assume it is like my 4yo learning romanian and english. his english is miles ahead of romanian, but learning romanian hasnt affected his english at all. just wondering if you had read anything about this.

That’s a very good question! As a matter of fact, teaching babies to sign does seem to have an affect on their verbal language development—a good one. I’ve read about at least two separate studies whose results demonstrated that children who used sign language as babies tend to score higher on IQ tests than non-signers. There was a study at the University of Alaska and another one at Davis, I believe. One of them tracked kids through age 8 and found that the baby-signers wound up reading at earlier ages and showed higher cognitive and verbal skills.

But honestly, even if that weren’t the case I’d be on board with baby sign just for the way it smooths the toddler years. You get to bypass that stage where the little one knows exactly what she wants to tell you but doesn’t have the words for it yet, leading to the intense frustration that often winds up in a meltdown.

We’ve used baby sign with all our babies, even before Wonderboy came along. When Jane was about a year old, Scott’s boss’s wife very thoughtfully sent me an article on the subject, and I thought it was a brilliant concept. I taught Jane a few signs but we didn’t really take off with it until Rose came along. By then, Jane was three and had spent a lot of time in the hospital where she saw an ASL interpreter working with another patient. She was very interested and I was a young would-be homeschooling mommy eager to start strewing. 😉 I ordered this set of videos from the Timberdoodle catalog and we dove in.

The videos didn’t appeal to Jane—they are intended as tutorials for the parents of deaf babies and toddlers (and yes, how goosebumpy is that, considering what was in store for us a few babies later? God’s providence, anyone?) and the format is rather dry. But the vocabulary was perfect for daily use with my little ones. By the time Rose was 18 months, she was using about two dozen signs on a regular basis. I remember my relatives being impressed by her “please” and “thank you” at a family funeral. It is awfully nice to have “please” be a habit even before verbal speech begins.

When Beanie was a year old, Jane was six, and she and her friend Summer were both interested in learning ASL, so we watched the Sign With Me videos again. The little girls hung in there with the videos despite their dry format, and since they both had one-year-old sisters they really enjoyed being able to sign words like “yucky” and “silly.” We started checking children’s sign DVDs out of the library, and Summer’s family came across Signing Time. That was the beginning of a beeyootiful friendship…

But we had no idea, then, how important the Signing Time series—or, indeed, ASL itself—would become to us. When Wonderboy was born I launched right into baby sign, same as always, having no clue that he had hearing loss. He was six months old before we started to seriously worry about his hearing, and it was another three months (after a set of tubes proved fluid buildup wasn’t the problem) before we got a firm diagnosis.

I’ve already written about what happened next
: how our family threw ourselves into the study of ASL for Wonderboy’s sake—and our own intense enjoyment. ASL is a beautiful, beautiful language. I wish I were more fluent—we are still plugging away on our own, but one of these days we’d like to study with a fluent signer. Jane hopes to become certified as an interpreter one day.

One piece of advice I have about teaching babies to sign is that it’s better to use real ASL (American Sign Language—if you’re American, that is) rather than one of the made-up “baby sign” programs. It seems to me that as long as you’re teaching signs, why not give the child a head start on a real second language? That’s one of the reasons I come out so strong for Signing Time (and no, I don’t get a commission from those folks)—it uses ASL.

We recently received the three latest installments of Signing Time, and once again I’m blown away by how fun and engaging they are, how practically useful the vocabulary is, and how effective the instruction is. Both Wonderboy and Rilla are doing a lot of counting these days, because there is a new “Counting Time” section of the show. The “ABC Time” segment has also been a big hit. The new editions are:

Move and Groove
Happy Birthday to You
Nice to Meet You

I really like the manners signs taught in that last one. I admit I still think the songs in Volumes 4, 5, and 6 are the best of the whole series, but once again the music is catchy and fun, and I honestly can’t say enough good things about these DVDs. Rachel Coleman and crew have hit upon a perfect format. In fact, I also think Signing Time gives reading skills a boost, since the English word for each sign is displayed next to the person demonstrating it.

Once Wonderboy’s hearing loss was diagnosed, we knew ASL would be an important second language for him—both as a bridge to verbal speech and as a backup for times when he isn’t wearing his hearing aids (or in case his hearing degenerates further as he gets older). There are different theories about signing with hard-of-hearing kids, and the “Total Communication” approach is what made most sense to us. His expressive and receptive language skills have consistently tested as at-or-above-age-level despite his “speech delay”—that delay is only with pronunciation. I am so grateful that we were already primed to jump into the use of ASL with him because of the “baby sign” trend. Some trends are sound and sensible. This is one!

Related posts:
Signing Time DVDs
More about Signing Time
Rilla Signs
Unsolicited Signing Time Commercial

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10 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Rachel says:

    We found that it really eased the passage with my DD… she spoke better, earlier and clearer because she was never frustrated with communication thanks to signing… 🙂

  2. Monica says:

    We love signing time so much! We share it with everyone we know – young and old.

  3. Monica says:

    PS I have learned more from Signing Time than from the ASL class I’m taking at the community college!

  4. Mary Beth P says:

    I loved using (what few signs I knew) with my kids. It was especially helpful with my 3rd son, Aaron. He was only speaking about 20 words at 2, but was signing about 10-15. I immersed myself in “Signing Time” for him. It made my heart melt when he signed “Jesus” in response to “Who loves you most?” We have fallen out of the habit of using signs now, because my 4th child is so verbal. I do miss it, it’s so cute seeing a baby sign!

  5. Courtney says:

    I was a speech path for 4 years in a public school setting. I worked with kids with autism and severe language delays. We’d have many parents not wanting us to use sign for fear the child wouldn’t speak. As you stated, Lissa, the sign only enhanced their verbal language and gave them a way to communicate until they could speak verbally. I used baby signs with my first child and the months before she was able to clearly verbally speak were so much easier b/c she could communicate! It didn’t impede her speech one bit, either.

  6. patience says:

    I’m not surprised that using sign language as a baby can raise a child’s IQ score. My own guess would be that communicating using hand gestures opens new, different neural pathways that verbal speech doesn’t use, and so exercises and “expands” the brain.

    We know some, but I have been unforgivably slack about teaching it on a regular basis.

  7. Seastar says:

    We have been watching Signing Time movies for about 2 months and my kids love them. I think we have seen about 7 different shows. My little 2 yr old has really caught on quickly and is signing things all the time. This is very helpful since he wasn’t talking but all of the sudden he is talking too. The words are suddenly coming out.

  8. KC says:

    My 2 year old knows all her letters thanks to Signing Time. Her favorite one is the ABC one (don’t remember which one it is).

  9. monica says:

    thanks so much melissa, i knew you would have lots of info about it. i asked for some ST videos for christmas from grandparents, so we will get on board soon too. thanks again. can you believe our “babies” are 18 mo old??

  10. Kathryn says:

    I wish we had something like Signing Time available here. I’m trying to use BSL with my little one (same logic as your choice of ASL – better to learn a real language) and the resources are much more limited. From a zero knowledge base I’m blundering on with a book of BSL intended for parents of pre-schoolers and occasionally watching a TV show intended for special needs kids which uses BSL. Oh, and a bit of input from my neighbour who learned some Makaton (simplified BSL?) when she was working with a non-verbal autistic preschooler. I have not been very consistent, but we do have a few working signs, including please and thank you ;).