Sign Language with Young Learners

The importance of signing: What’s appropriate, when, why and how?

Using sign language at an early age is such a vital step in building early literacy skills. There are many benefits of sign language, including reinforcing language skills and potentially increasing IQ and creative thinking. It also teaches a baby how to start a conversation. So often a baby is crying and we don’t know why. Are they hungry, hurt, tired, or need a fresh diaper? A baby that has been exposed to baby signs may be able to communicate with her caregiver that she is hurt or in need of a diaper, thus becoming less frustrated. Wanting something and being unable to explain what exactly is wanted frequently results in loud crying, utter frustration, and/or tantrums.

Start Early

It is appropriate to start signing with children as early as possible. Most babies start to gesture with the signs at about 9 months of age with repetition. Not all babies will sign the correct way and that is fine. Just keep saying the sign while you use the sign and eventually the child will get it! The best signs to start out with are diaper, more, please, bottle and eat. Repetition is the key to learning the new language.

Never Too Old to Start

Oftentimes, it is assumed that toddlers are too old for sign language and need to be using words. This could not be further from the truth, as toddlers still generally have a smaller vocabulary and benefit from having an additional way to express themselves and their wants or needs. Often tantrums are a result of toddlers being unable to express themselves. Signing also supports different modes of learning as some children learn best through hearing while other are more visual learners. When a toddler begins to develop a larger vocabulary, he or she will typically start to sign less and less, and we can encourage him or her to use their words.

Understanding Signs

Sign language is interpreted by the way it looks. For example, if you are signing the word, shoe; tap your fists together just like the way Dorothy tapped her shoes together in the Wizard of Oz. The word Cat is pulling at whiskers near your mouth, and dog is slapping your thigh like the dog is going to come over to you.

We can teach sign language by saying the word as we sign, or singing and signing. Being consistent with signing is the most important step in learning. Talk while you sign all throughout the day and eventually, children will start to talk with their hands too!