It can be confusing if your child’s speech-language pathologist incorporates “sign language”, the use of specific hand motions and gestures to communicate, as part of their plan of care to promote expressive language skills. Isn’t that only if there’s a hearing impairment? What if it further delays your child from using their words? What if your child just learns to sign, but not speak?
In this blog, we will be discussing the research behind using sign language, as well as the overall benefits.

Why use signing?

Although there are developmental norms, all children develop skills at their own pace. If your child is delayed in language development, using simplified hand motions/gestures may make it a lot easier for them to communicate. The form of communication varies as some gestures are based on American Sign Language (ASL), while others create individualized signs for everyday objects and emotions.
If your child learns to use functional signs such as “more”, “give me”, “all done”, not only may it reduce overall communication frustrations, but it teaches your child that he/she has to communicate, in some form, to obtain their wants and needs. In using sign language, the child will learn that crying, or grabbing your hand to lead them towards what they want, is not the best way to communicate. With plentiful exposure and practice using sign language, your child will quickly learn that using sign language is not only easier, but empowering. It is the beginning of finding his/her own voice.

Will it prevent my child from talking?

You may be thinking: Wait – Wouldn’t it be easier to just teach them to speak? Research demonstrates that signing does not prevent your child from speaking, it actually supports it (Millar and Light). Incorporating sign language simply acts as a stepping stone until your child feels ready to verbally produce words. As you sign with your child, it is important to also speak the words that you are signing – so your child hears that same word over and over, paired with the same sign.

Some children may sign for a few weeks, while others may sign for a few months. Each child is different, so it is difficult to predict exactly when verbal language will emerge. It’s like the famous saying: “We can lead the horse to water, but we can’t make it drink”. Some children need more time for their mouths and speech systems to produce words; thus, using sign language is a way for their language systems to still develop. Furthermore, there are confirmed benefits of using sign language, and how it positively impacts children later in life, described below.

BENEFITS
According to a research study comparing a group of children who used sign language vs. group of children that did not use sign language: “…by 3 years of age, children who signed as babies were talking with the skills of a four year old”
Increased intelligence scores on tests: Children who used signing as babies achieved ~8 points higher on an intelligence test, compared to children who did not use signing as babies
Decreased aggression (Acredolo and Goodwin, 2000)
Decreased frustration (Acredolo and Goodwin, 2000)
Positive Emotional Development (Acredolo and Goodwin, 2000)
Increased self-confidence (Acredolo and Goodwin, 2000)
Increased bonding and social interactions with family members

How do I start?
You may be thinking, “but I don’t know sign language”, and that’s totally okay. Many speech-language pathologists don’t know sign language either, but they start with the most useful, functional signs to communicate wants/needs (e.g., “more”, “open”, “give me”, “help”, “eat”). Just learning and incorporating these 4-5 signs can be extremely helpful to reduce overall frustrations. You can even just begin with one sign, such as “more”.

Suggestion of how to use:
Prepare the environment with something that you know your child will be interested in. Bubbles are a popular tool!
Blow some bubbles and wait for your child to be excited for your to blow more bubbles again. As your child is anticipating you to blow more, model the sign “more” while asking, “more?”. Keep modeling the sign while repeating “more?”, allowing time for your child to process what you are doing. Over time, your child will make the connection that when you model/say “more”, that’s when the bubbles make an appearance! (It may take a lot of patience. Keeping the experience positive and fun for your child is key)
After ample modeling, allow opportunities for your child to imitate the sign of “more”. Allow enough wait time. “Reward” their attempts with signing, vocalizing, or any communication attempts, by blowing more bubbles and providing a lot of praise (“Yay!”). It is okay to gently place your hands over their to help them “sign”
Use the same process in other opportunities (e.g., snacks, toys) so that your child connects the concept of “more”to all activities.

Points to Remember:
Signing will NOT delay spoken language
Be consistent, using the “sign” while speaking the word, in all opportunities
Be patient, it may take a lot of time
Keep positive – it is important for your child to not feel pressured to “sign”
Keep the signs simple
Praise any attempts
You got this!

-Andrea Scola, M.S., CCC-SLP, Exceptional Speech Therapy Blog Writer

Resources:

11 tips to improve a child’s communication using signs. @ASHA. (2018, September 26). Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://leader.pubs.asha.org/do/10.1044/11-tips-to-improve-a-childs-communication-using-signs/full/
90+ free speech & language activities. Speech And Language Kids. (2022, May 25). Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com/90-free-speech-language-activities-and-resources/

Garcia, J. (2001). Which signs to start with and when to start. Sign with Your Baby: How to communicate with infants before they can speak (p. 31).Seattle, WA: Sign 2 Me and Bellingham, WA: Stratton Kehl Publications, Inc.
Goodwyn, S.W., Acredolo, L.P., & Brown, C. (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 24, 81-103.

Millar, D. C., Millar, C. author: D. C., Light, J. C., University, T. P. S., Schlosser, R. W., & University, N. (2021, May 18). The impact of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on the speech production of individuals with developmental disabilities: A research review. ASHA Wire. Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://pubs.asha.org/doi/abs/10.1044/1092-4388%282006/021%29