A question that is frequently asked by parents is: will teaching my child sign language stunt his or her verbal speech development? Parents are often conflicted with this question. With misinformation coming from all sources and inconsistent advice, it becomes difficult knowing which path is the right one to take when it comes to your child’s speech development.
First, let’s debunk the myth that teaching sign language to a child will hinder his or her ability to learn verbal communication. There is no research to support this claim. In fact, most recent research actually supports the contrary. Early data shows that children with speech and language delays benefit from the use of sign language. When a child is unable to express him/herself, challenging behaviors may arise. This can lead to frustration for both the child and the parents. A study by Thompson, Cotnoir-Bichelman, McKerchar, Tate, & Dancho (2007) states that introducing basic signs may contribute to the prevention of behavior problems for young children at risk (e.g., developmental delays, language delays, sensory impairment).
It is often easier for a child to learn the motor actions needed to make a sign before they learn the actions for speech production. This gives them a tool for making functional requests or the ability to protest an undesired object/activity which will in turn ease frustrations for both parents and child. The early use of sign language teaches children that their communication is their power. This allows the child to feel empowered by their communication and build their intrinsic motivation.
Steps to take to introduce signs:
1. Pick one-two easy and functional signs at a time (more, all done, open, & help are good ideas to start with).
2. Teach using the sign(s) consistently during a motivating activity (snack time, or a favorite game).
3. Modeling use of the sign without expectations of your child using it at first (e.g., Model the “more” sign each time you give more pieces of a snack).
4. Fade models to allow your child to make requests using the sign (e.g., Give a small portion of the snack at a time, pause and wait 5 seconds for “more” sign, if child does not request you may prompt him/her by touching hands, if no request is made show a model and give snack).
5. Continue to fade models and prompts to facilitate independence.
6. Start to use during different activities for generalization!
Thompson, R. H., Cotnoir-Bichelman, N. M., McKerchar, P. M., Tate, T. L., & Dancho, K. A. (2007). Enhancing early communication through infant sign training. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17471791.