Promoting Language Development Through Sign Language

Speech Pathologist answers common questions

by Taylor Wathen M.S. CF-SLP

Will my child still use verbal language if we teach them to use sign language?

It is a common misconception that teaching a child sign language will hinder their verbal language development. In fact, research shows the opposite effect. Children with language delays who are exposed to sign language are able to express themselves earlier than children who are using verbal language alone. Some studies also suggest sign language decreases frustration and therefore decreases temper tantrums in young children.

Goodwyn, S.W., Acredolo, L.P. & Brown, C.A. Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 24, 81–103 (2000).

Why is an SLP teaching my child to use sign language?

  • Presymbolic communication is communication without the use of a signs, words, or pictures. Presymbolic communication includes crying, laughing, reaching and pointing. Using sign language with your child introduces symbolic communication, the next step. This means your child is learning to use a symbol to convey information. Signs and words are both examples of symbolic communication. 
  •  Using sign language also introduces communicative intent.  This is the understanding that certain signs, words, or behaviors result in a specific response. For example, if I sign "eat" I get to eat.
  • Using sign language with your child can decrease frustration. Children who are unable to express their needs and wants often cry to express something is wrong. The caregiver must then guess what is upsetting the child. Teaching sign language gives them a way to convey these needs to their caregiver.
  •  Sign language increases social communication skills. It allows a child to communicate with their caregivers and peers. Sign language can be used to comment, request, and to share information. 
  • Sign language can also increase a child's length of utterance by combining two signs together before the child can combine two words.

Where do I begin?

Once your Speech-Language Pathologist and you have decided to begin using sign language with your child, you should work together to choose vocabulary that can generalize into multiple contexts. For example, I typically choose to teach the sign "more" early on. This sign can be used for more swinging, more food, more juice etc. It is important to work together with your SLP when choosing words that will be beneficial to the child. An SLP teaching your child the sign for "out" may not be the best choice if you stay inside most of the day. It is also important to choose words that are easy to duplicate before teaching more complex signs. Some signs I teach first are: more, eat, mom, dad,out, play, all done, drink, and help.

Do you have any tips on using sign language at home?

  • Teaching children a new skill  takes time. For example, a child is not going to learn to dress themselves over night. It takes time and a lot of reinforcement. Learning to use sign language is no different. It takes time, reinforcement, and many models for a child to learn to use sign language.
  • The child's sign may not look the exact same as when you do it. For example, when doing the sign for more you bring your fingers together. Some children instead bring their two hands together. It is acceptable for them to use close approximations of a sign.
  • If at all possible respond to every communication attempt. Everytime your child makes a request try to give them the requested object. This teaches cause and effect.
  • Some children may require hand over hand to imitate signs. It is important to discuss this with your SLP to ensure this is appropriate for your child.