FAQs About Sign Language

Maureen O’Brien, MS, CCC-SLP

My child can hear. Why would I use sign language?

The long-term goal for all of our children is talking and telling us what they want. However, in the short-term, we often need to find ways to help kids communicate their needs and wants while we work on the speech aspect of communication. Sign language can be a great bridge to give the child communication while they learn how to use speech. Typically, children with adequate fine-motor skills develop the ability to sign at least 3 months before they are able to form words clearly. This helps decrease frustration so the child can focus on the spoken word. When you relate the movement of a gesture to the movement of a spoken word, the spoken word can develop faster. We can easily assist a child to make a sign by helping the child’s hands to form signs. It is much harder to assist the tongue and lips to make speech sounds.

Won’t using sign language stop my child from learning to speak?

This has been very heavily researched for over 30 years and the research has shown that signing actually makes the spoken words happen faster for typically developing children. Also, we don’t let the child become stuck in using sign. We are always building strategies to help the child get to the next level.

Signs are too difficult for my child to make. How can I help my child make the signs?

We can adapt signs as needed for any child’s ability level. For example, the sign for “water” is holding up 3 fingers to the mouth. That can be very difficult for young children so I usually simplify it to 1 finger instead. As long as the family understands it, it’s ok.

I am struggling to remember the signs we are learning. How can I remember what my child is signing?

We often print pictures of the signs to post them around the child’s play area so that family members and other caregivers are aware of what the child is communicating. I try to relate the signs to their meanings when possible. For example, the sign for “milk” is opening and closing the fist like you’re milking a cow. Sometimes families will make lists of signs that are similar so that if the child does a handshape, they can reference which sign is related to that handshape.

What signs should I teach my child?

We try to use signs that are related to objects and people the child sees everyday and things that motivate the child. We usually choose favorite people, toys or snacks so that the child sees the signs often and can practice as much as possible. Words that are often used include: milk, cracker/Goldfish, cookie, ball, book, dog, water, banana, up, car, baby, bubbles, etc. The families make the sign and hand the child the object. If the child tolerates it, the parent can help the child make the sign to encourage him further.

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