I recently made a blog post about why speech therapists are such big fans of sign language. Now I’m going to explain how to choose which signs to use and how to introduce signs to your child.
First, you need to choose the signs that you want to teach your child. I recommend choosing signs that will be relevant to your life and daily routines. What are some of the words that you and your family use most? For most families mealtime and play are the most relevant daily routines. Some of the most common common signs used in the baby/toddler age group include: “eat”, “water”, “milk”, “more”, “help”, “open”, “all done”, “play”, “Mommy”, "Daddy" and “book”.
Once you’ve chosen some basic words, look up how to use them in sign language. I’m attaching a handout with several basic signs, but I also recommend looking up signs at Lifeprint. You can look up any ASL (American Sign Language) sign and there will be pictures and short videos of how to do the sign properly.
Please try to choose signs that are not too difficult for young children to do themselves. Some signs are more complicated than others, but most early signs are easy enough for babies and toddlers to attempt.
Now that you’ve chosen signs and learned how to use them, you are ready to begin introducing them to your child. Here are my tips:
Start modeling the word with the sign throughout your daily routine. If you chose the sign for “eat”. Say the word “eat” and use the sign each time that you and your child eat a meal. The more they are exposed to the sign, the more likely they will use it. Use the sign frequently during the meal. Make sure you are always pairing the sign with verbal language.
Stick to one sign at a time at first. Using many signs at once can be very overwhelming to a child and instead of learning lots of signs, they may not learn any. If they start to use a sign independently, stick with it for a couple of days and then you can introduce a new sign. You can start to incorporate several signs into your daily routine once your child demonstrates an understanding of a few signs and begins using them consistently.
Your child should not be expected to imitate you initially. They are learning the sign and the meaning behind it and this can take time. Some children begin using signs the first time they are taught and other children can take time to adjust to a new mode of communication. Each child is different and there is no exact time line.
You can use hand over hand assistance and move your child’s hands to help them learn how to produce the sign themselves. Do not be worried if your child does not sign exactly as you are. Fine motor skills and coordination are also being developed and they may approximate (attempt to copy, but may not be exact) the sign. As long as you understand what they are trying to communicate, that is all that matters.
Be consistent about modeling the sign throughout your daily routine and once you have modeled it for them for several days, give them the opportunity to use it. For example, if you’ve been modeling the sign for “more” for several days, you could set them up to request more. Give them just a couple of goldfish and wait for them to request more. If they start reaching for the bag or grunting to request you can ask “More?” and give them more wait time to use the sign. If they are still not signing, but reaching for them, use hand over hand assistance and help them use the sign. Then give them a few more goldfish. Repeat this process several times. The picture below shows how you can use hand over hand assistance to encourage your child to use the signs themselves.
6. Use older children or a family member as a model. Ask them to demonstrate how to use a sign to request something. Make sure your baby/toddler is watching the interaction. Give the model a few goldfish and ask them to request “more” when they are finished. Once they do, immediately praise them and give them what they requested. Repeat this process several times. This will demonstrate to your child how signing should work. Then give your child the opportunity to sign to you. Give them a few goldfish and wait for them to request. Once they realize that they can use signs are a communication tool, they will begin using them to request and express themselves.
Coleman, R. (2017) Baby sign chart retrieved from : https://www.signingtime.com/baby-sign-language-chart/