Where to Begin when Teaching Signs
Where to begin when teaching children sign language depends on many factors. Most importantly, the age of the group and prior exposure to ASL. People of all ages can learn American Sign Language even with no prior exposure. When teachers and caregivers teach the children in their program ASL, they typically begin with the words that are most commonly used by the children. Often these are names for people and mealtimes.
It is important to use sign often and in context. The efficacy of the sign instruction and the child’s ability to retain and use the signs is completely dependent upon how often the child is exposed to the signs in the correct context. It is also important to note that children will typically not begin signing back until they are approximately 8-14 months old, according to Claire Vallotton, Ph.D.
Adults often wonder if teaching sign language to children who are developing spoken language can have a negative effect on their language development. Infants and toddlers who are learning to communicate often communicate using hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions. Claire Vallotton, Ph.D. references a study done by Susan Goodwyn, Linda Acredolo, and Catherine Brown where they worked with 32 families as they taught their infants sign language. The three researchers continued to study the infants as they grew through various developmental stages. What they found was that children who were taught sign language from around 8 months of age had greater language acquisition by age 2. The study ended when the children were age three and found that they regularly used longer sentences and had a much broader vocabulary. There have been other studies that have found similar outcomes, so it is safe to say that teaching sign language does not have a negative impact on children’s language development.
Another concern is who teaches sign language to children. Often the classroom teacher doesn’t know sign language fluently and they are still learning along with the children. Is this ok? The answer is, yes! While a formal American Sign Language course is preferably taught by a member of the Deaf community, when teaching sign language to children in your classroom you shouldn’t be discouraged if you are still learning yourself!