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November 13, 2003

Teaching children to speak with their hands promotes communication skills

From: Wyoming News, WY - Nov 13, 2003


The Gazette

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - A dozen babies are on the move.

Two are playing a not-so-friendly game of tug-of-war over a toy dog. Some are squirming in their moms laps, and others are off exploring. One little girl stuffs Cheerios into her mouth.

Amid the baby bedlam, Tamara Brody leads the children's parents in a chorus: ''Please may I have more milk, more juice, more crackers,'' the adults sing, their fingers signing the words.

These Colorado Springs parents are part of a rapidly growing trend of using signing to communicate with hearing babies.

Some programs, such as Brody's, emphasize American Sign Language. Others focus on signs that babies may develop on their own. The idea isn't to replace the spoken word, but to establish two-way communication with children who have the motor skills to make signs but haven't yet developed the skills needed for speech.

Teachers at the A. Sophie Rogers Laboratory School at Ohio State University have been using American Sign Language as a tool for communication with infants and young toddlers for several years.

''We've always felt very strongly that children have lots of thoughts and ideas, but just didn't have the means to get them out,'' says Michelle Sanderson, director of the school. ''We know that at 13 months of age, they have about a 50-word vocabulary of what they can understand but only a two- or three-word vocabulary of what they can say.''

A commonly voiced concern is that signing will discourage a baby from learning to speak, but studies have shown the opposite is true. Research has found babies exposed to signing have higher IQs, accelerated language development and a greater interest in books, among other benefits.

''First and foremost it is a wonderful bonding tool between caregivers and their babies,'' Brody says.

Brody has studied American Sign Language for more than 20 years and is a member of the Sign 2 Me Presenters Network, one of several programs that have sprung up in the past few years. She just wrapped up an initial, six-week series of classes for parents of babies and toddlers.

''I'm not there to teach the babies to sign,'' she explains. ''I'm there to teach the parents how to sign.''

The parents are encouraged to use the signs during their daily routines at home. The goal is to expose the babies to key signs that could make the lives of child and parent easier: a desire for milk, the need for a diaper change.

For example, ''If we're eating, then before I put the cheese down I'll sign cheese,'' says Toby Reed, father of 13-month-old Caroline.

Caroline signed ''book'' upon waking up from a recent nap, something that made the post-nap experience less stressful than usual, says her mom, Becky. ''We went straight to her book and it wasn't the whole crying, crabby thing.''

Sometimes Caroline uses American Sign Language; other times she uses signs she develops on her own. Communication is the goal, her mother says.

''Our purpose isn't necessarily to teach her another language.''

Although 17-month-old Noah Walker is speech-delayed - he's only now starting to speak words - he caught on quickly when exposed to signing.

''Before, he would point, like at the kitchen table, and I wouldn't know whether he wanted food, whether he wanted drink,'' says his mother, Debbie.

He can now sign dozens of words, from fruit to shoes to drink, reducing both his and his parents' frustrations.

Unlike Brody, whose classes are based on the work of ''Sign With Your Baby'' author Joseph Garcia, Tara Lancaster developed her own curriculum for a signing class she teaches at a local church.

Lancaster, whose in-laws are deaf, uses signing in her day-to-day-interactions with her 8-month-old son, Asa.

''I don't know if it's just the visual stimulation or interacting with him, but he can be just hysterical and I set him in my lap and sign to him and he calms right down,'' she says.


On the Net:

Ohio State University, A. Sophie Rogers Laboratory School:

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