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December 28, 2003

American sign language lets babies, toddlers communicate better

From: Alameda Times-Star, CA - Dec 28, 2003


ALYSSA Pubentz has been telling her parents what she needs and thinks since she was a year old.

Alyssa's mother, Kathy, introduced her to American Sign Language at birth. At 6 months, she signed consistently through normal activities with Alyssa. By 10 months, Alyssa signed back her first word -- milk -- a one-handed gesture that mimics milking a cow.

By her first birthday, Alyssa could use 70 signs and when she awoke in the middle of the night, she could tell her mother, "My teeth hurt. I need medicine."

When she was hungry, Alyssa signed exactly what she wanted to eat. Strawberries and bread was one favorite request.

Alyssa, now 3, is one of a growing number of hearing tots with sign language skills. Though she can now talk, the benefits of signing live on through Alyssa's expanded vocabulary and ability to think conceptually, Pubentz said.

Fueled by promising research and a growing array of books, videos and CDs, baby sign language is the activity du jour of ambitious parents and caregivers who believe in its potential to enhance communication and even raise a child's IQ.

The benefits of signing are well known in communities serving children with autism, Down syndrome, language and developmental delays.

But only in recent years has word spread about the benefits of signing to all babies. The trendy movement began, like most, on the West Coast.

California psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn have studied the impact of symbolic gesturing on early development since the early 1980s. Much of their research and benefits was published in a 1996 best-seller "Baby Signs" that advised parents how to use made-up signs with their children. The book was updated last year to include more American Sign Language signs.

Acredolo and Goodwyn found that baby signing gave hearing children an advantage in speech development, including a larger vocabulary and earlier ability to speak in simple sentences. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that 8-year-old children who had been taught signs in infancy scored on average 12 points higher on IQ tests than children who had no sign training.

Washington researcher and educator Joseph Garcia did his own studies proving the benefits of signing. More than 250,000 copies of Garcia's learning kits and books, "Toddler Talks" (published in 1994 and now out of print) and "Sign With Your Baby" (Northlight Communications, $49.95) have been sold. This year, Garcia added "Pick Me Up" (Northlight Communications, $36.95), which combines sign language lessons with music through an activity guide and CD.

Inspired by what was happening at home, Pubentz, a former teacher of deaf children, began teaching sign language for hearing parents and babies a couple of years ago. Her six-week workshops, using Garcia's materials as well as her own experiences, are weekly, one-hour classes split between teaching parents and signing with babies.

At 3, Alyssa knows hundreds of signs but no longer uses them to get her needs met -- though the skill comes in handy during quiet times at church when she wants to express a feeling or a need. She's also looking forward to teaching ASL to her 5-month-old brother.

The best way to teach hearing babies sign language is to weave simple lessons into everyday life, whether it's talking and signing about fruit at the grocery store or identifying toys in a baby's room. Experts say caregivers should be as consistent as possible with signing, but they say the skill doesn't require a huge time commitment because adults are learning and passing on just a few words and signs at a time.

Signing lessons have spread to Houston child-care facilities and preschools as they have in other parts of the country.

Some experts, however, say old-fashioned activities such as reading books, playing music and simply talking to babies is more meaningful than learning sign language.

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