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January 22, 2004

What's your sign?

From: Newark Star Ledger, NJ - Jan 22, 2004

In some pre-schools, little ones let their fingers do the talking

Star-Ledger Staff

It was time to learn a new word in Stephanie Correa's class of 3- and 4-year-olds at the Goddard School in Denville.

"Winter," she said, raising her three middle fingers of each hand to form two W's, waving them back and forth. "This is the sign for W, and in the winter there is wind," she explained.

Isabella Testa, 3, copied her movements. "Winter," she repeated, waving her hands.

That's "winter" in American Sign Language, which is increasingly being taught to babies and toddlers in child care centers around the country.

Baby "signing" swept the country in the '90s, as parents picked it up as a way to enhance their children's ability to communicate before they could speak. Now it's being introduced into child care centers for the same reasons, and more.

Experts say it helps babies let caregivers know what they need and how they are feeling. That in turn cuts down on frustrated, crying babies and strengthens the bond between child and caregiver, a critical component of good quality care.

"It reduces frustration, it's a little bit quieter," said Marta Tsividakis, director of the Goddard School in Denville. "We had a little boy who was definitely a late talker, which was showing itself through his behavior. He was very aggressive when he wanted a toy, all that kind of stuff. As soon as he learned to sign for whatever he needed, like milk, or using basic manners, we saw the behavior decrease."

The school belongs to a chain of 140 Goddard Schools nationwide that has contracted with Time to Sign, a Florida-based company that teaches signing to child-care workers and parents.

A best-selling book by California researchers Linda Acredolo and Susan W. Goodwyn, "Baby Signs: How to Talk to Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk," has been adapted for child care teachers. More than 200 caregivers attended a signing workshop at last fall's conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in New York.

"There's definitely an interest," said Karen Nemeth, an early childhood specialist with the Community Coordinated Child Care agency in Union County, who led the convention workshop and teaches signing around the state.

The scientific reason behind signing is that the visual part of a baby's brain matures faster than the section responsible for verbalization, explained Marilyn Daniels, an associate professor of arts and sciences at Penn State University who has consulted with Time to Sign and taught signing around the country and in Japan.

"They want to interact and communicate, but their verbal apparatus doesn't mature until 15 months. They can respond by making signs and understanding signs," Daniels said.

Babies can begin to understand signs from about 7 to 10 months old, evident in the simple gestures like waving bye-bye that most babies do. Teachers start by introducing "purposeful" signs for hunger, pain, or even a diaper change, Nemeth said.

Since it's an iconic language, most of the signs simulate the activity. Eat, or hunger, is indicated by placing thumb and fingertips together and touching the lips. The sign for a bottle, cup, or glass is placing a hand shaped like a "C" on a flat palm, which looks like a cup.

Children can move on to signs that indicate an interest: If they want a ball, they can sign for it; if they see an airplane, they can sign it.

That communication can work especially well in a group setting in which a caregiver has several children to watch, and may not know a child very well. "The teacher has to get down to the baby's face and focus. At that moment you're really connecting eye to eye, and that is good for children's development, " Nemeth said.

At the King's Daughters Day School in Plainfield, 2 1/2-year-old Sophia Angel has quickly learned to sign for words since her teacher, Sarah Aydelotte, started signing last fall.

More -- she placed the tips of her fingers together. Milk -- she squeezed her hand as if milking a cow.

Brianna Hurtado, 2, asked for more apple during lunch by making a fist at her cheek and twisting in a motion that mimics chewing.

Signing also enhances small motor skills, which are needed for tasks like holding a pencil, and is a way to communicate with children whose first language isn't English. That's how Correa first got involved in signing for her charges just over a year ago.

"One woman adopted a child from China who had a language barrier. She was 15 months old, and the woman was using sign language to communicate. We used it here and it helped: She was understood and we understood her. It became a natural part or our program," Correa said.

One a recent morning, she was leading her class in a singing and signing version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and taught them the sign for F, the letter of the week.

Despite initial qualms that signing interferes with verbal development, the opposite is true, research indicates. Acredolo, a psychologist who has been studying babies and signing for more than 20 years, found in a 2000 study that baby signing actually facilitated verbal development, and may also contribute to an increase in IQ scores.

"First of all, it really increases babies' excitement about communicating. When you use signs, you're pulling the word from the adult, so you're verbalizing as well as signing. The third reason we suspect is because of underlying brain development when the child is communicating successfully with signs," said Acredolo, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis. "It may be fostering (brain) circuitry that is useful when words are available."

That finding is behind one issue that has sparked some controversy. Some experts feel evidence like higher IQ scores among signing babies is being used to pitch the program to schools and parents looking to enhance their child's later school performance, part of a trend that includes electronic learning toys for babies or playing classical music for infants.

"This should be not about trying to make a baby smarter or getting into a better college someday," said Nemeth.

Another problem is disagreement about which type of signing method is best. Nemeth uses a method developed by Joseph Garcia, which is based on American Sign Language, or ASL, used by deaf people. Daniels, and the Time To Sign program, eschew anything but pure ASL, because it is a recognized language that can actually be used throughout life. Acredolo developed "Baby Signs," which uses some ASL and some simpler symbols that she believes babies can better understand.

Regardless of the method, Acredolo said one of the primary benefits of signing to children in day care was the ability to express their feelings.

"When babies are in distress, for example when a baby is missing his parents, they can do the sign for mommy and daddy. The caregiver can say, 'Oh, you're missing mommy or daddy,' mirroring their feelings."

Karen Nemeth will lead a Baby Sign Language workshop on Feb. 20 at the Community Coordinated Child Care offices in Hillside. For more information, call (973) 923-1433, ext. 136.

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