I recently had the privilege of visiting a school for deaf children and watching a teacher communicate effectively with deaf children who had little or no spoken language.  I also visited a pre-school where they used signs to support communication and language throughout their session.  Both settings were using signs in a slightly different way, but both serving the same purpose of enhancing and enabling communication.  These experiences allowed me to reflect upon how well we communicate with young children and how using sign language can support this communication.

A child signing 'drink'

A child signing ‘drink’

In the school for deaf children, both British Sign Language (the language of the deaf community) and English are used to support bilingual language development.  Sign language was the main language used, with spoken English supporting this method.  They used British Sign Language (BSL) which is often used within the deaf community – it is a language in its own right, and is not spoken. It has grammar, structure, syntax and rules.  It relies on signs, body language, facial expression and specific lip patterns. The words signed may be in a different order from spoken English.   It is important to remember with British Sign Language that there are regional dialects, and signs can vary in different parts of the country and that other Sign Languages in other counties are a different language.

The development of Makaton

The setting used Makaton signs based on BSL, although some have been modified to ease use.  Makaton was developed in the 1970s to help people with learning disabilities to communicate. It is now widely used with a variety of children and adults with and without communication difficulties. It is based on a list of simple everyday words, which uses speech, gesture, facial expression, eye contact, body language, signs, symbols and words to aid communication.  Every word has a sign and symbol to represent it. Makaton is always used with spoken language and signs are used in spoken word order.  For example, if you wanted to ask a child if they would like a drink – you would sign the word drink, asking the question at the same time, raise your eyebrows in a questioning look, or alternatively you could show a simple picture (a symbol of a drink) and ask the question.

A child signing 'milk'

A child signing ‘milk’

When signing with children, parents and carers can choose to use standard signs or make up their own signs and gestures. There are benefits with each method.  Creating your own signs can be fun and through following children’s interests they can totally take the lead.  If you have made up signs you are probably more likely to remember them as they will be actions/gestures that make sense to you or link to the word in some way.

Signing for continuity and consistency

However, if you are teaching signs in a setting, it might be best to use standard signs from BSL or Makaton, which as I said earlier is based on BSL signs.  This is because several adults will be working alongside the children and consistency is very important.  Standard forms are understood widely, can encourage continuity between home and setting and can avoid confusion about the meaning of any sign.  There are also various books and DVDs on the market which can support you and your children in learning.

Signing with young children can accelerate their use of language as actions precede speech in developmental terms.  Many other benefits are found when using signs with young children.  For example, signing can decrease the frustration that some children feel when they are not yet able to verbally express their needs and wants.  Signing offers children with limited language an accessible way of learning which reinforces understanding as many of the signs ‘act out’ the word being signed, thus helping with comprehension.  Using signs with young children clearly benefits the adults working with the children too.  If only we could understand what our children with limited language want to say… well, when using sign language we can!  Adults can understand and interpret what a child is trying to tell them more easily if the child is signing.

There are some key principles to keep in mind when using sign language with young children:

  • Always say the word when you sign
  • Begin with a few key words and repeat them regularly
  • Be consistent – encourage all carers to use the same signs
  • Follow the child’s lead – increase your signing vocabulary when they are ready and use signs that they are interested in
  • Only sign key words using simple sentences – one sign per sentence is often enough
  • Teach children signs using rhymes, stories and songs as well as through conversation
  • Maintain eye contact or sign immediately after the child is focussed on the relevant object.
  • Remember to use facial expression and body language too!

It’s important that you accept and celebrate all attempts at signing from children, valuing their contribution to the conversation.  Words that you might want to begin with include words that you can use every day, such as: more, eat, drink, milk, finished/all gone, sleep.

A child signing 'more'

A child signing ‘more’

The best time to start signing with young children is between the ages of 6 months and 3 years because this is when children are most receptive to learning language.  However, using signs will benefit all children, whatever their age and I have seen sign language used effectively with nursery and reception aged children as it can enhance communication for all.

Signing and the EYFS

Signing with young children sits comfortably within the principles of the EYFS as it celebrates the unique child and accepts that all children develop at different rates and in different ways.  It helps to develop positive relationships between adults and children and also creates an enabling environment for the children.  Using signs clearly links with the three Prime Areas (Personal, Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development and Communication and Language) and specific areas of Literacy and Expressive Arts and Design.  In using signs, children are responding to experiences, expressing and communicating ideas and learning through songs, rhymes and stories.

Most children love songs with actions, so you could begin using signs by singing something like Old MacDonald, as you can incorporate your children’s favourite animals and learn the signs for them.  Using sign language with young children can support all children in their early language development – so why don’t you give it a go!

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin’s book, Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children, was released in July 2017.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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