Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Signing debate

Signing the way?
Classes for signing seem to be springing up everywhere.
So are they just a fad for pushy parents, or do they sign
the way to enhanced parent-children relationships? Should
they be part of Surestart provision? Having developed her
department's Accelerating Babies' Communication Programme,
Tania Allen is clear about the route we should take.

As a speech and language therapist with a particular interest
in using positive interaction techniques to develop delayed
language, I was fascinated when one of the parents attending
a parent programme I was running handed me 'Joseph Garcia's
SIGN with your BABY Complete Kit' that she had been sent by
her brother in America. The pack advocated the introduction
of Amercian Sign Language to normally developing, hearing
babies as young as 8 months. The idea of introducing signing
to babies in the absence of any difficulties or risk of delay
was new to me. We have all seen how the introduction of signs
has a positive impact on our language delayed population,
but what would be the point of signing with pre-verbal infants
who were likely to begin to speak within the next 12 to 18
months anyway?
On watching the video the evidence to support such a move
was compelling and I was hooked. Onto the screen came baby
after baby signing 'more', 'milk', 'hurt' and much more. Here
were babies showing that they had thoughts and needs that
would previously have gone unexpressed, as their spoken language
was simply not yet developed enough. Children able to express
themselves at a much earlier age than would be possible with
their spoken language meant that parents reported reduced
levels of frustration. In addition an intimate bond could
be seen between parent and infant as the signs were taught
and understood.
Intrigued, I set about finding out more and discovered the
original research into the use of baby signing took place
in America in the late 1980s. Almost simultaneously research
was taking place in two camps, Joseph Garcia in one and Linda
Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn in the other. Having worked as
an interpreter, Joseph Garcia had a wide network of friends
in the deaf community and he had noted how the hearing offspring
of signing deaf parents began to use signing long before their
spoken language developed. In 1987, Garcia began to research
the use of Amercian Sign Language with hearing babies who
are exposed to signs regularly and consistently at six to
seven months of age can begin expressive communication by
their eighth or ninth month.
Drs. Linda acredolo and Susan Goodwyn conducted a longitudinal
study funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and
Human Development. The study showed that signing babies understood
more words, had larger vocabularies and engaged in more sophisticated
play than non-signing babies. Parents of the signing babies
in the study noted decreased frustration, increased communication,
and enriched parent-infant bonding. Signing babies also displayed
an increased interest in books (Moore et al, 2001).
They revisited the families in the original study when the
children were seven and eight years old. The children who
signed as babies had a mean IQ of 114 compared to the non-signing
control group's mean of 102 (Acredolo and Goodwyn, 2000).
Garcia, Acredolo and Goodwyn then set about pioneering the
use of signing with babies. Joseph Garcia developed the SIGNwith
your BABY
program and and Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn
produced a book called Baby Signs.
The overall message in both is similar, although there is
on main difference: Joseph Garcia promotes the use of a standard
sign language such as American Sign Language or British Sign
Language, whereas Acredolo and Goodwyn advocate parents and
infants making uptheir own signs.
Baby signing classes for hearing babies were then introduced
in the United States and, due to the success of the programes
in America, baby signing is becoming increasingly popular
in the United Kingdom, with advocates for signing appearing
on daytime television, news shows and in the press.
Following further research into the field, I contacted Joseph
Garcia's team and registered as a SIGN with your BABY presenter.
I initially began running baby signing courses as an independent
venture. It seemed to make prefect sense. Teaching signs such
as waving 'bye bye' and hand rhymes such as 'Insi Winsey Spider'
is readily acceptable, so why not build up the ability to
use hand gestures that appear at a developmentally earlier
age than speech?
However, as a consequence of the recent press and television
coverage, local interest in baby signing was developing. Surestart
workers, parents and health visitors were asking if our speech
and language therapy service ran baby signing courses. The
time seemed ripe to develop a preventative programme that
capitalised on parents' interest in something new but also
'snuck in' the positive adult-child interaction techniques
to a captive audience that would otherwise have been hard
to reach. Subsequently I developed the Accelerating Babies'
Communication programme to address the demand.
Positive interaction strategies

The programme runs weekly over four 1 hour sessions and
involves showing parents of pre-verbal infants how to introduce
British Sign Language, based on Joseph Garcia's SIGNwith your
BABY approach, and demonstrating positive interaction strategies
from the TIME to TALK preverbal communication programme, a
parent course that colleagues and I had run successfully for
many years with parents of children with delayed/disordered
language development.
The infants participating in the programme can be as young
as 6 months as parents learn the techniques and then introduce
the signs at around 8 months. The course objectives are that
carers will:

  • develop a special bond with their infants through excellent
  • be appraised of the delights and benefits of signing with
  • have an initial signing vocabulary of over 30 signs
  • understand when and how to introduce new signs
  • be aware of how communication develops and the influences
    on this
  • be aware of positive interaction strategies that promote
    spoken language development.
Care was taken in the development of the programme to address
different learning styles and present activities in a fun,
interactive way. The course is also designed to be jargon-free
with a commonsensical approach, so that it could be run by
professionals other than speech and language therapists, such
as nursery teachers or health visitors.
The benefits of signing that I have observed whilst running
three Accelerating Babies' Communication programmes are:

1. Signing allows an infant to communicate accurately their
thoughts, needs and feelings before they can speak.

2. Signing reduces frustration for babies. The second year
of life can be one of great frustration for infants and their
carers. One of the major causes of tantrums is the toddler's
inability to communicate.

3. Signing gives a window into the infant's mind and personality,
as they can communicate outside of the here and now.

4. Signing enhances parent-child bonding, facilitating a close
relatinship between parent and child.

5. Signing promotes excellent interaction. Why? Because when
using signing, parents automatically adopt positive interaction
strategies such as following the child's focus of interest,
making eye contact, speaking slowly, and using simple key
words (Goodwyn et al, 2000)

6. Signing facilitates an adult's ability to interpret early
attempts at words and to assign meaning to them (e.g. Thomas
says 'ba' and signs bath, and says 'ba' and signs ball. Because
he is using signs as well, his dad knows exactly what he wants.

7. Signing children tend to be more interested in books. Using
signing alongisde looking at books allows an infant to become
an active participant in the story telling and their interest
in books soars.
A new client group

I'm constantly amazed by at the demand for baby signing
in our SureStarts. In Canterbury we had been running a drop-in
Language and Play group for preverbal toddlers and attendance
was extremely poor - more a case of drag-in than drop-in.
However as soon as we advertised the baby signing course we
had 25 mums keen to come. We now use the Language and Play
group as a follow-on group to keep parents' interest in communication
high. My next goal is to have a couple of the mums who have
used baby signing take over the running of the ABC course.
Tania Allen is head of paediatric speech and language
therapy with East Kent Coastal Teaching Primary Care Trust,
Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, Canterbury Road, Westbrook, Thanet

An extract from Signing the way?, Tania Allen, Speech
& Language Therapy in Practice
, Winter 2004.

Formal signing
The advantages of using a formal system rather than making
up your own signs are that:

  • Everyone who is in contact with your child can use the
    same signs, making it easier to learn the sign and its meaning.
  • Any signs used by your child can be understood by those
    who know that sign system.
  • People are less likely to get confused about the meaning
    of any given sign.

Commonly used signing systems include:

  • British Sign Language (BSL), unlike other signing systems,
    is a fully fledged language, used by deaf people in the
    UK. For more information go to
  • Makaton and Signalong are the systems most commonly used
    by speech and language therapy departments for children
    with a wide range of difficulties. They use some signs taken
    from British Sign Language. Signs are used at the same time
    as spoken language, providing additional clues to help children
    understand what is being said. For more information go to
    or to
  • Paget Gorman - a signing system that was developed specifically
    to support children with primary speech and language difficulties.
    Paget Gorman is used in some special schools and units for
    children with specific speech and language impairments.
    Like Makaton and Signalong, Paget Gorman follows the word
    order of spoken English. For more information go to

Speech and language therapy departments often offer classes
in the signing systems they use. Alternatively, you can contact
the organisations that represent the different options directly
for information about classes you could attend, videos, CD-ROMs
and other information materials that are available.
(Extracted from 'Information for parents:
Speech and language difficulties', published by Early Support,

Baby signing:
the view from the sceptics
Arguing against signing with babies is a bit like arguing
against motherhood and apple pie, since signing and gesture
are (like talking) natural ways of communicating used all
over the world. We aren't saying it's a bad thing, but we
are saying that professionals should ask themselves some basic
questions before leaping on this extraordinarily fashionable
We suggest asking:

  • what roles do sign and gesture play in early development?
  • is it necessary to sign to babies?
  • who benefits?
We know that babies develop signed or spoken language in
situations where carers are offering sensitive contingent
responses and appropriate stimulation for requests, naming,
communication of feelings and social behaviours. The argument
for the introduction of sign to babies rests on research suggesting
that babies learning sign as a first language produce their
first signs slighly earlier than babies produce their first
spoken words.
Several explanations have been put forward for this reported
sign advantage. One suggestion is the differing maturation
rates of the motor system for hand movements when compared
with that of the speech apparatus. However, these early signs
actually seem formationally identical to the gestures produced
by both deaf and hearing babies - hand opening and closing
for more or milk for example. So the 'signs'
are acutally gestures that all babies produce (see discussion
by Volterra et al, in press).
Acredolo and Goodwyn (2004) state: "Research has shown
that signs are easiest for babies and for parents when they
involve simple gestures and when they ressemble the things
they stand for, e.g. fingers to lips for 'eat'; arms out straight
like wings for 'airplane.'" If you reinforce particular
gestures and particular sounds, babies will develop their
communication skills in several different modalities. There
does appear to be a short period during which infants can
produce more differentiated and controlled hand gestures than
speech sounds, but it is a transitory phase. By the time children
have started to produce their first words and then combine
them, the timelines for signs and words appear to be essentially
However, if we paid as much attention to babies' vocalisations
as we do to their hands, we would find that gestures are likely
to be accompanied by protowords - consistent vocalisations
that are word-like. Amazing. If we actually attend to what
our babies are vocalising, imitate their sounds back to them
and present them with contexts where their sound making has
meaning, perhaps they will talk as well as sign.
For example, my granddaughter at eight and a half months
was saying 'tat' for cat and other things that interested
her, and at 10 months has a range of six or seven vocalisations
associated with particular events and feelings. We think we
might start marketing this novel approach. We could call it
Baby Talk. We would be very hapy to provide workshops,
videos and CD-ROMs (at a price).
Is it necessary?

Garcia (1999) and Acredolo and Goodwyn (2002) claim that children
can learn signs before they can learn words, and that teaching
them signs will lead to measurable differences in behaviour
and cognition. "Research in the USA reports that, by
being taught signs, hearing babies can understand and express
language long before they are physically able to speak. Parents
who have used Garcia's methods for signing with hearing babies
as young as seven or eight months claim that it can help communication,
verbal language development and dramatically reduce frustration
- even a few simple signs like 'more', 'eat, and 'milk' can
make a big difference in empowering and meeting the needs
of babes" (from the Northlight Communications catalogue).
The argument is that babies are experiencing huge frustration
because they cannot communicate. To our knowledge, there is
no research which suggests that this is the case for typical
babies, who are generally pretty good at making their needs
known. Using some symbolic gestures is part of normal parenting,
but we are not at all clear that anyone needs to go on a course,
buy videos or do anything other than use the range of skills
they naturally possess. Speech and language therapists, in
particular, should be seeking to empower parents to use gestures
(a huge range applicable, such as come, eat, bye-bye, drink,
go, look at that, clap, cuddle, no, phone) and the equivalent
sounds or 'vocal gestures' (mm, lip smack, animal noises,
bang, ooh, wow) that children will easily pick up at this
age to show their feelings and interests.
We know of at least one case (from a colleague at City university)
where a mother's decision to focus entirely on teaching baby
sign and to ignore vocalisations has actually retarded her
son's spoken language development. So we suggest that therapists
should encourage parents to develop all means of communication,
and not just one at the expense of another.
In fact, the most hepful thing parents can probably do for
their children between the ages of eight and 12 months is
to encourage them to point, since there is very sound research
suggesting that the use of pointing is associated with joint
attention and the development of object naming and language
Statements such as, "Do you want to strengthen the bond
with your baby by being able to communicate with them before
they can speak? By attending a Signing Infants Workshop, you
too can start on the amazing journey of communicating with
your baby," (from a British website) are particualrly
disingenuous, suggesting that parents cannot communicate with
their babies until they sign.
Manual gesture is, of course, extremely useful for babies
whose development is compromised, including children with
special needs, children with hearing loss and children who
are not developing spoken language. In this context, baby
sign does have the useful function of making signing a more
acceptable avenue of development, and this is certainly welcomed.
But this brings us to our next question.
Who benefits?

It is quite staggering to see the rash of websites, books,
videos, workshops and training courses. All are promoting
'baby sign' and using signs form the language of deaf people.
Well, it's certainly making a lot of money for someone. But
are deaf people benefiting? Do we see any evidence of any
of the profits being donated to organisations that support
deaf children and their families? More pertinently, even,
who do you think are the real experts in using baby sign?
Is it the hearing promoters who have copyrighted the name,
or could it just be deaf parents who use their own language
with their babies? How nice it would be to see the proponents
of baby sign inviting deaf people to be the trainers, the
authors and the models in the videos.
So, finally, our suggestions to therapists who would like
to advocate the use of signs with parents are:

  • parents don't have to spend loads of money attending workshops
    and buying vidoes - they can use the gestures they already
  • make sure you encourage parents to focus just as much
    on what babies are saying; and
  • if you do want to give them a wider range of gestures,
    why not get deaf parents to come and teach them? And pay
    them the money you would paid the baby signers.
Nicola Grove, Ros Herman, Gary Morgan and Bencie Woll - Speech
and Language Therapists, Department of Language and Communication
Sciences, City University, London.

(RCSLT Bulletin, November 2004)

View from
the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists

Speech and Language Therapists say baby signing programmes
are not necessary for most children

Do parents need to buy baby signing 'programmes' to teach
their child to talk - as advocated in recent publicity concerning
commercially available baby signing programmes? Not according
to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT).
An RCSLT spokesperson says: "Research evidence supports the
use of gestures to help babies focus on what they hear - much
as child-directed speech does - as part of 'normal' parent-child
interaction. There is also some evidence that supports signing
for babies with Down Syndrome to help speech and language
development. "However, it is not necessary for parents to
learn formal signing such as British Sign Language for children
with no identified risk of speech and language development.
A structured signing 'programme' is not necessary to enhance
the communication development of typically developing children.
"The College is concerned that the use of signing does not
replace/take priority over the need for parents to talk to
their children."

(Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, Press Release,
27 October 2003)

Baby talk

Every parent can find it frustrating when their baby cries
and they can't quite work out why. Of course, a little parental
instinct, common sense and a lot of luck has gone a long way
for countless years, but now eager mums, dads and carers are
queuing in their thousands for classes in the newly popular
means of communication: baby signing.
The technique, originally explored by American child development
researcher Joseph Garcia, enables hearing children as young
as six months to use simple symbols and gestures to communicate
their basic needs and emotions with their parents. If your
baby wants his teddy, needs to go to bed or simply feels like
telling you he's seen a bird in the sky, there are simple
signs with which he can now communicate it to you.
Whether you think it's a fad, a bit of fun or an essential
development tool, it looks like baby signing is here to stay,
with classes springing up all over the UK and even dictionaries
of key signs on sale. Advocates of the system sing signing's
benefits, claiming it reduces babies' frustration, strengthens
the bond between child and parent and encourages a child to
speak earlier than usual. Some even claim that signing leads
to a higher than average literacy level and a wider vocabulary.

Musician Sasha Felix created Sing and Sign (
after teaching her own daughter basic signing symbols and
music with great success. She consulted speech and language
therapists and soon her Brighton-based classes were a runaway
success. Now new Sing and Sign groups have started up all
over the country. Sasha believes that baby signing encourages
the development of your baby's speech, and bridges the gap
between your baby's first understanding of the meaning of
words and gestures, and actual speech.
"The big thing that we push is that it's natural and it's
a typical part of speech and language development anyway,"
she said. "The whole point is that babies already use gestures,
and we just expand the range of gestures that they use. They
already wave goodbye and raise their arms when they want to
be picked up.
"The amazing thing has been how easily the babies have
picked the signs up. They are even able to remind their parents
of things that happened yesterday."
Liz Attenborough is the manager of the Talk to Your Baby
campaign for the National Literacy Trust, an independent charity
dedicated to building a literate nation. The Talk to Your
Baby campaign aims to encourage parents to talk to their children
from birth, to help them become good commicators and enjoy
happier and more successful lives.
On baby signing, Liz commented: "In small doses, this seems
like another example of good communication. We are looking
for any form of communication between babies and their carers
and if this improves the process then it's a positive thing."

But, of course, not everyone thinks baby signing is necessary.
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT)
is concerned that some parents will worry unnecessarily that
they are unable to take their child along to classes.
"A structured signing 'programme' is not necessary to enhance
the communication development of typically developing children,"
a spokesman said. "The College is concerned that the use of
signing does not replace/take priority over the need for parents
to talk to their children."
However, baby signing, this relatively new phenomenon, appears
to be having a positive effect on the relationship between
carer and child, encouraging them to spend that all-important
time together. Your baby may not be able to speak, but he
can certainly communicate. It's not something which is essential
for all, but, if you are interested in sharing more with your
child, understanding his needs and perhaps giving him a head
start on speech, then it may be worth seeing if baby signing
is for you.
Emma Scott, mother of 17-month-old Tabitha, who joined the
classes earlier this year, agrees that signing has had a positive
effect on her daughter's development.
"So many friends have said this was a frustrating time for
them, but we have a very calm baby," she said. "We're quite
passionate about it because it's been so wonderfully rewarding
to have our daughter communicate back to us."
Taken from;
written by Jennifer Bradly, September 2004

who's talking, written by Lucy Atkins for the Guardian, 27.07.05
Should you be teaching your baby sign
language? Or is the latest child education craze a total waste
of time? Lucy Atkins, mother to a non-verbal yet very communicative
14 month old, investigates
Yesterday, 15-month-old Charlie Parrott
anxiously approached his Mum, Sam, as she was drying her hair.
"Where's Daddy?" he asked. "Daddy's downstairs in the shower,"
she replied. "Great!" said Charlie, who picked up his teddy
and bottle, and toddled downstairs to find Daddy.
Charlie is not some linguistic genius.
This exchange took place entirely in sign language. Neither
Charlie nor Sam is deaf, but together they've been going to
baby-signing classes since Charlie was eight-months old. If
you watched the movie Meet the Fockers you may have some notion
of what baby signing is about. Robert De Niro's character
is the uber (grand) parent of our time: he straps on fake
breasts to prevent his one-year-old grandson from developing
"nipple confusion", allows him to play only with pre-approved
toys, and communicates with him using sign language. Despite
the intended satire, the movie had a big effect on US parents:
sales of Joseph Garcia's Sign With Your Baby kits rocketed.
And the phenomenon has now made its way over here: in September,
Garcia, the world's foremost proponent of baby signing, will
publish his first UK instruction manual - Joseph Garcia's
Complete Guide to Baby Signing.
The idea makes sense: a baby's motor
skills develop way before their verbal ones, so babies as
young as seven months can produce hand signals to communicate
- many months before they could do so linguistically. Like
most children his age, Charlie's verbal skills amount to eloquent
babble interspersed with a handful of "real" words - Mummy,
Daddy, hat and duck. But he used his first sign - "milk" -
at nine months (thereby simplifying his parents' lives significantly),
and at 11 months could ask for food and drink and understand
a range of signs for his everyday activities. At 15 months,
he habitually use about 15 signs including: more, park, food,
teddy, book, bath, swing and where.
"It has taken the uncertainty out
of parenting," says Sam. "Instead of constantly wondering,
'What on earth's wrong with you now?', Charlie can tell us."
Baby signing is nothing new. Garcia, a teacher who originally
worked with hearing children of deaf parents, spotted the
commercial potential of baby signing 15 years ago when he
noticed that far from having delayed language development,
the children he worked with tended to speak earlier than their
peers. The idea is that because you always speak the word
at the same time as you sign it, signing in fact reinforces
a baby's grasp of how language works. Which perhaps explains
why Garcia is now so well known in the States that gushing
parents stop him at airports to thank him.
Here, meanwhile, parents who sign
to their hearing babies "still definitely get a few funny
looks," says Emma Finlay-Smith, director of the newly established
group Baby Signers, the first to use Garcia's system in the
UK. There are currently about 100 baby-signing classes running
in the UK under different banners (Sing and Sign, and Tiny
Talk, for instance, both combine music and sign language),
and some Sure Start schemes have begun to run drop-in "play
and language" classes that incorporate baby signing. Indeed,
claims Finlay-Smith, "it's fast becoming the normal thing
to do with your baby."
"Baby signing certainly seems to
be filling some void," says Kamini Gadhok, director of the
Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT). There
is currently a debate raging about it in the RCSLT journal.
Some therapists are wildly enthusiastic - others less so.
As one group of academics wrote: "If we paid as much attention
to babies' vocalisations as we do to their hands, we could
find that gestures are likely to be accompanied by protowords
- consistent vocalisations that are word-like..We think we
might start marketing this novel approach. We could call it
Baby Talk. We would be very happy to provide workshops, videos
and CD-roms (at a price)."
Are they right to be so sceptical?
The window during which your baby can make gestures but not
talk is pretty small. A baby's vocal cords typically develop
the capacity for speech at around 18 months, so even if you
start early and your baby makes his first sign at around eight
months, you're talking less than a year where it's your main
form of communication. You will, of course, gain an extremely
valuable capacity to communicate with deaf people - not to
be sniffed at - but beyond that, is this all just another
guilt trip for harassed parents?
I have three small children and my
youngest, who is 14 months old, seems to be getting his feelings
across to the rest of us pretty effectively. He may not know
British Sign Language (BSL) but like most of his peers he
can say a few key words including "No!". He can also point,
grab, pull, yell, make animal noises, creative gestures and,
if all else fails, will physically manipulate us around the
house to achieve his ends. I may be too busy to take him to
baby Sudoku classes (it's an achievement, sometimes, just
keeping them all alive) but I certainly do not feel, as the
Baby Signing book suggests, that he is sitting mutely, a "passive
observer waiting in the wings to emerge once he has learned
how to speak." Indeed, right now it frequently seems that
we're all mere pawns in his plans for world domination. Were
I a paranoid first-time parent, however, this sort of guilt
trip might genuinely get to me.
As might the notion that I'm "missing
out" on the fascinating internal world he's dying to share
with me. Signing, says Garcia "is a vehicle that allows babies
to tell their parents what is going on for them." "When Isabella
was 12 months old we were in Marks & Spencer," says Finlay-Smith.
"She signed 'rabbit'. We thought she'd gone mad. But the rabbit
in question turned out to be a man with very buck teeth. It
blew me away how much was going on in her head: the connections
she'd made."
This is certainly an intriguing notion.
Most parents of pre-verbal children at some point think, what's
going on in there? But is it worth learning BSL to discover
that your baby thinks the man at the checkout needs orthodontic
treatment? I'm not convinced. Baby signing will, of course,
be tempting to the Baby Einstein buying market. According
to baby signing fans, studies show that a signing child will
typically be 12 points higher on the IQ scale, at seven and
eight years old, than a non-signing child. "Signing intellectually
stimulates a baby's brain," says Garcia. It also "changes
their psyche about solving problems," he says, making them
"typically less apprehensive, more confident and outgoing
and [they] tend to adopt leadership roles among their peers."
This problem-solving claim is currently based more on observation
than scientific data. And it is slightly baffling. Non-signing
babies are constantly problem solving too: they have to. One
friend told me how her 15-month-old recently dug out her favourite
flip-flops and presented them to her, as a "sign" that they
should go out. It's not, therefore, terribly clear why BSL
as a problem-solving method should confer such special powers.
Other studies show that the linguistic advantage that signing
children initially have disappears by the age of three.
But there's no arguing with the sales
figures: Garcia's book has already sold nearly half a million
copies in the US. And even for a knee-jerk sceptic like me
there does appear to be one genuinely persuasive argument
for learning a few basic signs with your baby. "It will take
you an instant to figure out what he wants rather than half
an hour," says Garcia. And this significantly reduces tantrums.
Having survived two toddlers, I am consciously dreading round
three of the terrible twos. One study of toddlers, Garcia
tells me, found that non-signers spent on average 20 hours
a month having tantrums. Signers, meanwhile, spent only 10
hours a month rigid and screaming on the floor. Forget IQs
and social domination, if this isn't a fantastic reason to
sign with your baby, nothing is.
"The last thing parents should feel
is guilt if they don't have the video or do the classes,"
says Liz Attenborough, manager of Talk To Your Baby, part
of the National Literacy Trust. "There are countless ways
to communicate with your baby but a few gestures are certainly
useful in early communication, alongside talking and allowing
the baby to babble. But I'm not sure that families need to
take courses to learn a huge signing vocabulary for that to
be effective." Just using Garcia's book I have picked up about
10 signs in a couple of days, and this morning my baby (heavily
prompted) signed "up" when he wanted to get out of his high
chair. Life is looking up. As soon as he learns "here are
your slippers and pipe, Mummy" I'll know it's all been worthwhile.
(Guardian, 27.07.05)

Sign language
- the basics
What is it? American child development researcher
Joseph Garcia suggests that babies can begin learning baby
sign language as early as six months when they are introduced
to basic symbols such as 'eat', 'drink', 'milk', 'more', and
'no'. Proponents of baby signing say that it can also help
to reduce bad behaviour because children are less frustrated.
Does it work? Gail Flaum from Bushey, Herts, has signed
with daughters, Millie, two and Jessie, one. She thinks it
was invaluable. "Critics say parents should be able to
tell what their children want and by a process of elimination
they may get there in the end, " she says. "But
by then your child is crying, you're both stressed. It's so
much better if she can just sign the word 'drink' and you
immediately know what she want.s It hasn't been detrimental
to Millie's speech. If anything, I'd say she spoke earlier
than many non-signing friend's children."
Expert view Kamini Gadhok, chief executive of the
Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, supports
the use of natural gestures but not the use of formal signing
if there is no identified problem. "We're concerned that
the use of formal signing does not take priority over the
need for parents to talk to children. Language should be encouraged
through a range of everyday activities."
(Sure Start, Issue 3, Summer 2004)

Baby signing
- one mother's experience

In 1987, an American scientist, Joseph Garcia, began researching
babies' sign language at the Alaska Pacific University. A decade
earlier, he had worked as an interpreter with deaf parents,
during which he had observed that their babies, who could hear,
started communicating earlier than usual. In this research he
used American Sign Language to teach hearing babies of hearing
parents. This showed that if signed to regularly, babies would
communicate earlier, at around eight to nine months old. This
led him to develop his own system of sign language, for parents
and their pre-speaking babies. A research study, funded by the
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in
America, revealed that signers began to speak earlier than usual
and were more interested in books than non-signers. When visited
seven or eight years later, it was found that their average
IQ of 114 compared very favourably with a mean IQ of 102 for
the non-signing control group.
June Rozanski signed up for baby signing classes when her
second child was six months old (the optimum age to start
baby signing) and found it "marvellous to get a glimpse
of his baby thoughts, long before he could speak, and I felt
that the bond between us grew stronger. Babies generally learn
to speak between the ages of 12 and 24 months. What is less
well-known is that they can understand the world around them
far earlier than they acquire the skills for talking. Speech
is just one method of communication. There are several forms
of body language, such as facial expression and gesture, which
express thoughts and feelings.
"While babies take time to develop the ability to speak,
they are busy acquiring the skill of manipulating objects
with their hands; they are already gesturing at around seven
to eight months old. It is logical to take advantage of this
skill in developing a language using gestures and signs, as
babies are naturally able to convey their thoughts by this
"Better communication results in parents being better
equipped to understand and satisfy their babies' needs. This
leads to a happier baby or toddler, who is less frustrated
and so has fewer tantrums.
"My son's first sign was a chicken, using fists tucked
under his chin and elbows flapping up and down. Before long
he had acquired a passive vocabulary of more than 50 words.
My son would let me know his needs; for instance if he was
tired and wanted to go to bed or needed help. Once I arrived
home after a shopping trip to find him in a tantrum and screaming
at the top of his voice. I asked him and signed, 'What do
you want?' In reply, he signed for his favourite toy and the
problem was immediately solved. Other more important signs
came in useful when he would suddenly cry while we were in
the car and flap his hand up and down to his mouth. I soon
knew that he was signing for a drink.
"Everyone's experience will differ. It is essential
to be patient because not all children sign quickly."
(Nursery World, 28 August 2003)

childminder's experience

Margaret Heath from Sheffield has been childminding for 15
years, the past five of them in partnership with her husband,
Robert. Both have found their knowledge of Makaton Signing
invaluable in working with children who have Down's syndrome,
delayed speech, and other communication needs. They recently
joined Sheffield's 'special needs' childminding network.
Five years ago, a mum of one of the children they were caring
for became pregnant and asked if they would look after the
baby part-time when she went back to work. Robert was self-employed
at that time, working from home, but he was also registered
as a childminder so he could help Margaret out. To enable
the Heaths to take on the baby, he decided to work part-time
so that he could do more childminding. He enjoyed it so much
he was soon childminding full-time.
The baby, Jessica, had Down's syndrome. "At six months, a
speech therapist suggested using Makaton Signing with her,"
explains Margaret, "so we did a beginners' course with funding
from an Early Years Intervention grant. Shortly afterwards,
our childminding development worker found that our local special
educational needs department had funding to train new Makaton
tutors, and put my name down." Today Margaret runs Makaton
courses about once a month for childminders, nurseries, and
even parents.
When Jessica was a year old, her dad came to pick her up
from the Heaths' house one day. "We were all stood in the
hallway and she looked up and made the sign for 'light'. It
was such a wonderful moment, we all cried!" says Margaret.
"She went on in leaps and bounds. By the time she was two
she could use nearly 300 Makaton signs. At three, she could
only speak half a dozen words, but because she could communicate
all her needs through signs she never showed frustration.

"We realised that, because we were signing with Jessica,
the other children were using the signs to communicate with
her, too. One boy we were caring for at that time then went
on to school, but still came to us every afternoon. On the
first day of his second term, he came running in and said:
"Margaret, guess what? There's a new boy in my class and he's
got Down's syndrome. He can't speak, but he uses Makaton.
And nobody could talk to him except me!"
In a typical day, Margaret and Robert use Makaton signs at
breakfast, lunch and dinner, whenever they sing songs or tell
stories, and in general play. "Even children who can't normally
sit still when you read a story, will sit still if you sign
it as well. Signing automatically slows your speech down and
makes it more precise. The children concentrate on your hands
as well as listening, and the slower pace gives them time
to repeat the signs themselves," says Margaret.
The Heaths believe signing definitely promotes spoken language
and doesn't delay it. "We always use speech at the same time
as signing, as the spoken and signed words emphasise one another.
Jessica's first words when she learned to talk at three-and-a-half
were all words she could sign."
(Make Chatter Matter, NCMA report to mark
National Childminding Week, 2005)

Top Tips
to start baby signing

  • Begin with simple word signs such as eat, drink and hot
    when a baby is aged six to nine months
  • Follow the baby's lead and from nine months onwards, observe
    what interests the child and introduce signs that will mirror
  • Always say the word when you sign, never sign in silence
  • Speak slowly and clearly but in a natural way
  • Keep it simple, using just one sign per sentence
  • Be consistent in the signs you use but happily accept
    any signing attempts from the young child
  • Do not get babies to 'perform' signs on demand
  • Be patient and relaxed about baby signing, using lots
    of praise

(Taken from an article in Nursery World, 28 August 2003,
by June Rozanski)

Useful publications

Amazing baby signing, by
Katie Mayne of TinyTalk, is a simple-to-use, step-by-step
guide on signing, taking parents through the earliest signs
for bottle and food right through to more complex signs. Complete
with photographs throughout, amazing baby signing is Published
by Templar Publishing.

Baby says....
is a series of
board books with flaps giving words and actions to help babies
to express themselves. Baby Says Hello, Baby Says Bye-Bye,
Baby Says Love You and Baby Says Hooray are by Opal Dunn and
Angie Sage (Hodder Children's Books).

Dexter's Dictionary
produced by Talkfirst, is an A5 ring binder containing 172
signs in full colour. Each page displays images of three signs
and descriptions of how to produce them. For more information

Joseph Garcia's Complete Guide to
Baby Signing
has been written with British parents
in mind. It provides an introduction to baby signing and is
designed as an easy to use resource for busy parents. It is
available from

Learn to Sign with Olli

introduces parents and carers and their children to sign language to
help children communicate before they are able to speak. Each sign is
clearly described and accompanied by a photograph and step by step,
woven into four stories about the adventures of Olli the monkey and his
family. It is available from

Useful contacts

Baby Signers

Joseph Garcia's book Sign With Your Baby was the inspiration
that led to Emma Finlay-Smith founding the Baby Signers organisation.
Joseph Garcia has written a textbook for the organisation
that is said to be the first major work to be based on British
Sign Language (BSL). Baby Signers also offers a structured,
BSL-based programme of classes for parents and for Babysigners
teachers. For more information, see,
or call 01273 882203.

Baby Sign

Baby Sign is an online course to teach baby signing based on British
Sign Language. For more information visit

Cued Speech

Cued speech is a simple sound-based system which uses
eight hand-shapes in four positions near the mouth
together with the lip-patterns of normal speech to make
all the sounds of spoken language fully comprehensible
to deaf babies, children and adults. For more information visit

Handy Expressions

An online resource with information on baby sign language and baby signing classes. Visit


Makaton is a language programme offering a structured, multi-modal
approach for the teaching of communication, language and literacy
skills. Unlike the baby signing programmes mentioned above,
it was devised for children and adults with a variety of communication
and learning disabilities. Makaton signs and symbols are used
extensively throughout the UK, and have been adapted for use
in over 40 countries. For information on training and parent/carer
packs for distance learning, see,
or email

Sign and Bond Consultancy

Sign and Bond workshops are delivered using British Sign
Language (BSL) for all the babies, children, parents and professionals
who attend. Some signs are modified to make them easier to
use and Sign and Bond work closely with the BSL Academy of
the British Deaf Association, an accredited awarding body
for Sign Language. Supported by the BSL Academy, Sign and
Bond is currently developing a BSL For Babies and Children
curriculum. For more information visit


A website with articles and information about sign language and communication. Visit

Signs for Success

Kathy Robinson, a hearing mother of two deaf daughters, set
up the Signs for Success literacy programme to promote sign
language as an educational tool for all children. The programme
encourages people to learn one sign a day and to use it in
different situations, before moving on to the next word. Teachers,
classroom assistants, nursery nurses, dinner ladies, secretaries,
cooks, caretakers, parents and children are taking part in
the programme. For more information see
or for training enquiries email

Sing and Sign

Sing and Sign is a music group with a difference. While enjoying
songs and musical activities with their children, parents
and carers learn to enhance their babies' communication before
they are able to speak, by learning a range of simple baby
signs. Sing and Sign uses signs from widely-used UK gesture
systems, and suggests introducing signs at any stage before
your baby's speech is well established for familiar day-to-day
needs. The Sing and Sign DVD is for beginners, while More
Sing and Sign is a Stage 2 DVD designed for babies who are
already signing at home. For information on local classes
or to order a video or DVD (including instruction booklet)
or call 01273 550587.

Small Talk

Talk is a DVD aimed at parents wanting to use sign language to
communicate with their children at an early age. For more information
and to order the DVD visit


TalkFirst baby signing classes include a mix of themed signs,
rhymes, music and games that are designed to appeal to babies
up to 30 months, with many of the activities led by a signing
puppet called Dexter. TalkFirst runs franchises in many areas.
For more information visit,
or call 01706 872816.


TinyTalk runs singing and signing classes to help babies
communicate with their parents before they can talk. Baby
sign language can begin at around 6 to 9 months, with visual
clues (signs) to help babies make sense of everyday words,
to bridge the gap before vocal language begins. As well as
running classes, TinytalkUK has teaching opportunities with
full training packages and on-going professional development.
For details of classes and teaching opportunities, see, email,
or call 0870 2424898.


WOW is a signing literacy programme for children, which begins
with WOW Babies and leads to WOW Kids. The programme includes
the WOW Babies board books and the First Signing ABC, as well
as the Fingerspelling Alphabet Pack that includes a poster
and pink and yellow gloves to encourage children to practice

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