When I was a school librarian, one of the teachers I most admired happened to use sign language with her (hearing) second graders. When gathering the kids at the end of their library book checkout period, it was often a loud, hectic time. Without straining her voice, or even making a sound at all, she was able to get her students’ attention and direct them to order both effortlessly and with great success. I watched her correct students’ behavior (sit please, and stand up now) in noisy assembly programs and on the playground. The students adored their creative signing teacher. They beamed when they understood her gestures and some signed back with obvious pride.
Sign Language isn’t just for babies who can’t speak, or for the hard of hearing. Signing comes in handy (sorry) in so many situations with older, talking children and adults, too! My heart will never cease to melt when my husband catches my eye from across the room and signs beautiful to me. He’s a keeper, huh? As parents, we sign frequently behind the kids’ backs (“Should we offer them yogurt?”) or discretely across a noisy room (“Diaper!” which hopefully will soon be replaced with “Bathroom!” for our potty trainer).
My Preschool Bookworm is 3 now, and has an impressive verbal vocabulary. His signs naturally faded as his speech developed, but we continue to use sign with him in a few scenarios.
With baby brother!
This has been an unexpected source of joy for me as a parent. I didn’t realize the communication that signing would open up between the boys as siblings.
First, as teacher: Preschool Bookworm has taken pride in teaching his brother signs, patiently teaching him and celebrating his success. Yes, he even cheers for him when he signs successfully! This has given Preschool Bookworm an area of leadership, and a way of feeling extra special when so much attention naturally goes to the younger, needier child. He interprets baby bro’s signs when I’m not seeing them, and narrates for me: “Mom! He wants his cup!”
Second, as friend and playmate: my boys interact differently because of sign. Toddler Bookworm is a pro at the sign please. Real life scenario: Preschool Bookworm was hogging a toy. I noticed but didn’t plan to force the issue. Toddler Bookworm approached, signing please. PB asked, “Why are you signing please?” I stepped in to interpret that his brother wanted a turn. “Oh, okay! Here.” I was stunned and proud. They “used their words,” spoken and signed with just a little help, to navigate that social situation. Very frequently I’ll hear Preschool Bookworm “reply” to Toddler Bookworm’s signs, indicating a level of communication they just couldn’t have at this point without sign: Toddler Bookworm is signing dog while looking at a picture of an elephant in a book. “No, that’s not a dog! That’s an elephant.” Or, “Yeah! Let’s go to the window!” validating Toddler Bookworm’s idea to look for birds out the window.
Out in the Noisy World
Quite a few signs have been especially helpful when we are out and about, at the playground, taking a walk, at church. I frequently use the signs wait, careful, gentle, no, yucky, stop, go, hurt, share, and I love you, often signed across the noisy room when he tentatively catches my glance with a questioning look on his face. He is searching for an answer, and I can provide it effortlessly. Having an added visual component seems to reinforce the directive as well! I’ve pulled out some signs during busy library storytime sessions as well, when I notice a behavior correction is needed while he’s in the middle of the story rug: sit; listen.
When Words Fail
There come those times when Preschool Bookworm just can’t find his words– he’s frustrated, overwhelmed, timid, or hurt. We’ve hit a new era of emotional meltdowns with our threenager (we seemed to sail through the “terrible twos,” but oh my are the threes rough in our home!). When he is struggling to communicate verbally because he just. can’t. we will encourage him to sign. “You’re very upset. Can you help us understand why? Use a sign. Are you hurt? Are you angry? Do you want more juice?” As we sign along with our words, it activates another area of his brain, encouraging both listening skills and providing another way to communicate.
For Literacy: The Manual Alphabet
In preparing for this blog series, I came across a fascinating book called Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy (affiliate link). In it, the author makes a strong case for using sign language, including the manual alphabet and fingerspelling, in tandem with literacy instruction in preschools all the way through the elementary years. I’m just beginning to introduce the manual alphabet along with our early literacy learning/”homeschool preschool.” It’s been a fun addition, and I’m excited that there is quite a bit of research to back up its inclusion. These quotes especially encapsulate some of the early benefits:
“The manual alphabet and fingerspelling can be a precursor to helping a child to recognize printed letters. They will firmly fix the idea in a child’s mind that a sound can be represented in a physical form. By associating the sound with a specific letter, the manual alphabet becomes an effective transition to print” (p.172).
“The manual alphabet is an important tool for children to learn, offering a number of physical as well as educational advantages. It helps generate the fine motor coordination that children will need when they begin to write and print letters. An established developmental link exists between handwriting and cognitive skills necessary for reading. However, well before children are able to form letters with a pencil, they can form letters with the manual alphabet. Using the manual alphabet will activate the same formative link to reading as printing, but it may have an even greater effect on children’s literacy because it can occur far earlier in their maturation process” (p.171).