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I have been using “baby sign” with my baby for over 18 months now and it has worked wonders. But, my little guy is 2 years old now. He is starting to talk a lot and will be attending preschool in the fall - should I keep using sign language with him?

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Karen D. Bopp PhD S-LP(C).

Dr. Karen Bopp is a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and a Post Doctoral Fellow in Special Education at the University of British Columbia, Canada. She has worked with children for over 16 years and is also the mother of preschool twin girls.
Her areas of expertise, (when she is not chasing after her twins), include early intervention for children with autism, speech and language development in the preschool years, positive behavior support, augmentative and alternative communication, and training for families and professionals.

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Well, the short answer is “yes.” But that would make for a very short column, so I will elaborate. It is clear from the research that signed communication can begin long before verbal language. Sign language is a visual, gross motor skill, whereas spoken words are mostly auditory and require fine motor coordination. Babies can follow and imitate the visual and gross motor actions of signs more easily, and as a result, are able to express themselves through signs at an earlier age, reducing a lot of frustration for both baby and parent. In addition, using sign language with babies has been found to jumpstart intellectual and language skills, improve self esteem, and even promote literacy development.

But, the majority of the research has focused on very young children, or children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. What about typically developing children ages 2 through 6? One researcher, Dr. Marilyn Daniels, from Pennsylvania State University, has examined the effects of sign language on the development of typical preschool children. In one study she followed children in an early childhood education setting who received sign language instruction. She found that when sign instruction was added to their curriculum they made dramatic increases in their vocabulary development - increases that remained well into their Kindergarten year. In a separate study, she found that Kindergarten students who received sign-language instruction in the classroom did better on tests of vocabulary and reading skills than Kindergarten children who did not receive any sign-language instruction. In general, the research demonstrates that continuing to include sign-language in your preschooler’s daily life can promote language and literacy development and improve his or her self-esteem.

It sounds like magic, right? Why does sign-language instruction during the preschool years result in these gains? Well, the answer perhaps lies in the motivation of using this visual language system in conjunction with the “boring” verbal one. When working with kids, I find that they are more motivated to learn new words and their corresponding signs. Kids with a variety of learning styles such as visual, auditory, and/or tactile, can do well and thus, their self-esteem is given a boost. And once children pair these two languages (spoken word and sign) together they then have two decoding mechanisms available to them to help retrieve words stored in memory: the auditory “English” word and the visual “Signed” word. So, my advice to you is to “Keep on Signing!” But remember, do it because you and your child enjoy it, because learning should be fun!