Development of language skills

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The purpose of this research paper is to review the literature on the topic of teaching typically developing hearing babies who are in the pre-verbal stage words in sign in order to increase the possibility of early communication as well as enhancing the development of language skills. Two ways of accomplishing pre-verbal communication between parents and their child would be through the use of Baby Signs or through the use of a signed language such as ASL - American Sign Language. Baby signs are made up of simple meaningful gestures adopted by the parents and/or infant which represent significant needs, events and objects. It is similar to American Sign Language (ASL), from which many of the signs can be adopted. Contrary to many beliefs, using sign language with infants does not hinder language development, but rather promotes development at a much earlier age.

Much of the research on baby signs has been done by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. Together, they wrote a book called Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. Their research suggests that babies can benefit from baby signs during the first two and a half years of life. Baby signing is described as a significant adaptation of the linguistic environment that is made with the goal of facilitating early communication (Pizer, Walters &Meier, 2007). Parents should start introducing signs when the baby begins to show interest in communicating; when the infant enters the babbling stage at 9 or 10 months of age. Other parents may want to take a more standardized approach, and teach their children American Sign Language (Kelly, 2002). These parents can participate in a program called Sign with Your Baby, which uses the basics of ASL to teach babies and parents simple signs such as milk, more, drink and eat (Dickinson, 2000). In many aspects, this may be more beneficial, as American Sign Language is an actual language used by the Deaf Culture. There are many reasons parents and caregivers would be interested in using baby signs with their children.

Babies understand language before they learn to speak. In order to communicate, simple gestures and noises such as pointing, grasping, looking at, crying, nodding, and smiling are used to get the infant's needs or wants across to its caregivers (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1996). Some baby signs come naturally, but others are taught by saying the word and modeling the corresponding gesture or object (Kelly, 2002). Using signs offers a structured link in which both the pre-verbal baby and the caregiver understand each other. This eases frustrations with both the infant and caregivers when trying to communicate (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1996). Signs can also be taught to the infant's siblings, family members, teachers and peers. Using signs helps the infants to learn the social rules of communication at an earlier age, and allows them to communicate about a wider variety of subjects. Major benefits of using signs are that they attribute to higher self-esteem, an increased attention span, greater interest in reading, and closer relationships with older siblings (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1996). As the infant grows older, more and more signs can be taught and signs can even be used throughout preschool and kindergarten to promote language and literacy. Research suggests that children who have used baby signs as toddlers had higher IQ scores when tested in the second grade (Kelly 2002).

In a scientific study called Baby Hands That Move to the Rhythm of Language: Hearing Babies Acquiring Sign Languages Babble Silently on Hands, six babies were studied during sixty minute sessions. Their ages were twelve months, ten months, and six months. Researchers split the children into two groups, one of which was exposed only to sign language, and the other only to speech. Of the babies who were exposed only to sign language, two of them were exposed to both ASL and LSQ (a version used in Quebec) and the other child exposed only to the LSQ. The hand movements of the babies and the frequency of the movements were tracked by infrared emitting diodes (IREDs). The movements were tracked during the child's play time, both in solitary play and during times the child spent with the parents (Petitto, Holowka, Sergio, Levy, & Ostry, 2004).

In the results of this study, it was stated that both groups of babies produced a high frequency of hand activity, which is common to babies of this age range. However, the babies that were exposed to only sign language produced a low frequency of hand activity which was seen to have a unique rhythmic signature. This was later referred to as "manual babbling", and it was recorded that 80% of the low frequency activity was babbling produced through sign language (Petitto et al., 2004). It was shown that the babies who were exposed to sign language only would attempt to replicate the same signs or rhythmic activity at as young as six months of age. When introducing sign language to infants, it's important to pick up on the baby's early attempts at communication.

When beginning the use of signs with infants, repetition and consistency are the keys to success. It's best to start with something simple, and important to choose signs that the child will find fun and interesting. Only a few signs should be introduced at a time, as too many signs will overwhelm the child and the whole process will be lost. Children should receive lots of encouragement, and it's also helpful for parents and caregivers to use the sign regularly for the child to understand the connection between the object and the sign (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1996).

Learning language and literacy is not only about learning to talk. It's about learning the foundations of language such as the syntax and the social rules of communication. Baby signs are a fun and interesting way to help with language development, as well as break the language barrier between parents and children who are at the preverbal stage. Many frustrations can be avoided when the child can communicate wants, needs, and ideas to parents and caregivers who understand exactly what the child is "saying". This, along with the added benefits for the child such as greater self-esteem, early literacy, and better relationships with family, teachers, and peers makes baby sign language one of the best ways to encourage communication with the pre-verbal child.

Research on this subject proposes the idea that continuing to teach signs to hearing children throughout early education will continue to improve vocabulary and reading skills, assist speech development, increase spelling proficiency, foster self-esteem, and heighten a child's interest and enthusiasm for learning (Daniels, 2004). Beginning in the infant/toddler programs, teaching sign to the hearing child can result in gaining earlier communication skills such as understanding more words, having larger vocabularies, and engaging in more complicated play techniques. The focal point is that teaching signs to children as infants and toddlers has consistently demonstrated its usefulness for promoting literacy in typically developing hearing children in early education programs (Daniels, 2004).

Dr. Marilyn Daniels is an associate professor of speech communication at Penn State's Worthington Scranton Campus. She is recognized as one of the most prolific researchers in the area of sign language and non-verbal communication. For over twenty years Dr. Daniels has been teaching college and producing many publications in journal articles involving research about the benefits of signing with young children. Also the author of three books, Dr. Daniels travels around the U.S. to conduct research studies and present her findings. Her research is dedicated to formulating an effective argument to help family members, peers, and teachers to become involved with the benefits of teaching ASL to hearing children.

Among her many publications is a book called Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy, published in 2001. The book is a guide to parents and early educators who want to introduce signing as a second language for hearing children and incorporate sign into the development of language and literacy. It offers a complete explanation for why sign language is effective, states the history of sign language and it's uses as a second language in the Deaf community, identifies the steps to reading instruction for teachers using sign language, outlines and describes the results of research studies, and presents the reactions of teachers, parents, and students in their own words. It concludes that while young children do need a lot of practice and patience to achieve and improve language and literacy, they can use their hands to communicate from an early age.

In order to teach sign language in Early Childhood programs, early educators must increase understanding of the literacy benefits of teaching sign to hearing children. The view that sign language is inferior to spoken language (or at least inappropriate for use by hearing people) has even led some deaf parents to refrain from using sign language with their hearing children; a choice which has sometimes resulted in difficulties in the development of the children's language skills (Pizer et al., 2007). In young children, the motor abilities develop much sooner than the mouth and other language articulators (Crawford, 2001). Beginning in the infant/toddler programs, children who have learned to incorporate ASL into their communication have larger vocabularies, understand more words, and engage in more complicated play techniques. In the early education classroom, children who are being taught ASL have an improved vocabulary and better reading skills, and using the language increases spelling proficiency and assists speech development. Children using ASL for higher communication comprehension have a greater self-esteem, a comfortable way to express their emotions, and a heightened interest and enthusiasm for learning.

In the Early Education programs teachers can incorporate ASL, Pidgin Signed English, and finger-spelling into a multi-sensory teaching strategy (Daniels, 2004). This can be done by using sign along with the singing of songs, signing along with reading books at story time, and using finger-spelling along with learning the alphabet (Crawford, 2001). The sensory nature of signing helps to capture a child's attention so that learning may take place. When visual, auditory and tactile information are used together, children with diverse learning styles have an easier time focusing and following directions (Lawrence, 2001). Some children are challenged with learning another language, others are motivated through the use of movement, and still others love the involvement of group activity. The use of sign language along with learning materials is an informational system that is represented through seeing, hearing and movement. Sign language enhances the use of both right and left brain activity. (Lawrence, 2001). The more pathways that are created in a child's brain, the stronger the memory is of the learned materials. Using sign language is a natural and fun way for children to use their bodies for communication, and to expand their vocabularies.

Sign language is a physical communication source for young children (Daniels, 1996). Physical communication includes contact such as hugging, blowing kisses, and even biting and hitting. Learning and practicing the signs and finger-spelling develops fine motor skills and incorporates both hemispheres of the brain. The ability to use sign with verbalization also helps ease communication frustrations in young children both in social activities with their peers, and in adult/child conversations. Used both in the classroom and at home, the child's knowledge of signs can clear misunderstandings and encourage solving the problems of inadequate communication. ASL is an expressive language which uses body movement to actively express the meanings and emotions that children need to convey in a more appropriate fashion (Daniels, 2001).

Learning sign language early gives children a larger vocabulary and a second language. Using signed words before learning spoken words helps children accumulate a larger vocabulary bank at an earlier age (Daniels, 1996). Pairing signs with words causes a transfer of meaning and acquisition of the spoken word. For children who have not acquired all their speech sounds, the motor skill to imitate finger-spelled letter names can be easier than the articulatory movements of speech (Daniels, 2004). Signing gives children who are developmentally delayed a chance to find their "voice". It gives all children the freedom of communication, expression and development.

American Sign Language is a certified language which can be utilized with hearing people as well as those who are Deaf. ASL, Pidgin Signed English, Baby Signs, and finger-spelling open the pathways of communication and development in crucial areas with babies, young children, and their parents and teachers. Because of researchers like Dr. Marilyn Daniels, many early education systems can benefit from using sign language in multi-sensory teaching strategies to enrich the minds of young children and improve their development in language and literacy. Children who are given the chance to express themselves by learning and using sign language at an early age are able to build their communication skills with their peers, parents, and teachers. They have increased vocabulary banks, higher self-esteem, and have less frustration over problem solving in social settings. There is no set method of using sign in the classroom. Early educators can develop their techniques from a diverse number of approaches. Utilizing visual, tactile and auditory information creates and expands the pathways of learning in the child's brain, which allows for greater retention of the learned material. Sign language is a communication system that fits perfectly into the physically expressive and visual world of a developing child who is thirsty for knowledge and ready to reach out!


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