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Toddler Talk: Sign Language

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As an early intervention teacher, I use hand signs almost daily during home visits with my students and their families. All of my students are eligible for special education services, and many are what we call “late talkers.” A late talker is a child who appears to have all the necessary building blocks for developing language—has a good understanding of spoken language, hits normal milestones, has good motor and play skills—but doesn’t talk. Signs can be a fun and interactive way to give late talkers a handful of “words” to help them communicate, which helps to reduce frustration for everyone.

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The scenario is a common one: A mother stands in her kitchen with her crying, late talking 2-year-old. She desperately holds things up for approval. “Crackers?" No. "Milk, you want a drink?” No. "Banana?" No. It can go on and on. Teaching simple gestures or signs can help a late talker navigate daily routines while his speech and language delays are addressed.

Some people think that signing will slow baby down. They worry that a late talker will learn to depend on signs instead of words. The most recent research has found that the opposite is more likely true. Babies who use sign on a regular basis tend to have statistically insignificant, but still increased vocabularies. And as babies use new words in their daily life, we usually see the signs fall away.

Baby sign is a pretty popular phenomenon right now, but I tend to believe that typically developing kids don’t need baby sign. I think if it’s your thing, go for it. But if it’s not, it’s OK not to do it too. Between early gestures and early language, typically developing babies get their needs met just fine on their own. But when expressive language is late to develop, signs can be very helpful.

You don’t have to learn an entire new language and neither does your toddler.

So how do you incorporate signs into your late talker’s daily life? Here are some ideas:

Start with more. I almost always start off with the “more” sign, because “more” can be used in so many different situations. More snack. More peekaboo. More bubbles. More playtime and no nap, please! It’s also very easy for toddlers to imitate—almost like clapping.

Start at snack time. Start using “more” at snack time. Put two or three Cheerios on his plate and wait for him to finish and look at you expectantly. Then say, “Oh? You want more?” Show him the sign and help him make it himself. Give him a couple more Cheerios and wait for him to look at you again. Repeat. Later, you can incorporate the sign into play, bath time, and other daily routines.

Choose signs that are developmentally appropriate. Signs for eat, drink, finish, and more are all fairly simple for even a young toddler to make. Signs for mommy and cookie require a more refined motor development.

Choose high interest signs. I saw a video on YouTube where a mom had taught her 11-month-old to finger sign “kiwi.” I mean, more power to her. But if your baby can finger sign kiwi she can also probably point at a kiwi, too, when she wants one. Think about things that your baby wants and needs every day. Those are the signs to work on first.

Don’t go overboard! It’s important to note that we aren’t teaching sign language, just signs. You don’t have to learn an entire new language and neither does your toddler. Instead, you’re just giving him a few helpful tools to help him along.

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And don't think this is only useful for the smallest in your home. Though this particular article focused on late talkers, sign language can be helpful for any child with a communication delay.

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