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Signing the way

1 Nov 2004

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 American 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 American 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 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 up their own signs.

Baby signing classes for hearing babies were then introduced in the United States and, due to the success of the programmes 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 SIGN with 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 communication
  • be appraised of the delights and benefits of signing with babies
  • 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 relationship 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 alongside 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 CT55BQ.

(An extract from Signing the way?, Tania Allen, Speech & Language Therapy in Practice)

Tags: Talk To Your Baby

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