Including sign language in the early childhood classroom

Including sign language in the early childhood classroom

Including Sign Language in Early Childhood Curriculum

Co-written by Emily Patterson and Kathleen Thomas

One of the keys to thriving in the modern economic climate is versatility – and the ability to communicate articulately in a variety of ways with the widest possible audience. This includes bilingual ability as well as the ability to communicate in non-verbal ways for the benefit of the disabled – primarily the deaf.

At the same time, a growing shortage of qualified interpreters fluent in American Sign Language has led to more career opportunities – and if current trends continue, it’s likely that skilled ASL interpreters will have little problem securing lucrative employment in a society where such a commodity is destined to be in short supply.

photo from

Signing Before They Can Speak

A great deal of research has clearly demonstrated that the early years – ages 2 to five – are the best time to educate children in different modes of communication and language. This goes beyond the spoken word (though it is an optimal time for children to learn a second language); many young children have an aptitude for signing as well.

This is not as odd as you may think. As you know, many indigenous peoples around the world, including American Indian nations, have used sign language for centuries to facilitate communication with other tribes with whom they do not share a language. Some paleontologists and anthropologists theorize that Neanderthals – who apparently lacked the vocal mechanism to produce many spoken words – depended a great deal upon hand gestures to communicate.

In fact, recent research suggests that sign language is innate. An article published in the Boulder Daily Camera in 2003 presented strong evidence that babies as young as six months old communicate with their hands:

“…by 6 to 7 months, babies can remember a sign. At eight months, children

can begin to imitate gestures and sign single words. By 24 months, children

can sign compound words and full sentences. They say sign language reduces

frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves

before they know how to talk.” (Glarion, 2003)

The author also cites study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development demonstrating that young children who are taught sign language at an early age actually develop better verbal skills as they get older. The ability to sign has also helped parents in communicating with autistic children; one parent reports that “using sign language allowed her to communicate with her [autistic] son and minimized his frustration…[he now] has an advanced vocabulary and excels in math, spelling and music” (Glarion, 2003).

The Best Time To Start

Not only does early childhood education in signing give pre-verbal youngsters a way to communicate, it can also strengthen the parent-child bond – in addition to giving children a solid foundation for learning a skill that will serve them well in the future. The evidence suggests that the best time to start learning ASL is before a child can even walk – and the implications for facilitating the parent-child relationship are amazing.

Co-written by Emily Patterson and Kathleen Thomas

Emily and Kathleen are Communications Coordinators for the Zionsville educational day care facility, a member of the AdvancED® accredited family of Primrose Schools (located in 16 states throughout the U.S.) and part of the network of Indiana educational day care preschools delivering the progressive, early childhood Balanced Learning® curriculum.

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  • Karen Nemeth Posted September 10, 2010 9:28 am

    Here are some good resources on using sign language with young children:

    At these sites you can find the research that is referred to in the newspaper article mentioned by these writers.

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted September 10, 2010 9:41 am

    Awesome Karen – thank you for the resources!!

  • Laura Posted September 10, 2010 12:34 pm

    I would highly recommend: (to look up individual signs or do your own from home course)

    Signing Time was started by a mom with a deaf daughter. There are lots of catchy songs to go along with the signs and all signs are ASL signs.

    I don’t recommend Baby Signs because they use signs that are not ASL. For example, I believe their sign for drink is the ASL sign for alcohol. Their reasoning is that they simplify the signs, but I think the sign for drink in ASL is actually easier that what they use.

    My youngest daughter was born with moderately severe hearing loss, so I have done tons of research on this and have run my own playgroup for kids for three years to teach ASL signs.

  • just sarah Posted September 10, 2010 1:22 pm

    I was just coming to ask if you had any resources on learning sign language for babies. I have looked at babysigns and would love to learn their program to teach to other parents but its a lot to start up.

    I work with babies and toddlers at a home daycare and I have been teaching them the few signs I have learned. We have a 18 month old boy is who is under observation at UCSD for autism and he has been using the signs I showed him… he picks them up fast which is good because he has no language skills yet, just screams.

  • Angela Posted September 10, 2010 2:33 pm

    You know, i knew a good bit of sign language when i was around 8 because i had spent all summer learning. I so agree that it should be taught to children. You know i wonder why it was never an option in high school too? You can take any other language there. I would have gladly opted out of my Spanish class for sign!

  • Valerie @ Frugal Family Fun Blog Posted September 10, 2010 6:03 pm

    i don’t know if you saw this, but I did photo name labels with my girls last week — they had so much fun! It would be great to have them do the signs for the letters instead of holding up cards with the letters on them like I did in that post….. It would make for some fun name tags for the classroom!

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted September 10, 2010 8:22 pm

    I will be sure to hop over and take a look at it! Thanks for the idea Valerie:)

  • Shara Posted September 10, 2010 8:53 pm

    I’ll toss my referral into the ring, too 🙂

    Louise Sattler:

    Great DVD’s and sign charts for teachers, educators, parents, grandparents, emt’s, nursing staff, care givers and more.

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted September 10, 2010 11:31 pm

    Great! Refer away Shara!!

  • Louise Sattler Posted September 11, 2010 12:22 pm

    Hello Deborah and thank you for writing a wonderful article! As a School Psychologist and the owner of Signing Families™ I wanted to thank your responders for such good information. And of course to add a few “cents” of my own. In my opinion, the important aspects to remember about signing with your child are as follows:
    1. Hearing parents signing with hearing children help promote oral language and the comprehension of language. Thus, both can be used simultaneously and during natural circumstances. A child can even be mulit-lingual! So go ahead and speak your home language, English and use sign language!
    2. The vocabulary should be introduced as it originates from ASL. It would be insensitive of the hearing population to “redo” this beautiful visual language. Of course, children vary with their signs as they do with their vocalizations, at first. And special needs children may need adaptations.
    3. Parents and children should have fun learning this language together in a developmentally sound order. Start simple (one or two signs at a time) and then work up to phrases. I find that many people continue to use sign in their families in addition to well developed oral language as a method for behavior management, nonverbal signals to keep kids safe and to be able to interact with the deaf population.

    Again, thank you for a wonderful article. With your permission I would love to have it available on my Signing Families FACEBOOK site.



  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted September 11, 2010 4:30 pm

    Thank you for sharing your expertise with us – there is so much to learn about sign language and is wonderful to know there are resources out there to give guidance and support. Please feel free to share on your facebook page:)

  • Tina Cavanaugh Posted August 12, 2017 7:01 pm

    This is a great article Deborah! Thanks for sharing. If I may respond to Laura’s comment earlier about not recommending Baby Signs. I’m an Independent Certified Baby Signs Instructor and what she’s referring to as the sign for drink is incorrect. In ASL you just mime drinking from a cup. Only about 10% of the ASL signs taught in the Original Baby Signs® Program are modified so tiny hands can do them better. Drink is one of those and is done by forming your hand into a fist then tipping the end of your thumb toward your mouth. It’s supposed to resemble a sippy cup. I tell my parents they can do this if they want or use the original ASL version. The research you referred to in your article paved the way for all of the signing done with hearing babies since the late 80’s and was funded by Baby Signs. I do agree with Laura about though. A great source and also Signing Time. Lots of fun songs, etc. that are very useful with especially older toddlers and young children.
    Tina C.

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