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Speech Development Blog by Tiffany Bartlett

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Tips to Help You Use Sign Language Effectively

So, you've decided to start using sign language to help your toddler talk.  Now, where do you start?  How do you get started?

Remember your goal:  Your goal is most likely not to teach your toddler to be a fluent signer.  Your goal may be to use basic sign language to show your child a need for communication.  Your goal may be to use basic sign language to reduce frustration or to encourage your child to talk.  If these are your goals, then there is no reason to teach your child a long list of signs. 

I've found that some parents get so excited about teaching their child to sign that they forget their goal and go crazy with signing.  Introducing too much sign language could be overwhelming for your child or just not very beneficial.  Another thing I see are parents being hesitant to start signing with their child because it seems too overwhelming to remember all these signs.  Sometimes baby sign books or other products are so full of signs that the task seems too big.  Learning 5 to 10 basic signs would be an excellent start and may be all your child needs to get talking.

If, however, your child is older (3 to 5) and is not talking or has unintelligible speech, you may want to add to your list of signs.

Make a list of possible signs:

When you are making a list, start by thinking about the situations where your toddler gets frustrated the most.  Is there frustration when she is getting dressed or when he is trying to get a toy?  Are there tantrums at meal time or when your toddler is hungry?  Make a list of some words that would help reduce frustration during those time.  Also add favorite activities or toys that your child is attached to  (ie: a favorite stuffed animal that your child sleeps with. or a favorite blankie).

Personalize your list to meet the needs of your family:   If your son is a major Thomas the Tank Engine fan, then learn the sign for train.  You can also make personal signs for your family members' names.  It is also good to simplify signs that may be difficult for your toddler to sign.  For example, I modify the sign for mine, when I work with toddlers.  Mine is a two-part sign (my + n).  So, when I teach toddlers to sign "mine", I substitute it for the sign "my".

Some common sign language:  Here are the signs that I have used in my speech calendar: 

  • more (week 1 of the speech calendar)
  • my or mine (week 1 & 11)
  • want (week 4)
  • no (week 9)
  • Daddy (week 10)
  • milk (week 11)
  • ball (week 13)
  • hungry (week 15)
  • drink (week 20)
  • Mommy (week 21)
  • please (week 22). 

Other signs that would be helpful are:  toilet, help, all done, again, and thank you.

Look up and learn the signs that you want to teach your child:  I use Signing Exact English, by Gerilee Gustason and Esther Zawolkow to look up signs.  You can also find many American Sign Language books and baby sign books or DVDs.  If you don't want to purchase these books, you can always take your list to the library and look up the signs there.

I am currently working on a sign language resource to supplement the speech calendar.  It includes all of the signs I introduce in the speech calendar plus a few bonus signs.  If you have purchased the speech calendar, this will come available to you in the near future.  If you would like to purchase the speech calendar and receive access to the sign language resource, click here.


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