How Signing Enhances Early Literacy

Excerpted from Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Little Hands and Big Hands coverTogether by Kathy MacMillan (Chicago, IL: Huron Street Press, 2013)

Whenever you communicate with your child in an involving way, you are helping her develop early literacy skills.  Because signing encourages communication and engagement, it supports early literacy.  But that’s not the only way signing helps your child develop language and literacy skills.  In her groundbreaking book, Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy (2001), Marilyn Daniels describes her research on using American Sign Language in preschool classrooms with hearing children.  More often than not, her research was disrupted when the parents of her control group (a preschool classroom where the teacher was not using sign language with the students) heard about the amazing gains the signing classrooms in the study were making, and insisted that their children be exposed to sign too!   She found that hearing preschoolers and kindergarteners in the signing groups achieved significantly higher scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test than those who knew no sign.  In addition, teachers in the signing classroom reported that their students were less frustrated, got along better, and were more excited about learning than their previous, non-signing classes.

How did signing with these groups produce such extraordinary results?

  • Sign language supports different learning styles.  Signs provide a visual cue and give kinesthetic learners, who learn best through physical activity, a way to interact with letters and vocabulary.
  • Knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet is an important first step on the road to literacy.  Using the manual alphabet with children helps them learn, remember, and use the letters – long before they have developed the fine motor skills to write them clearly.
  • As children move into the preschool and early elementary years, knowing signs and the manual alphabet allows them to access two different “memory stores” in their brains for reading, spelling, and vocabulary.  For example, if a child cannot identify a letter’s sound, signing it to himself may help jog his memory to make the connection.
  • American Sign Language, like any language, stimulates the language centers of the brain, strengthening synaptic connections and preparing them for further language learning.
  • Young children tend to be more visually attuned than adults, and so signing to them naturally captures their attention.  In addition, our visual sense works best when our eyes are moving, as when one is observing signs.
  • The areas of the brain that control movement develop earlier than those that control speech.  This is why even six to seven month old babies can produce signs.  As children grow up, their motor centers continue to develop ahead of their speech centers, allowing them to express more thoughts more clearly through signs than they can through speech.
  • Adults tend to use writing as a way to process and understand information.  Young children do not have access to this tool yet, but they can use signs to serve the same function.
  • ASL signs can help children understand and remember meaning.  Many ASL signs are iconic, meaning that they look like what they mean.  For example, the sign ELEPHANT looks like the trunk of an elephant.   Many more signs are arbitrary, meaning that the form of the sign has no relation to the meaning, but may help children make sense of the meaning of a word nonetheless.  For example, the sign SORRY is made by using the S-handshape and moving it in a circle over the heart, accompanied by an apologetic expression.  While this sign would not be immediately understood by someone who did not know American Sign Language, it incorporates the “S” that is the first letter of the English word “sorry”, and it takes places at the heart, indicating that emotion is involved.
  • The hands are connected to the brain.  Developing the tactile sense (touch) and the kinesthetic sense (movement) helps the different hemispheres of the brain communicate with one another, allowing for more seamless processing of information.
  • Before children can understand the abstract shapes of letters, they must first develop their proprioceptive system, or a sense of where they are in space.  When a child moves, proprioceptive development is triggered as muscles, joints, and tendons make contact and brain connections develop (Johnson 2007).  The movement of signs naturally encourages proprioceptive development.
  • Signing in itself seems to be intrinsically motivating for children; as one United Kingdom study reports, “Children’s motivation for acquiring basic signing skills does not appear to stem from interaction with Deaf children or adults as much as from the language itself” (Daniels 2003).
  • Signing with children facilitates a sense of play.  Play is far more than just simple entertainment – it is the number one way children learn about the world in the first five years of life.  Play allows children to make connections between concepts and understand how the pieces of the world fit together – and if children figure these things out for themselves, the resulting brain connections last far longer than if they had received direct instruction.

For more about the benefits of signing with young children, as well as fun signing activities to use with children, see Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together by Kathy MacMillan (Chicago, IL: Huron Street Press, 2013), available now!

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