Start Signing! Why Kids Should Learn Sign Language

Give your child a hand in spelling, vocab, and other skills by introducing her to sign language.
Baby Sign Language: Alphabet
Baby Sign Language: Alphabet
Child doing sign language

Alexandra Grablewski

My son, Jonah, came home from preschool one afternoon in a fidgety mood, wiggling his fingers wildly and whispering to himself. I was trying to figure out why he was so restless (Too much sleep? Too little time on the playground?) when he proudly announced that he was practicing a new skill he was learning at school: sign language.

It's not news that signing with babies can help them communicate before they can talk, but it's a more recent trend to use sign language with older kids. Experts say that teaching children this age the signs for words and the alphabet can help with letter recognition and build their vocabulary. Kids just think it's fun.

Giving sign language a try at home shouldn't be too tricky. "Three- and 4-year-olds usually find signing easy and entertaining because it taps into their natural tendency to communicate using their body," explains Jan Christian Hafer, Ed.D., director of general studies at Washington, D.C.'s Gallaudet University, which focuses on serving deaf students. And there are plenty of easy-to-use resources available. Libraries often stock books and DVDs geared toward signing with kids -- and websites, such as lifeprint.com, allow you to see sign language in action. Check out how your kid can benefit from this hands-on language.

Why it Helps: It Increases Kids' Vocabulary

Studies of preschoolers in Maryland found that those who were introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) words, such as signs for the weather, colors, numbers, and feelings, did better on vocabulary tests than their peers who weren't taught to sign. One reason? ASL words are often iconic, meaning they tend to look like what they represent, says study author Marilyn Daniels, Ph.D., professor emerita in the Department of Communication at Penn State University and author of Dancing With Words. This similarity helps kids grasp the meanings and remember new words introduced through signing. When beginning to sign with your child, choose signs that evoke a mental image of the word you are trying to teach. For example, the word listen involves cupping your hand behind your ear. Then introduce new words she doesn't already know the meanings of. While signing the word invent (put index finger on forehead, point it upward and then down in front of you), explain that the word means to take an idea that's in your head and turn it into something that is real and useful to the world.

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