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Using Sign to Facilitate Oral Language: Building a Case with Parents

Using Sign to Facilitate Oral Language: Building a Case with Parents
Shari Robertson
March 19, 2007
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Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and early childhood teachers who work with children with linguistic deficits often incorporate sign and gestures into their intervention protocols to facilitate the development of expressive language of children who are slow to talk (e.g., Good, Feekes, & Shawd, 1993/1994). Unfortunately, while most SLPs intuitively understand the rationale for using a manual mode of language to facilitate development of the oral mode, it is very common for parents of children who manifest deficits in the linguistic domain, but have normal hearing sensitivity, to be skeptical or even hostile to the use of sign as part of their children's intervention plan. Generally, this stems from a fear that sign language will stifle oral language use rather than facilitate it.

In many instances, this skepticism translates into reluctance (or outright refusal) on the part of the family to use sign when communicating with their child. As with any intervention technique, the best outcomes are most often achieved when the targeted intervention techniques are employed consistently in all communicative contexts including (and some would argue most importantly) the home environment. If we wish to work with families, rather than against them, to facilitate language development, it is critically important to be able to provide the information parents need to facilitate their acceptance and ideally their active participation-in a treatment protocol that includes sign. Clearly, thorough knowledge of the relevant research evidence is an essential tool for speech-language pathologists who seek to clarify their rationale for the use of sign with parents and, often, other professionals.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of evidence to support the use of sign to develop oral language from a variety of research literature bases. Individually, each perspective we will explore in this article has the potential to provide a strong case for including sign in the intervention protocols of young children with limited oral language skills. Taken together, however, the evidence is compelling.

Support from Normal Language Development

One way to help parents better understand the rationale behind using sign to facilitate their child's oral language can be drawn from what we know about normal language development. Currently, a substantial literature base exists regarding the relationships between language and gesture development in typically developing children (e.g., Bates, Benigni, Bretherton, Camaioni, & Volterra, 1979; Bates, Bretherton, & Snyder, 1988; Bates & Snyder, 1987; Bates, Thal, Whitesell, Fenson, & Oakes, 1989; Shore, Bates, Bretherton, Beeghly, & O'Connell, 1990; Thal & Bates, 1990; Thal & Tobias, 1992). Typically developing children use sign to communicate long before they begin to use words to express their needs and wants. In fact, the ability to purposefully communicate with others develops around six month of age in most children long before they develop the control necessary to coordinate the numerous muscle movements required to produce oral speech. In part, this is because producing a gesture requires control of larger muscles masses, such as hands and fingers, in comparison to the specific and substantially more refined motor movements required for oral speech (McLaughlin, 1998). Early gestures, although not associated with a formal system of sign, allow children to begin to communicate with others in their environment even before they are physically able to produce oral language. So, children wave bye-bye, hold up their arms to indicate they want to be picked up, and point to objects they want or need. These types of interactions also facilitate joint attention, a critical component to the development of language.

Further, when people in the children's environments respond to these gestures, they learn that they can control their environment through their actions. When a child learns that the sign for "more" has the power to, in fact, make "more" of the desired item appear, he or she has learned that communication gets results! This acts as a powerful catalyst for children to continue to develop their communication skills. Most children are born with a powerful drive to talk and as their motor skills improve they eventually learn to match a spoken word to the concept they have already learned to express using a gesturein effect "mapping" the oral representation over the top of the gestural representation of the cognitive concept (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1988). For instance, a child who has developed the understanding of what bye-bye means during the period when they are only able to wave is able to learn the words associated with the gesture much more quickly once their oral muscles are sufficiently developed.


shari robertson

Shari Robertson



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