Is there science-backed research on teaching sign language to toddlers to enhance communication?
Existing research suggests that there may be benefits to teaching signing to hearing infants who have not yet developed vocal communication. In the current study, each of 4 infants ranging in age from 6 to 10 months was taught a simple sign using delayed prompting and reinforcement. In addition, Experiment 1 showed that 2 children independently signed in a variety of novel stimulus conditions (e.g., in a classroom, with father) after participating in sign training under controlled experimental conditions. In Experiment 2, crying and whining were replaced with signing when sign training was implemented in combination with extinction.
Keywords: communication training, extinction, infants, modeling, physical prompting, reinforcement, sign language, delay Sign language systems have been used successfully with individuals who have difficulty learning to communicate through vocal language. In addition to individuals with hearing impairments, individuals with developmental disabilities such as autism and mental retardation have learned to communicate through signs (Bryen & Joyce, 1986). Signing may be a good alternative to vocal communication for individuals who have poor oral motor control but adequate manual control. For these individuals, sign language may be easier to teach than oral language because signing can be physically prompted by a caregiver (i.e., a child's hands can be molded to form a sign; Tabor, 1988).
These advantages have led some researchers and clinicians to recommend that signing also be taught to typically developing children during their first 2 years of life (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1996; Garcia, 1999). This recommendation is supported by studies showing that infants exposed to sign language acquired first signs at an earlier age than typical first spoken words. Bonvillian, Orlansky, and Novack (1983) studied 11 hearing children of deaf parents and reported that children produced their first recognizable sign at a mean age of just 8.5 months, with the earliest first sign at 5.5 months. Similarly, Goodwyn and Acredolo (1993) found that, when hearing parents were trained to encourage the use of symbolic gestures (e.g., palms up for “Where is it?”), their hearing infants began to use gestures a mean of 0.69 months before their first vocal words.
A concern associated with the early use of sign language is the potential for a delay in the onset of vocal language; however, results of a study by Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown (2000) suggest that sign training might facilitate rather than hinder the development of vocal language. In this study, hearing infants whose parents encouraged symbolic gestures outperformed children whose parents encouraged vocal language on follow-up tests of receptive and expressive vocal language.