Use of Sign 

Why should I use signs with my child when I want them to speak?

Gesture use and Communication

We don’t always need to use words to convey our feelings or communicative intent. Often times we can interpret gestures, body language, facial expressions, and/or eye contact of another individual to abstract a message. This is termed non-verbal communication. Gestures using one’s hands (e.g., OK sign, Thumbs up, hi, bye) and one’s body (e.g., hiding face may mean despair, shame, sadness; crossing arms may mean disgust or anger) assists us in gaining information from our communication partner.

Use of gestures, emblems, pantomime, and sign language decreases the “cognitive load” of having to receive or convey messages using verbal communication only. It provides scaffolding for receptive language because it increases the redundancy of the spoken message. Working memory demands are decreased and encoding information into long term memory is eased when gestures are used (Brann, ASHA Conference, 2009).

Importance of gestures in development

The use of gestures and how it relates to language development is well documented. Children who use gestures, emblems, pantomime, and/or sign language have been identified as children who will be more likely to have typical language development. Children in the beginning stages of language acquisition express themselves using gestures. This occurs because gestures can precede first words by several months (Goldin-Meadow, 2003).

Tests of early language development often focus on the child’s ability to gesture or communicate non-verbally (e.g., Rosetti Infant-Toddler Language Scale, Hawaii Early Learning Profile (HELP)). Gestures or non-verbal communication indicate related language skill development (e.g., joint attention, communicative intent, and symbolic play). No pointing or gesturing by 12 months is a red flag for a developmental delay (Thal & Bates, 1998).

Children with atypical developmental patterns benefit greatly from the use of gestures or signs. It provides a multimodality approach to language learning and communication by increasing the redundancy of the message. Children with motor planning difficulties make gains in speech production when using signs or gestures in conjunction with therapy.

Use of Sign Language

Parents are often reluctant to use sign language to facilitate speech and language development because they feel that the child won’t talk if they use another means of communication. Actually, the opposite typically happens. The child feels a sense of success with communication and it ultimately reduces the amount of anxiety that child may feel because they are not talking. Temper tantrums can also be decreased or avoided altogether when a child is taught to use a non verbal means of communication. Since speech is the most efficient means of communication, the signs will drop off as the speech system develops.

Using signs with your infant is very beneficial! Since gestures emerge before first words, the signs provide your child with a means of communication. Imagine all of the frustration that could disappear when trying to communicate with a baby!

Key Points when beginning to use signs:

Signs chosen for the child should be meaningful and motivational (e.g., milk, cookie, mama, dada, bike) rather than random words.

Pair your signs with a verbal word so the child can observe how you are forming the word.

Chose 1-2 signs a week to focus on so the child has plenty of opportunity to master the signs.

Signs can be modified to meet the needs of your child if they have difficulties in motor planning or fine motor development.


Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). Hearing Gestures. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Thal, D. & Bates, E. (1988). Language and gesture in late talkers. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 31, 115-123

Page 1 2