"When you see babies, you can see them experiment with their hands. They move them about, they touch their hands together, they try to reach things, they attempt to pick up objects, " says Dr. Marilyn Daniels, associate professor of speech communication at Penn State's Worthington Scranton Campus. "Sign language has the unique capacity to tap into the natural exchange between hand and brain, optimizing the emergence of language in the child because of the physiological advantage of American Sign Language (ASL) over English."
Learning to speak, read and write English takes years, much patience and practice for young children. But they effortlessly use their hands for comfort, communication and acquiring information from birth, says Daniels.
In her recent book, "Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy," (Bergin & Garvey), the Penn State researcher outlines her research on this topic since 1991 and the theories behind the benefits of sign language on hearing children's education. She also offers directions to interested teachers and parents on how to teach reading, spelling and social studies with sign language.
A mother in one project had a whiny nine-month-old boy. In seeking a way to communicate better with him, she taught him basic signs focusing on dining such as please, eat, and drink. He responded quickly and she added apple, pasta and cookie. At age 1, he learned the sign for bath, using it frequently when ready for a bath, and the sign for out, when indicating a desire to go out and play.
By the time he was 14 months old, he knew more ASL words than spoken English words. Daniels recalls "More recently when he was two years and four months old, his mother told me that he can talk very well for his age. In fact, he is trying to teach his six-week-old sister to sign." "Sign does not hinder language development in any way, in fact, it fosters it," says the researcher. "Knowing a second language, such as ASL, also boosts self-esteem of the children and their confidence in learning, as well as their awareness of the Deaf culture."
Sign language has had a long, complicated, interesting history. It is the native language of more than one-half million individuals in the United States, and is a symbol of cultural unity for the Deaf community, according to the book. ASL has been gradually accepted as a foreign language as its use in schools, workplaces and public agencies has grown since the passage of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990, the author notes.
In addition to parents, teachers also have experienced learning benefits to hearing young children, beyond children in special education, says Daniels. A variety of techniques has been successful for different teachers, but they do not have to be a fluent signer, she adds, just interested in learning with their students. "Subject areas other than reading or spelling also can be enhanced with sign language," the Penn State researcher notes. "ASL is routinely used in many schools from first grade through fifth grade for social studies, history, music, science, geography and even math. In these settings, it clearly supports content by defining concepts and aiding memory."