How Sign-Language Can Help Late Talkers

This hot topic issue has been in the press for some time now. What is the truth? Can the use of sign language really help your toddler start talking? The answer is… yes! Continue reading to discover the truth about late-talking toddlers and sign language.

How Sign-Language Can Help Late Talkers:

  • We learn to use language through three modes: gestures, oral language, and written language. Children develop these skills in that order. For instance, children will wave bye before they say “bye”, before they write it!child and sign language
  • An important developmental skill, symbolic function, is what helps children realize that one thing (gestural or verbal) represents another. For example, the word “pig” represents the pink animal on the farm. Just the same, putting your hands together to sign “more” represents the idea of receiving additional food, toys, turns, etc.
  • We establish symbolic function by using sign first, before verbal language. Why?
    • The physical ability to make a sign using large muscle groups is less complicated than the intricate coordination of our articulators (lips, tongue, teeth, etc) that we use to speak.
    • Sign also helps the child’s ability to learn imitation. Sign, a static, visual event is easier to process and store in long term memory than a fleeting auditory stimuli (e.g. spoken word).
  • Once the ability to imitate sign has been established, the child learns that he has control over his environment. He will continue to use sign (and eventually verbal language) to control his situation with more consistency.
  • *Research shows that children with expressive language delays learned more words across treatment conditions (and did so more quickly) when given sign and verbal models (at the same time) as opposed to verbal models alone.
  • It is important to note that signing requires joint-attention (the adult and child attend to an object at the same time) and eye contact from the child to be as successful as possible!

*Robertson, S. & Weiskerger, K. (2003). The effects of sign on the expressive vocabularies of two late talking toddlers, Poster presented at the Pennsylvania Speech-Language Hearing Association State Convention, Harrisburg, PA.

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5 replies
  1. Katherine Collmer
    Katherine Collmer says:

    Kelli, Very interesting article. I am curious, also, about the link between the use of the hands and the enhancement of language. With handwriting (and its link with learning), the use of the hands is one of the key elements in educational success. Any thoughts? I’ve included a link to my latest blog that discusses this.

    • North Shore Pediatric Therapy
      North Shore Pediatric Therapy says:

      Hi Katherine,

      Thank you for your interest in our blog! From an OT perspective, one of the base-line skills for learning and handwriting development is the ability to cross midline. Crossing midline with one’s hands is directly correlated to the development of crossing midline in the brain: using both hemispheres simultaneously. Use of one’s hands throughout the developmental years facilitates the acquisition of this skill. From a speech perspective, once the ability to cross midline has been established, more sensory pathways to access language become available. For example, when learning new language materials, acquiring “new” information via multisensory modes (tactile, visual, auditory), will allow a greater chance for one to successfully access that information in the future. We agree that the development of motor sequences through use of one’s hands is critical to one’s successful development of later academic skills, including skilled writing, as you noted in your blog. Thank you for sharing.

      • Katherine Collmer
        Katherine Collmer says:

        Thanks, Kelli, for your clarification about language development and crossing the midline. Very interesting, indeed!


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