Using Sign Language to Help Move Your Child Along the Language Continuum

baby signing time

Barclay was diagnosed with a severe language delay at around 20 months and later, more specifically, a disorder called Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS).  He was in speech therapy, but progress was slow.  I started learning that sign language can help bridge the gap in communication skills for late talkers.  I discovered Baby Signing Time by Rachel Coleman, and we started using it with Barclay a few months before his second birthday.

The Language Continuum

Some people believe that teaching a child to use sign language to communicate takes away their motivation to talk, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It actually has the opposite effect.  I found with Barclay that he would not even attempt to repeat a new word until after learning the sign for it.  In a matter of just a few months, his ability to communicate went from almost nothing to 50 or more words and more than 100 signs.  Some parents don’t realize that language is a continuum. Toddlers don’t just wake up one morning and start talking. It is a long process. So children with language delays are often stuck somewhere on that continuum.  Sign Language can be a great tool to help move them along.

I reached out to Rachel, who, in addition to creating the Signing Time program, was recently named Executive Director of the American Society for Deaf Children.

“I  have worked with MANY children with apraxia. The good news is this… your child can access language. He can hear. He just can’t get the words out of his mouth. He can think! Many children with apraxia and many children with autism say their first words when they pair it with a sign. For some reason, the visual, or tactile, or the three-dimensional, or the kinesthetic aspect of sign helps make the jump from thought to word said out loud.”

Rachel Coleman – Baby Signing Time

Sign Language Reduces Frustration

One of the first skills a toddler needs before learning to talk is to use and understand gestures.  Even babies start to learn this early.  They point to a toy they want or put their arms up as a way to ask to be picked up. But for an older toddler who has more complex thoughts than an infant, common gestures aren’t enough.  Sign language gives them more complex gestures so they can communicate.  This helps reduce frustration between the child and caregivers and builds their vocabulary.  

Our Success with Sign Language

From about age 2 to 3, sign language was a significant part of our communication with Barclay.  However, as he slowly started to learn a word, he’d drop the sign, and we’d follow his lead. We kept teaching him new ones and discarding the old ones until he got to a point where he would attempt to repeat any word we said.  At that point, we knew the sign language had done its job!  It had bridged that gap!

Barclay communicates pretty well verbally to us, and we’ve long stopped teaching him new signs.  There are a few that he has held on to, and we accept those as communication from him. I encourage you that if you have a late talker in your family, adding sign language into your intervention toolbox will have significant benefits!

Did you or do you use sign language with your child?  What are your experiences?  Please comment and share!

Barclay learning to sign “water” with Baby Signing Time.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
– Ignacio Estrada

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Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.

One thought on “Using Sign Language to Help Move Your Child Along the Language Continuum

  1. […] We also started heavily teaching sign language and used Rachel Coleman’s Baby Signing Time. We found that he wouldn’t even attempt a word if he didn’t already have a sign for it.  His brain needed a kinesthetic jump.  Also learning sign language while we were teaching him to speak helped bridge the communication gap and reduced frustration on his part and ours.  For the first 2 to 2 1/2 years of his life sign language was a major form of communication. (Check out my blog Using Sign Language to Help Move Your Child Along the Language Continuum here.) […]


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