Future Reflections       Fall 2014       EARLY CHILDHOOD

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Teaching Your Visually Impaired Child Sign Language

by Jennie Smith

Reprinted with permission from <http://www.wonderbaby.org>

From the Editor: For a variety of reasons, some blind and visually impaired children have difficulty with early language acquisition. Parents and teachers may dismiss the notion of teaching a blind child to sign, as signing seems to be inherently visual. However, as Jennie Smith shows, signing can be an effective way to help young blind children communicate, and can spur the development of spoken words. Jennie Smith lives in rural Virginia. She has been a special education preschool teacher for twenty-three years, and she added a teaching endorsement in visual impairment after her son, Max, was born.

Max uses one of his first signs.Effective communication is a critical skill for children to learn. We all communicate in a wide variety of ways. We use spoken words, different intonations in our voices, subtle gestures (raising our eyebrows, a sly smile, or a quick wink), and not so subtle gestures (waving our arms, stamping our feet, or clapping our hands loudly).

Some research studies claim that over 80 percent of expressive communication is nonverbal. Have you ever noticed how many people move their hands while they talk? In some cultures, it seems impossible NOT to gesture while speaking! I remember being at a conference where we all had to sit on our hands and then engage in conversation with someone sitting nearby. Within seconds, people were lifting their hands to gesture, saying they simply could not keep them still while talking. Do you know anyone like that? Does this describe you?

For many children, especially those with disabilities, learning how to communicate effectively is extremely difficult. Using gestures and formal signs is a way to facilitate expressive language. It opens doors for many kids who, for whatever reason, simply have not yet been able to develop verbal skills.

Almost all young children use gestures when learning to talk. They wave bye-bye, shake their little heads "no," and blow very wet kisses. Such actions clearly express a thought, an intention, or an emotion, and all can be done without speaking.

My son, Max, who is totally blind with bilateral anophthalmia, is one of those young children who is having a very difficult time learning to use verbal language. He is three years old and has four spoken words, two of which he is just beginning to use. However, Max can communicate twenty-seven things to us today because we have taught him to use signs (that number is sure to be higher by the time you read this). Without signs, Max would only be able to say "mama," "dada," "night-night," and "ball." These are all great words to have, but not a very powerful way to make one's needs known throughout the day.

Getting Started

Max sits in a pumpkin patch, holding a pumpkin on his lap.The process for Max to learn signs has been very long, and it has taken persistence from all of us. If my memory serves me correctly, I think I signed three signs with him many times per day for about six months before he began to show any attempt at making a sign by himself.

When I started introducing signs to Max, I was teaching in an intensive program for preschoolers with autism and using a strict ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) method. This experience gave me the idea to keep at it with Max.

The basic principle is to choose an item that is highly preferred. For Max it was his "lovie bear" that he sleeps with and uses for general comfort. I would say and sign "bear" every time he came into contact with the bear. I took his hands and made the sign on his body two or three times and then immediately gave him the bear.

I used natural daily opportunities to work on signs. I chose this method instead of a structured teaching setting where you give the item and then take it back to do it over again. I think kids learn faster through natural opportunities within an everyday context. Two other early signs for Max were "milk" and "cracker."

Ten Steps to Teaching Signs

  1. Choose items that are extremely preferred, as they are motivating. Few of us are going to sign for Brussels sprouts!
  2. Start with no more than three signs. If you sign everything, it becomes overwhelming. Kids will tune out, and adults will lose interest.
  3. Find several opportunities each day to use the sign. Repetition is the key.
  4. Give the item or do the activity (a tickle game, for example) immediately after making the sign. If you wait, even thirty seconds in the beginning, you are no longer reinforcing the gesture. Thirty seconds is a long time and, within that time, the child has most likely done another behavior (turned his head, started to cry, waved his arms). If you wait, then you are reinforcing the wrong act of intended communication. I think I walked around my house with a bear in my pocket or within an arm's reach for six months!
  5. Be consistent. If your child is going to learn the sign for "cracker," then your child needs to see or feel the sign every time he or she is in contact with a cracker.
  6. Always use the spoken word with the sign. Don't sign in silence.
  7. Give verbal praise after the sign is made, even if it was made with hand-over-hand facilitation. I used to give physical as well as verbal praise: "Wow, Max! You asked for your bear!" along with tickles as I gave him the bear.
  8. Ignore pleasantries, at least at first. It's nice if kids learn to say "please" or "sorry," but when you have a very limited vocabulary, each sign needs to be powerful. You can add the social niceties later.
  9. Accept a sign approximation as a success. Most kids are not going to produce the sign perfectly at first. Even verbal kids say "wa-wa" before they learn to say “water." Later you can shape the "baby signs" into perfection if signing is going to be a primary means of communication. As kids learn verbal language, signs usually drop out.
  10. Give it time!

Language Is Power!

Using signs and gestures is language. Research has proved that the use of signs does not prevent children from learning to speak. In fact, studies show that children who used signs as babies had more spoken words as they grew than did their non-signing peers.

There are many resources for learning to make signs. For example, Michigan State University has created an American Sign Language Browser that plays short video clips of common signs to demonstrate visually how to make them. You can pick the words you want to teach your child and see them demonstrated right there on the spot! You can explore this site at <http://aslbrowser.commtechlab.msu.edu/browser.htm>.


This article was originally written when Max was still a preschooler. Today he is nine years old. He learned seventy-five signs before he started to use spoken language. He has received a diagnosis of autism, which helps to explain his challenges with communication. Max is now verbal, but he continues to struggle to use meaningful social language. He rarely uses verbs in his speech, so we are going back to sign language to emphasize the use of verbs in his sentences.

Max loves to play the piano, and his musical skills are amazing! He is all self-taught and plays everything from Disney musicals to Bruce Springsteen to TV jingles. Christmas music is his favorite all year round. He is a happy little guy with a hilarious sense of humor.

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