December 27, 2012

2012 Year End Post

I went quiet after December 14th. Not my typical modus operandi. I had blog posts written and queued up to post, but I rescheduled them for future publication dates because it didn't seem right to maintain normal routines. I took comfort in the words of others, but I couldn't find words of my own that felt appropriate to share. I read and watched tributes. I walked around lost in my thoughts. I cried.

I did not personally know any of the victims of the December 14th tragedy, and yet I felt like I knew them all. I work with teachers and young children. I have children of my own. I write picture books for young children.  And, I'm passionately protective of childhood. It's something I feel called upon to honor, treasure and protect. Yet I'm aware that for many children, childhood is a place filled with less publicized pain. That awareness is one of the many reasons December 14th shook me so deeply. It forced me  to stop and think about the suffering in the world. In my country. In my neighborhood. In my extended family.

I got stuck in the sadness and had to force myself to resume normal activities. One of those activities was taking the time to pause and reflect on the past year. I typically devise some type of creative way to share the past year's events with family and friends. I found the escape into creativity a welcome respite. Here is this year's offering:

It was a year mixed with blessings and difficulties: Amazing family travel experiences. Book launches. Health challenges endured by people I love. And lots of ordinary happenings.

As I reflected on 2012, I continued to ponder the emotions I felt after the December 14th tragedy. I realized that embedded in the sadness was a sense of  powerlessness. I felt so very small.

Feeling powerless and small stinks.

I decided for my own sanity I needed to redirect my attention. Instead of focusing on the bigness of the problems in the world, I would reclaim my power by focusing on the small ways I can make a positive difference:

I can smile at strangers.
I can laugh with children.
I can notice my neighbors.
I can lend a hand.
I can offer friendship.
I can share my time.
I can say thank you.
I can listen.
I can teach.
I can write.
I can treasure the work that I do, as a parent and as a professional.
I can bear witness to the joy and innocence of childhood. The wild laughter. The thrill of new discoveries. The intense energy. The curiosity. The questions. The language. The love.

Thank you friends and colleagues, for supporting and encouraging my work, and for sharing my books with the children you love. You've helped me make a small difference in this world.

December 12, 2012

When To Use Signs Such as Want, Again, and Please

Building on the question I answered in last week's blog post, today I will discuss when it might be useful to introduce more intermediate signs such as "want," and "please," in addition to more basic signs such as "eat"/hungry" and "more."

In the early developmental stages, babies' language and conceptual categories are very broad. Food is Milk. Over time, a new category for food develops: crackers. As more time passes, more categories for crackers develop: fish crackers, graham crackers, saltine crackers.  As even more time passes, even more sub-categories for crackers develop: cheesy fish crackers and plain fish crackers; regular graham crackers and chocolate graham get the idea.

Photo ©
Language acquisition follows along in this pattern. In the beginning, basic signs like "eat"/"hungry" and "more" will apply to many of the concepts your baby will want and need to convey. As I discussed in my last post, even though your baby likely means "I want" when he signs "more," the basic concept s/he is trying to convey is "bring me the things I need and want!" Over time, his or her wants and needs will become more specific: "I want more food." "I'm feeling hungry."  "I'm hungry for bananas." "I want more bananas."

All that said, once babies start signing, it's not at all uncommon for them to start babbling in sign. Picture this scene: You're on a walk with your baby. S/he is making all kinds of vocal articulations. Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. This is verbal babbling. It's not uncommon for signing babies to likewise babble in sign language. Their hands will be moving like crazy. You'll see the sign for banana. You'll see the sign for apple. You'll see the sign for cracker. It's not that your baby necessarily wants any of these things right now...he is just yaking about the things that are important in his world.

But then at some point on that same walk, you'll see him sign milk. It will be emphatic. He will sign it over and over again. You might even see both hands going.  THIS is a baby that's ready to add the sign for "want" (and/or "please") to his repertoire." You might find yourself saying, "Do you want your milk? Here's your milk." Or, you might say, "Show me please and I can get your milk for you." Good job. Here's your milk."

Now, granted, if this particular baby is really hungry for milk, or it's getting close to nap time, or he or she has an intense temperament, dragging out the conversation like this (with our without signing), is likely going to lead to a frustrated baby.  You'll have to be the judge as to the right situations and timing to introduce these more intermediate concepts and signs to your baby. The overall point I'm trying to make is that your baby will reach a point when they will sign about things they don't actually need or want at that moment, and there will be times that they do in fact want what they are signing for. When a baby has reached that level of sophistication in their communication, they are ready for more intermediate words that can enhance their communication.

Photo Courtesy of Fotopedia
Quick side note: Some of you are reading this and thinking, "Hey, my baby has been signing please for months. It was one of her first signs..." It's true. Many babies do sign please very early, and a tee tiny baby signing please is an absolutely darling sight to behold (not to mention, it makes us look good as parents when our babies appear to be mannerly). Here's the rub: In my experience, most babies that sign please early are likely using that sign as a substitute for the more general concept of "I want" (similar to the discussion in my last post, re: babies who sign "more" when technically they mean "I want"). So, you can kid yourself all you want by thinking that your baby is mannerly, when in fact, more realistically, he or she is using a symbol that we associate with manners (please) with a concept that they associate with getting their needs met (bring it on...). But not to worry. It does look darned cute when a baby is rubbing their chest ferociously to convey their desire for something. And I'm all for darned cute! In fact, if YOU have some cute pictures of your baby signing, I would love for you to share them with me so I can feature them in a future blog post. Get in touch if you do. Cheers! Dawn

December 5, 2012

My Baby Signs "More" When She Means "I Want"

A former class participant sent me a question that ties into my most recent blog post. She said that her baby started signing in October when she turned one. Her baby signs "more" fairly regularly, but the mom has come to realize that her baby often means "I want" when she signs "more." For example, the baby signs "more," and then points at something she sees that she wants. The mom wondered if she should start showing the sign for "want" in addition to the sign for "more" or if that would just complicate things.

What this mom describes is very common. For a baby, the distinction between the concepts of more and want is a very fine line. More = "I want more of something I've just recently had" and "I want" = I want something I'm thinking about right now or something that I can see and point to." When a baby learns to sign more to get more of something, (and it works!), it's completely logical that he or she would make the  same sign to convey they want something/anything/everything, whether they've recently had it or not!

Photo ©
In this situation, what I encourage parents and caregivers to do is add the sign(s) for the objects or activities the baby is trying to communicate that he or she wants. For example, when your baby sees you getting a container of ice cream out of the freezer and she emphatically starts signing "more,"you would probably notice yourself saying, "Oh this ice cream looks good, doesn't it? Would you like some ice cream, too?" As I discussed in my last post, as you converse in this way (which you likely do without any "training"), you are naturally providing a verbal label for that interaction. For signing, all you need to do is add the sign for ice cream to that conversation, so you are also introducing a sign label for that motivating object (or activity).

Another thing to be aware of is that it's not uncommon for a baby to sign "more" when it isn't immediately obvious what they want "more" of (or, more accurately, what they want). In this case, you'll need to do some sleuthing to figure out what your baby is trying to convey to you. For example, when my son was a baby, the first thing he would do when he woke up in the morning was sign, "more." I'd laugh to myself, "More what?? You haven't had anything yet!?" However, when I thought about our morning routine, I typically nursed him soon after picking him up from his crib. With this in mind, it was logical that what he wanted when he was signing "more" was "milk." So, I'd say to him, "It looks like you are ready for your milk this morning," while I signed "milk" and got settled in to nurse him. Over time, his emphatic signs for "more" in the morning shifted to the emphatic signing of "milk,"which, incidentally, he signed constantly, but alas, that is another story!

So when should you sign "want?" Well, if you've taken any of my classes or followed my blog for long, you know I don't think there are many shoulds in signing...But next week I will share when I think "want" can be a helpful addition to your baby's signing vocabulary. If you have other questions in the meantime, post them here, or send me a direct message and I'll be sure to get back to you.

Happy Signing! Dawn

November 28, 2012

Why Does My Baby Use the Same Sign for Everything?

Using the same sign for many things is very common and very comparable to what happens when a baby learns to verbalize (with or without signing).

When I explain this developmental process in my workshops, I start first with the verbal process, since that is more familiar to many of us.

For example, when a baby learns the word for a "ball," they might say an approximation such as, "Ba!" We are so excited that they've learned the word for this object, and we respond with positive reinforcement by cheering them on, giving them the ball, etc. In time, the baby will likely point to other favored objects (such as the kitty, or their daddy, or the dog, etc) and say with great enthusiasm "Ba!" Our very natural parenting reaction is to respond with enthusiasm, knowing they are trying to say another important word, but they haven't developed the new vocabulary yet.  

So, for example, we might say, "That is the kitty. Here kitty kitty. Nice kitty." When they see the dog and say "Ba!" we will say, "Yes, that's the dog. You like the dog don't you?" We don't correct or draw attention to the "mislabel." We use our natural interactions with baby to gently and casually give them a new label for this motivating object. Over time they begin to hear (and experiment with) these new labels.  

The same process happens with signing. If your baby's first sign is more, it is likely reinforced with your actions and enthusiasm, and saying more is therefore rewarding for your baby. In the beginning, the sign for more may be the only word in your baby's toolbox when he or she wants to say something. So...when he or she looks at the kitty, he might sign more, and when he or she looks at the dog, she might sign...more.

If you can decipher from the context what your baby is trying to communicate when he is eagerly using his "one word vocabulary," then respond to him with something like, "Yes, Evan, that is the kitty. This is how you sign for kitty" all the while showing the sign for kitty.  He may not "look" directly at you the first (or tenth!) time you do this (re: he will be looking at the kitty!) but if you keep with it, he will start to "catch" you doing the new sign...and he will start looking from you to the kitty and back again, to see what you are doing/saying with your hands--especially if you use his name
during this labeling conversation.

In addition, if you now know that he wants to have a label for kitty and doggy, etc, you can make a point to emphasize those signs during playtime and/or when you read (i.e. sing a silly song about kitties while you sign for kitty; bring out a soft kitty toy as a prop and pet the kitty, then sign for kitty; point to pictures of cats in books and show the sign for get the idea).

Over time your baby will learn that there is a unique and distinct label for all of the wonderful things around him...then your challenge will be keeping up with him as he points at something and looks at you expectantly for a new sign!

November 21, 2012

Quick Ideas for Getting Started with Signing: Summary Post

Image Courtesy of
For the past several weeks, I've been sharing the key learning points in my infant/toddler sign language workshops. I thought it might be helpful to provide a summary post with links to all of the earlier posts provided in one handy spot. This is a post you may want to bookmark and/or share with your friends. Here goes:

Quick Ideas for Getting Started With Signing (August 27, 2012)
Introductory post.

Sing Your Heart Out (September 4, 2012)
Tips for signing along with familiar songs you regularly sing and/or the silly songs you make up.

Sing it Loud. Sing it Clear (September 12, 2012)
Tips for practicing signs by modifying the lyrics to familiar children's songs.

Music for Signers (September 19, 2012)
Some of my favorite published musical collections to sign along with.

Sing and Sign When You Read (September 26, 2012)
Practical ideas for how to incorporate signing into your reading time.

Sing Me a Story (October 8, 2012)
A listing of the melodies that match up with the books in my Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series.

Sign When You Play (October 17, 2012)
Practical ideas for incorporating signs into your playtime activities.

Put it to the "Wheels on the Bus Test" (October 24, 2012)
Reassuring responses to common questions and concerns about signing.

Label When You're Able: Let Your Words Be Your Guide (November 8, 2012)
Practical ideas for providing sign labels (in addition to verbal labels) for key activities or objects.

Label When You're Able, Part Two (November 14, 2012)
Responses to common questions about how to provide sign labels in context.

Focus on Key Words Your Child Wants to Say (November 19, 2012)
Practical ideas for providing additional focus on key words in sign language.

In addition, click here for a collection of wonderful resources that my publisher, ABDO Publishing Group, has put together, including Sign Language Glossaries, Story Time Activity Packets and Sign Language Event Guides.

I hope this is a helpful summary. In future posts I will move on to a more general forum of common Q and A's, more tips and tricks, and new topics! If you have particular questions you want answered, post them here or send me a private message, and I'll respond to your questions in a subsequent post.

Happy Thanksgiving!  (Here are links to the signs for Turkey and Thanksgiving!)

November 19, 2012

Focus on Key Words Your Child Wants to Say

Photo Courtesy of Pfau's Photostream
Back in August, I started a series of posts summarizing the key learning points I cover in my infant/toddler signing workshops. I began by saying that signing opportunities come in three main contexts: When you sing and play with your baby,  when you verbally label routine activities and objects throughout the day, and when you focus on key words that are important to you and your baby. This posts brings us to the area of focus signs.

In my experience, many signers start (and end) with focus signs. They choose one or two or three key words and sign the dickens out of those until their baby starts signing back to them. Although this is certainly one way to sign with your baby, I find that it is not the most effective or natural way. This approach to signing is more intentional. It tends to be more goal-oriented and steeped with expectation (and as a result, frustration). When we focus deliberately on key signs, it's not unusual for the signing experience to feel like work instead of feeling like a way to connect with and engage our baby. If we begin (and end) with focus signs, our signing is more likely to feel like a technique we are doing on our baby, versus a way of communicating with our baby.

Okay, so I'm biased. I can't hide that...But let me also say that it's not that I'm against signing key focus words. Rather, it's that I think it's more effective (and more natural) for focus signs to be a sub-set of the words you sign when you sing and play and when you label, versus the only words, or even the main words, you sign.

The truth of the matter is that focus signs are essentially power labels. Ideally, focus signs grow out of the foundation you've built through singing, playing and labeling. Here's how it all ties in together: If you sign when you sing and play, you'll build an ample signing vocabulary. This means you'll be able to casually and naturally provide sign labels for the activities and objects in your daily life. Your focus signs will be those activities and objects that you hear yourself labeling most often, over and over again. So essentially, your focus signs will emerge naturally by signing when you sing, play and label.

That said, people tend to appreciate guidelines, so here goes:

Consider the signs you incorporate when you sing, play and label. Of those, choose 1-3 words to work on.

Focus on words your baby would say if he or she were able to clearly verbalize wants, needs, or interests. You baby's first signs will be words he or she is motivated to say.

For singing and playing, I've said, "Use 'The Wheels on the Bus' as your guide."  For labeling, I've said, "Label when you're able, let your words be your guide." For focus signs, think about how we teach babies to wave "bye-bye" or do "high-five's," and use that experience as your guide. By this I mean, consider what it's like when Grandma leaves your house after a visit. She stands by her car and waves emphatically at your baby.  You hold your baby on your hip and wave to Grandma. You take hold of your baby's arm and wave it wildly at Grandma. Grandma waves some more. One day, your baby pumps his or her arm up and down. It might not look the same as the way you wave, but you recognize it as your baby's early attempt at waving. You and Grandma cheer with enthusiasm.  You document it in the baby book. You call people and let them know that your baby has started waving! It's a big deal.

Photo Courtesy of Pfau's Photostream
Focus signs work in much the same way. You bounce your baby on your lap. You're baby giggles wildly, so you know he or she is having fun. During a bouncing break, you say and sign, "Do you want MORE bounces?" Your baby squeals with excitement and wiggles.  YES exudes from his or her body. You bounce more. You break again. You sign "MORE bounces?" again. You hear more squeals and see more happy wiggles. This scene replays many times day after day. One day you see your baby bring his or her hands together during this routine. It might look like a clap. It might be a pointer finger tapped on the palm of the opposing hand. It might look like an accident. Assume it's intentional. Cheer with enthusiasm. Respond with more bounces. Document it in the baby book. Be on the lookout for more signs to come, because, I'm telling you people, the fun has just begun!

I hope that was helpful! Thanks for sticking with me for this series of posts summarizing the key learning points in my signing workshops. Next up, I will post a summary of links for the full series of posts on this topic, then I will move on to a more general forum of common Q and A's, more tips and tricks, and new topics! If you have particular questions you want answered, post them here or send me a private message, and I will respond to your questions in subsequent posts.

November 14, 2012

Label When You're Able, Part Two

Last week I wrote about signing in context, or labeling. This week I'll expand on that post by addressing some of the most common questions I receive about this topic:

Q "When should I sign a particular word?"

A. Typically the questioner does not mean at what age or stage should a particular word be signed, but rather, when, during the communication interaction, should the word being signed be signed? And this is where I say, relax.  I find that when people ask this sort of question, it is because they are over-thinking or over-stressing about signing.

Think about how naturally we gesture by pointing when we say something like, "It's over there." We don't over-think or over-stress about exactly when to point, we just point as part of our communication interaction.  The same goes for signing. If you are saying to your baby, "It's time for a diaper change," at some point in the conversation, sign diaper or change. You will do enough diaper changes over the course of the weeks and months to come, that your baby will soon get the idea that the sign for change (or diaper) goes along with the experience of getting a clean diaper, and that that sign is different than the one you do before bath time or the one you do when you get a cracker out of the snack bag.

Q. "My hands are usually full when I'm trying to sign with my baby. Is it okay to sign one-handed?"

A. My first answer to this question is, "Yes, it is fine to sign one-handed." I find that the more comfortable and familiar you are with signing (typically because you've been singing and signing regularly), the more naturally you will sign, even when your hands are full.  Just like you might make a one-handed gesture to indicate something was huge, likewise, you can make a one-handed version of a sign for cookie, by making the cookie cutter motion in the air vs. on your inactive hand.

That said, I find that when people say that their hands tend to be full when they are trying to sign with their baby, it's usually because most of the signing is happening during a task time, vs. during a fun, playful time, or during a more relaxed, conversational time. For example, when you are trying to change your own baby's diaper, depending on the baby, that can be very much like a wrestling match. That might not be the most ideal time for you to be chit-chatting and signing about the event!

However, when there is another nearby baby getting their diaper changed, you can easily take the time to talk about that, and add the sign for change or diaper to that conversation (i.e. "That baby is getting her diaper changed, isn't she?")  Likewise, you can make the sign for change when you're reading a book about a baby getting a diaper change, or when you are playing with dolls, and you change the doll's diaper.  All of these interactions are opportunities to sign with your baby, and they are opportunities that occur outside of the experience of changing your own baby's diaper. I find that signing in these non-task contexts builds up your muscle memory for signing, and the next time you have your baby in your arms and you are heading in to do a diaper change, your hands will start to form the sign, somewhat automatically, as you say the words, "Let's get your diaper changed." When you've internalized signing to the point of signing automatically, it seems more natural to join the verbal word with a sign, even if the sign is only being done one-handed.

Q. "What are the best words to start signing?"

A. I encourage people to start by signing words that they suspect their baby most wants to say. By this I mean, if your baby is really into balls, learn the sign for ball and incorporate the sign into your communication.  If your baby loves trains, get to know the sign for train. If you eat a lot peas, and your baby seems to like peas, learn the sign for peas.  To repeat my earlier point, label when you're able, let your words be your guide. Make a point to listen to yourself talk. Listen to the words you say frequently. You will notice that you tend to talk about the things around you, the things you are doing, and the things your baby is interested in.   These are the first words you should learn the signs for and incorporate into your conversations with your baby.

In summary:

Casually provide sign labels throughout the day.  This will get easier and easier as your own sign vocabulary grows.  Learn new signs as you need to through online dictionaries, sign language glossaries, books, videos, and instructional workshops.

Provide sign labels in “real” contexts and during surrogate contexts, such as when you read and play.

Place emphasis on those words you use a lot and those words that hold interest for your baby. Use your natural tendency to provide verbal labels as your guide. 

You can label with signs at any age!  

Next week I'll talk briefly about teaching key focus signs, then I'll move on to a more general forum of common Q and A's.   

November 8, 2012

Label When You're Able: Let Your Words Be Your Guide

If you've been trying out some of the signing tips and ideas in my earlier posts, you'll see that much of what I've discussed thus far involves signing without regard to context. We've talked about adding signs to the songs you sing with your child, and engaging in signing in the same relaxed and playful way that you engage in familiar finger plays such as "The Wheels on the Bus," or "Patty Cake." This helps you build your own signing vocabulary (and confidence!), and it gets your child into the habit of looking at your hands for meaning.

We've also talked about signing when you read and signing when you play with your child.

These ideas gradually shift us into the idea of signing within a context, or providing sign labels (in addition to verbal labels) for key activities or objects.

Think about how many verbal labels you provide in a day:  "It's time for a diaper change,"Let's put on your socks," "Yum. Yum. You like peas, don't you?" "Let's put some carrots in our grocery cart," "Here's your water," "Where is the ball?" "Look at you dancing!" "It's bath time." The list goes on and on. When we talk to our baby throughout the day, we are labeling the world around them.

To add sign labels, you simply add signs that go along with the words you are saying. In my last post, I discussed the idea of putting your questions about signing to "The Wheels on the Bus Test" when you are singing and playing. When you are labeling, I like to say, "Label when you're able. Let your words be your guide."

What I mean by this is to listen to yourself talk. Notice the words you tend to say over and over again, (such as "It's time for a diaper change, or "Let's put on your socks,"). You don't need to sign every word you say, nor do you need to sign every word you happen to know a sign for in a particular sentence. But as you talk, when you hear yourself saying a particular word that goes along with an activity or object you doing or seeing, add the sign for that activity or object (or make a note to look up the sign, links to online sign language dictionary can be found here), so you can add it the next time you say the same words).

Just like I don't subscribe to the notion that there should be a lot of rules (or shoulds and should-nots) when you sign as you sing and play, likewise, I don't subscribe to the notion that there are necessarily right and wrong ways to sign in context. That said, lots of people have questions about this aspect of signing, and I will aim to address those in my next post. If you have particular questions of your own, note them in the comment section below, and I will include your questions in my discussion!

October 24, 2012

Put It to The Wheels on the Bus Test

I don't think there are right or wrong ways to sign with your baby, just like I don't think there are right or wrong ways to sing and play "The Wheels on the Bus."  Certainly there are right or wrong ways to make a particular sign, but in terms of the "how to incorporate signs into your communication" aspect of signing, I don't subscribe to the notion that there are right or wrong ways. When people ask me, "Is it okay if I....?" or "How do I....?" or "What if I....?" my standing answer is, "Put it to the Wheels on the Bus test." By this I mean, how would you answer the exact same question if you were singing and playing, "The Wheels on the Bus" (or "Patty Cake" or "Peek-A-Boo") with your child?

For example, it's fairly common for class participants to ask if they should sign with their right or left hand. I explain that although most ASL dictionaries are written for right-handed signers, you can choose your right or your left hand to be your dominant or active signing hand. That's typically the hand that moves (or moves the most) when you're making a particular sign. When I answer this question, inevitably someone will ask, "But what if I sign with my right hand and my parenting partner signs with his or her left hand?"

So, let's put that to The Wheels on the Bus Test. What hand do you "Beep-Beep-Beep" with? What hand does your parenting partner "Beep-Beep-Beep" with? Is it the same hand? Whether your answer is yes, or no, the more important additional question is, "Have you ever contemplated this issue before?" (this issue being the possibility of you beep-beeping with a different hand than someone else who loves your baby...) I suspect no, and I encourage you to likewise not spend time contemplating who signs with what hand with your baby. Your baby will not likely develop his or her own hand dominance until at least preschool or kindergarten. Your baby will see you signing (or waving, or pointing or writing) with your dominant (most comfortable) hand, and when they begin signing (or waving or pointing or writing), they will typically begin by alternating between hands...i.e. whatever hand doesn't have a cookie in it, is the hand they will likely use to sign MILK (or, if they're really enthusiastic, they will probably sign milk with both hands, simultaneously!)

Okay, so here are a couple of other  common questions: "Is it okay to manipulate my baby's hands to help him or her make the signs?" or "Should I make the signs on my baby's body?" Let's put these questions to The Wheels on the Bus Test: Do you ever hold your babies hands/arms and help them go "round and round" or "swish, swish, swish?" Do you ever "Beep-Beep-Beep" on their nose? For some of you, the answer is, "Absolutely!" For others, your answer might be, "It depends." And it does depend...Some babies like to have their hands manipulated and/or have signs made on their body. Other babies do not.

My daughter used to hold her hands out towards me and say, "Help, Mommy," if she was trying to make a complicated sign. My son used to arch his back and say, "By myself!" if I tried to manipulate his hands to help him form a sign. Two different kids. Two different personalities. Two different preferences. Two different answers. How did I know what to do? I paid attention to their nonverbal queues. If your child doesn't like having his or her arms moved for them in the "round and round" motion for "The Wheels on the Bus," they likely won't like having their arms moved for them to make the handshapes for signs. If your child giggles when you Beep-Beep-Beep on their nose, they will likely giggle when you make the sign for APPLE on their cheek.

So, what are your questions about signing? How would you answer these same questions if you were singing/playing "The Wheels on the Bus" instead of signing? Generally speaking, I hope your answers give you peace of mind and help you relax and have fun with signing. If you're relaxed and having fun when you're signing, you'll likely sign more often than if you are feeling stressed or rule-bound while you're signing. If you're signing regularly, your baby will catch you signing more often and will eventually start copying you. Once they develop the cognitive and physical skills to copy you, they are just steps away from being able to sign independently to communicate their wants and needs. And then the real fun begins!

Stay tuned. More on this later!

October 17, 2012

Sign When You Play (More Quick Ideas for Getting Started with Signing)

Have you ever wondered, "Why isn't my baby signing back to me yet?" There are several possible reasons, but sometimes it's simply because you haven't yet introduced signs that are of interest to your baby. Another possibility is that the bulk of your signing has been in task mode. Do a quick self check: Do you predominantly sign "more" and "all done" during mealtime, and reserve the signs for "change" and "sleep" to diaper changes and nap times? If your answer is, "Yes," I'll encourage you to shift your attention a bit, so that the majority of your signing happens when you are singing and when you're playing.

The last several posts I've talked about the value of singing and signing. Equally effective is signing during playful times.  I find that parents and caregivers are more successful at signing with their babies if the majority of their contextual signing is introduced during play time. That doesn't mean you shouldn't sign during mealtime or during diaper changes and before nap time. It just means that ideally those aren't the only times (or even the majority of the times) you are signing about those topics.

When we're focused on a task (such as getting our baby fed, diapered or down for a nap), we are generally more hurried and focused on getting the task accomplished. Mealtime can be stressful when you're trying to get your baby fed and get a little morsel of food into your own mouth as well! Adding an additional "task," such as signing, requires a conscious effort to add an "extra" step to an already stressful process. As a result, it might feel like work, or like a technique we're trying out on our baby versus a way of communicating with our baby.

When signing is emphasized during playful times, your habits around signing will be established more deeply, and you will be able to more easily incorporate those signing habits into task activities as well. This is because when signing becomes a habit, it becomes routine and natural to join your words with a sign. Think about how you wave and point without giving it any thought. You body just naturally adds those gestures to your communication. When you build the foundation for signing through playful activities, your body will likewise more naturally gesture with signs when you use those same words during task activities.

Here are some examples of how you can incorporate signing into playtime:

*Bounce your baby on your lap. Stop every now and then and ask your baby if she wants MORE bounces.

*Tickle your baby or blow raspberries on your baby's belly. Stop every now and then and ask your baby if he wants MORE tickles or more kisses.

*Put your baby in the wind-up swing and say, "It's time to SWING."  When the swing stops, say, "would you like to swing some MORE?" When you can tell that your baby has grown tired of swinging you can say, "We're ALL DONE swinging."

*Blow some bubbles.  When the bubbles die down, ask your baby, "Do you want MORE bubbles?"

*Play some music.  Say, "Let's turn on the MUSIC." Once your baby starts movin and groovin, say, "Look at you DANCING!"

*Cover up a favorite object such as a ball or a book or a doll. Sing "WHERE is the BALL" to the tune of the "Farmer in the Dell" (i.e. "Where is the ball? Where is the ball? Hi Ho the Derry-O. There is the ball").

*Put a baby doll or teddy bear into the high chair or booster seat. Playfully interact with your child and the baby doll. When you feed the baby doll, you can say, "Do you want more BANANAS?" or "Oh look, the BABY likes her bananas," or, "Oh, it looks like the baby is ALL DONE," as you are cleaning up the baby doll and taking her out of the high chair.

*Use one of your old (clean!) diapers from when your baby was younger, and playfully interact with your child to give a teddy bear a diaper change. Say, "It's time for the teddy bear to get his DIAPER changed."  When the diaper change is over, say, "We're ALL DONE with your diaper change, Teddy."

*Get a box of bandages and examine your legs and your baby's legs to find some owies.  When you find a bruise or a shaving nick, or a scratch, say, "Uh Oh. Mommy has an owie," (and sign HURT). Toddlers love to help you cover your legs with bandages!

The more you sign during playtime, the more familiar you will become with a wide variety of signs, and this will help you become more comfortable incorporating signs during routine tasks. In addition, your baby will have more and more opportunities to notice you signing. Your baby will come to realize that your hands are full of meaning...and theirs can be, too!

October 8, 2012

Sing Me a Story (More Quick Ideas for Getting Started with Signing)

If you've seen me read any of my books, you know I like to sing them to kids, not just read them. Many of my signing stories came to me as songs that grew into stories. It's nearly impossible for me to  just read them!

When I'm invited for guest appearances at conferences and book signings, I'm often asked, "What tune were you singing to when you read us that story?" This post is for those of you who are wondering just that! Beware, some of the tunes are loose have to be creative and embellish as you read and sing. Here goes:

Series One:

The Best Day in Room A:  The Twelve Days of Christmas. This one works best if you skip the rhythm/pattern change that typically happens in the fifth verse in this song. 

The Big Blue Bowl:  This was originally written to fit to the tune of "The Green Grass Grows All Around," but that tie-in was lost as the story changed during the editorial process. I find that this one works best when I simply read it--but I like to add to the fun by inviting participants to chant along with the "fill it up, fill it up, fill it up" refrain, which kids REALLY get into.

Famous Fenton Has a Farm:  This one fits nicely to "Old MacDonald." Invite participants to chant, "Yee Ha Hee Ha Ho!" with you (instead of the more traditional E-I-E-I-O) and they will have a grand time!

The Nest Where I Like to Rest:  This story fits the structure of "The House That Jack Built," so it does not go with any particular song that I know of.  I invite children to "sniff" like the rat, "honk" with the goose, and say "Hey!" with the boy when I read this one. I also wear my silly chicken hat when I read this story. 

See the Colors:  This one fits beautifully to "Oh My Darlin, Clementine." I CANNOT just read this story. I wrote and revised the verses for this one while my own kids were still small enough to hold in my arms. I have very fond memories of sitting with my then preschool-aged daughter while holding my then infant son, singing various "under construction" verses of this story for nightly tuck-ins.  This book still holds a very special place in my heart. Here is a clip of me singing this story.   

Silly Sue:  This one fits nicely to the tune of "Skip to My Lu." I embellish some of the words when I read it to get into the song (i.e. I tend to chant, "And I say...." right before I read the pages such as "Slide, slide, slide Silly Sue....").  I also invite the kids to chant along and sign "Silly" with the refrain, "That Silly Sue." This one is really fun to sing and sign. Try it! 

Watch Me Go:  This one fits with the tune, "She'll be Comin' 'Round the Mountain."  I invite kids to echo "Watch me Go!" "Don't you know?" and "Here I go!" for extra fun!  I sang this story at my very first book launch event. One of my favorite memories is of my local library's meeting room full of loving friends and supporters, singing and signing along with me.  

Wear a Silly Hat:  This story originally fit loosely to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It" but the text of the story doesn't include the full level of repetition of that song.  I usually read the first line of each page, then I sing the remaining lines to the "Happy and You Know It" tune.  I use hats for props to add to the fun. I love using hats to dress up my stories!

Series Two:

A to Z Sign With Me: I had the tune of the Alphabet Song (aka: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) in my head when I wrote this book. It fits loosely...very loosely. Also, you have to repeat the melody as you proceed through the story, because the story is longer than the song. I find that I don't usually sing this story because I like to read it with a pace that enables me to really emphasize each featured alphabet word. 

Four Season! Five Senses!: This story is a series of four poems. They were not written with a particular melody in mind. (Interesting tidbit: I wrote these poems while sitting in a hotel room near Disneyland. I stayed back in the hotel to tend to my son, who was sick with the flu, while my daughter and husband spent the day at the California Adventure theme park. My son slept most of the day. I stayed by his side and wrote poetry). This continues to be one of my favorite books. I especially adore the artwork. 

Hip, Hip, Hooray! It's Family Day!, Opposites Everywhere, and Shape Detective: These stories do not fit to a particular song, but each have a strong rhythm, and they are fun to chant!  

One Trick for One Treat: This story does not fit to a particular melody, but in the early stages of development, it did. The story originally began, "The first time the bell chimed..." and it fit with the rhythm of the Twelve Days of Christmas. After many, many revisions, the original structure was set aside and the current, chant-able rhythm prevailed.

So Many Feelings: I LOVE to sing this story. You can sing this story to the tune of "On Top of Spaghetti." Kids catch on within a few pages and they start to sing or hum along. FUN!

There's a Story in My Head: This story is all rhythm and no melody. I remember distinctly when the rhythm for this story came to me. I was on the airplane (flying back home from the above mentioned trip to Disneyland). I felt the rhythm of the story tapping out of my fingers before I had the words. 

So there you have it. I hope you have fun singing the singable stories and chanting the chantable stories!  Do you know what I would LOVE? I would love it if readers would capture digital video footage of themselves reading, singing (or chanting) and signing these stories. Any takers? How cool would it be to have a bunch of videos of people reading/singing/chanting my stories on my YouTube channel? Think about it...Give it a try...I can't wait... 

September 26, 2012

Sing and Sign When You Read (More Ideas for Getting Started with Signing)

Story Time with Signs & Rhymes
One of my favorite things to do is sing and sign when I read to kids. I routinely model this for teachers, librarians and parents when I facilitate in-service training sessions and literacy programs at community education events. After a guest appearance at a conference facilitated by one of my heroes, Nellie Edge, I was encouraged to capture a video of me singing and signing my stories with children. For logistical reasons, this still hasn't happened (lining up cameras and the necessary parental permissions during the same timeframe I've managed to fit in a fresh haircut and wardrobe check has not worked out quite yet).

However, after many gentle nudges from Nellie, I did finally film myself reading my book SEE THE COLORS. Nellie references  the book and video clip in her annual list of favorite new books (you have to scroll down a bit on her page to find it).

The video, (here is the YouTube link), is not nearly as fun or inspiring as it would be if I had a group of engaged kids surrounding me, but it does provide an opportunity to illustrate some of the ideas I encourage you to try at home or in your own classrooms. It provides an example of how the story might be signed if I were reading to a group of children, for example in a classroom or library story time session.

For family story times, cuddle your child(ren) on your lap.  Hold the book in front of you.  You can make some of the signs like "blue" or "green" in front of the pages of the book (instead of near your shoulder, where these signs are typically made). You can also make some of the signs on your child's body (for example, tug on your child's tee shirt for the sign "white," or move your pointer finger across your child's eyebrow for the sign "black").  If you prop your child more sideways (vs. forward) on your lap, you can make the signs on your own body, and you will notice that your child will look up from the book to watch your hands and face, where the signing action is taking place.

For some kids, you can also use their hands to make the signs. For example, I use the sign for "baby"(or for older kids, "child") to convey the repeating phrase "little one."  Try cuddling your child's arms into the "baby" motion to make this sign.  For the sign "brown," you can move your child's open hand down their cheek to approximate the motion.  Some kids really like having their hands manipulated in this way; others don't.  My daughter used to hold her hands out to me and say "help" when she was having trouble articulating a more complicated new word (such as "helicopter"). My son, on the other hand, would arch his back and aggressively move his arms and hands away from me saying, "by myself!" if I tried to manipulate his hands to make a sign.  Let your baby be your guide!

And be relaxed about it.  Don't be afraid to put the book down from time to time.  You can set it on your lap, or you can set it down next to you. You might find that you and your child(ren) get sidetracked talking back and forth about different signs.  That's fine.  The whole point is to interact and to explore language and literacy together!

I also encourage you to use books that you are really familiar with, books that you and your child really enjoy, and books that feel rhythmic and musical to you. For example, children's classics like "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" and "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" aren't officially singable, but they have a rhythmic quality to them.  Chant and sign along with those stories!

Many of my books from the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes Series can be sung, not just read. In my next post, I'll provide a summary of the familiar tunes that match up with my singable stories. In the meantime, please feel free to share other books you like to sing and sign along with in the comments section below!

September 19, 2012

Music for Signers (More Ideas for Getting Started with Signing)

I love to incorporate songs and music into my signing classes. In my last two posts, I've shared ideas for   singing and signing with songs you already know and modifying familiar songs so they work well for signing. Today's post is about signing along with music that was written for signers.

Here are some of my favorite musical collections to sign along with:
Signing Time  offers a wonderful collection of music and videos that are developed specifically for young signers.  Some of my favorites from this collection include the Silly Pizza SongThe Rainbow Song, and Leah's Farm.

You can learn the signs that go along with these songs by watching the Signing Time videos on demand, and for book lovers, you can
learn the signs for colors and the signs for farm animals, in my books,



Other fun options include Lora Heller's Stinky Feet CD,

                                                       Nellie Edge's ABC Phonics 

     and one of my longstanding favorites, Sign2Me's Pick Me Up.  

My school-aged kids STILL love it when I put on this CD.  Their favorite cuts:  "Please Change my Diaper" and "More Milk." It's hilarious to watch them yak it up and mimic the deep voice in "More Milk" and listen to them crack up at the silly lyrics in "Please Change my Diaper."  

These musical selections ought to keep you busy singing and signing for awhile. Next post I'll talk about singing and signing when you read. In the meantime, let me know if you have other musical selections to suggest!

September 12, 2012

Sing It Loud, Sing It Clear (More Ideas for Getting Started with Signing)

Do the lyrics, "Sing it loud...sing it clear...Don't worry if it's not good enough, for anyone else to hear..." take you anywhere? These lyrics (and this "Sing" montage) take me straight back to my childhood. I grew up on three episodes of Sesame Street a day. All it takes is a few opening notes or some key lyrics to jog my memory of the classic songs from my youth.  Music is like that.  It gets into our bones. It sticks with us. It helps us learn. Singing is my favorite way to help kids (and grown ups) learn and practice new words in sign language.

In my last post, I talked about signing along with songs you already know, and making up your own songs to sign along with. Building on this idea, another option is to modify the lyrics to familiar children's songs. Take for example, "Here we Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush."  In its original form, it's not that meaningful of a song to sign along with (re: How many babies do you suspect are clamoring to convey the words "Mulberry Bush" to their caregivers? None that I can think of!).  But the song has a nice rhythm to it, and it's got built-in repetition, so it makes a great "shell" from which you can create some customized ditties. For example, "This is the way we ask for milk, ask for milk, ask for milk.  This is the way we ask for milk, when we we want some milk" or "This is the way we ask for more..." or "This is way we say "all done...."

There are limitless possibilities to the songs you can modify for this purpose.  Start with the songs that your parents sang to you when you were a child.  The songs that will work best will be the ones with melodies that you are personally familiar with 2) that have a nice rhythm, 3) built-in repetition, and 4) that you can bear to sing over and over again.

To get you started, some of my favorite melodies to sign along with include:

-"If You're Happy and You Know It" (try: "If you're hungry (thirsty/sleepy) and you know it...ask to eat (drink/sleep...)")

-"Did You Ever See a Lassie?" (try: "Did you ever seen a carrot (cracker/apple) yummy as this carrot (cracker/apple...?)" or "Did you ever see a monkey (tiger/lion) as silly/noisy as this monkey (tiger/lion)?")

-"Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me" (try: "Shoo cat (dog/bird) don't bother me...For I belong to my mommy/daddy.")

-"Skip to my Lu" (try: "Eat, eat, eat little one...Eat little one, it's yummy," or "Sleep, sleep, sleep little one...Sleep little one, it's nap time.")

-"London Bridge" (try: "Baby girl/boy put on your hat (socks/shoes), put on your hat, put on your hat. Baby girl/boy, put on your hat, for your mommy/daddy.")

At the risk of being redundant, the public library is a great place to visit if you don't have a ready supply of tunes in mind. Look for CDs that have some of the above songs listed, and you will be sure to get a collection of several songs that will work.  And of course, for those of you who have digitized your musical lives, iTunes likely has a ready supply of kid tunes to choose from.

Alas, don't feel like you have to limit yourself to children's songs! I once had a class participant ask if it was okay to sing and sign along to Michael Jackson melodies at home. (As I recall, the class spontaneously broke into a round of  "Just Eat It" to the tune of "Just Beat It.")  My advice to her was that any song would do as long as she and her baby were having fun.

This leads me to my last point for today's post: Do be sure to choose songs that your baby responds to and seems to enjoy. My youngest kiddo taught me this lesson the hard way.  He was just a few months old when he started (vigorously!) signing "all done" whenever I'd start singing to him. At the time, my go-to song was "Old MacDonald Had a Farm."  My older child LOVED that song when she was a baby and toddler.  Our Old MacDonald had everything you could imagine on his farm (...and on that farm there were some  You name it, if I knew the sign for it, we sang about it on that farm.

When my son came along, I continued the practice of singing and signing to the "Old MacDonald" tune.  What I (eventually!) came to realize is that my son couldn't stand that melody. I'd start singing, and he'd start signing... "all done." I was heartbroken.  Here I was teaching and consulting about the wonders of singing and signing, and how your baby loves the sound of your voice, blah, blah, blah... while back at home my own baby was telling me to STOP SINGING ALREADY, in the one way he knew how: signing "all done."

Thankfully, I came to understand that what he was really saying was, "Stop singing THAT song."  Once I realized that he was more of a "Wheels on the Bus" kinda guy, we were back on track, and singing and signing was fun for everyone.

I recently told my son that I often share this story with my class participants.  His immediate reaction was, "I can't stand that song!"  I guess some things just don't change.

If you have your own picky-listener, stay tuned.  In my next post, I'll share some of my favorite recorded music that has been developed specifically for signers. In the meantime, don't hesitate to share some of your own favorite melodies to sign along with in the comments section below.

September 4, 2012

Sing Your Heart Out (More Ideas for Getting Started with Signing)

(Photo Credit: San Diego Chorus' Facebook Page)
My mother-in-law has a song for everything. Seriously. If she is buttering bread, she has a song in her repertoire that goes along with that activity.  It's amazing. Do you know someone like her?  Is that person you, or someone else who loves your baby? If so, your family has a head start on signing!

Just give some thought to the songs you already sing. What words can be signed in those songs?  Use an online sign language dictionary to help you gradually build your ASL vocabulary so you can sign along with those songs.  Keep it simple. Don't attempt to sign the whole song. Just add one or two words per song or verse.

Likewise, think about the words you hope your baby will start signing soon. Do you know any songs that include those words? Start singing (and signing) those songs! Make up new verses to add more of the words you want to sign. Heck, make up completely new songs if that's your thing. The point is, lean into your tendency to sing. Just add a sign or two to each song or verse that flows from your mouth and you will be well on your way.

In the beginning, sing and sign without regard to context or literal connections.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the mere act of singing and signing will help you build your signing vocabulary, and it will get your baby into the habit of looking at your hands when they are moving.  These two steps are half the battle! 

Over time, look for opportunities to sing songs that do connect with what you are doing.  If you're getting ready to change a diaper, sing your favorite diaper ditty, and sign "diaper" or "change."  If it's bath time, sing your favorite bath time song and add the sign for "bath" (and then sing an "all done" song when the bath is over).  If the cat or dog walks into the room, sing the "cat" or "dog" verse for  "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," and add the sign for "cat" or "dog."  You get the idea.

In my next post I'll share some ideas for modifying familiar songs as well as some of my favorite songs/music developed for signing.  In the meantime, feel free to add some of your own favorite songs to sing and sign in the comments section. 

August 27, 2012

Quick Ideas for Getting Started with Signing: Sing and Play

As usual, my signing classes will be back in full swing this fall. No worries if you can't wait until the next class begins or you can't make it to an upcoming class. For the next several weeks I'll use the blog to share some of the key learning points I incorporate into my Infant/Toddler Sign Language classes. Don't hesitate to post your questions, and I'll do my best to address those as well.

I find that signing opportunities come in three main contexts: when you sing and play with your baby, when you verbally label routine activities and objects throughout the day, and when you focus on key words that are important to you and your baby. Today we'll begin the first of several posts on singing and playing!

In my experience, singing is the easiest and most natural way to sign with your baby. Your baby loves the sound of your voice (even if you don't!), and babies love finger plays (such as "Patty Cake," "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," and "The Wheels on the Bus"). If you already do finger plays and lap games with your baby, you already know how to sign with your baby--you just need to learn a few new gestures (that happen to be ASL). I'll provide more specifics about that later.

If you haven't yet started doing finger plays or lap games with your baby, don't wait any longer. It's time to get started! And, if you don't know any finger plays or lap games, (or if you just want to go to the best place on earth for babies and their parents) get ye to your local library! Ask at the library's information desk or ask the youth librarian for the library's "Book Babies" or "Tiny Tots" story time schedule. (Yes, libraries have STORY TIMES for BABIES!) These story times are a great way for you to learn some finger plays and lap games, and it's a great way for you to make new friends with other parents in your community. (Oh, and while you're there, you can borrow some of my books in the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series!)

If you are based in Oregon or SW Washington, here are links to just a few of the wonderful library systems in the Portland/Metro area:

Multnomah County Library
Washington County Cooperative Library Services
Fort Vancouver Regional Library District

Or, find a library in Oregon near you by clicking here.

If you already do finger plays and lap games with your baby, you have a jump start on signing.  Take the same relaxed and carefree approach that you take when you engage in a playful round of "The Wheels on the Bus" or "Patty Cake" with your baby.  When you're signing, instead of incorporating random gestures (like moving your arms back and forth for "the wipers on the bus") to symbolize words that don't really matter to your baby, (like "swish, swish, swish"), sing songs that will enable you to incorporate key words in sign language to symbolize the words and ideas your baby is motivated to express.  For example, sing, "If you're hungry and you know it, ask for more," to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It." Add more verses and more signs over time (i.e. "If you're thirsty and you know it ask for a drink," "If you're full and you know it, say all done").

Don't worry at this point about connecting the songs and signs to any specific context.  Just like you sing "The Wheels on the Bus" when there is no bus in sight, and you play "Patty Cake" without any flour in hand, you can sing and sign without worrying about props or context (for now!).  When you sing and sign just for fun, you will gradually build your own signing vocabulary, (so it's available when you do want to use it in a particular context).  Likewise, your baby will enjoy the playful attention of singing and signing, and will learn to focus on your hands (which is a necessary element of signing).  This will lay the groundwork for more context-based singing and playing, labeling and focusing.

My next posts will build on this topic. In the meantime, feel free to post your questions and/or your favorite songs for signing.

August 18, 2012

Dishonesty is Distracting (aka Imagine, Part 2)

My last post was an ode to Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer.  I found it to be a stimulating and thought-provoking read (but recently discovered that it had been recalled by the publisher due to the disappointing revelation that the author made up some of the quotes referenced in the book).  I ended my last post with plans to revisit the many passages I had marked during my first read of the book, to reflect on what those words could (still) inspire in my own creative life.

Newsflash: Dishonesty is distracting. I turned to page after page of marked text, rereading the passages and reflecting on the wisdom in the words.  I found that the wisdom did not grab at me as it had the first time I read the words.  Maybe this is because I was no longer lounging on the beaches of Greece, as I had been when I first read the book.  Maybe the ideas simply lost their freshness upon review.  What I can say for certain is that over and over again, I found myself wondering if other quotes were true or fabricated.  I found myself wondering if the research presented was accurate and fairly portrayed.  I found myself wondering if the examples given were full of half truths, or made up altogether.  I did not find myself swirling in the excitement of my own creative energy as I had the first time I read the book.

As I recognized the significance of my doubts about the validity of the data, I shifted my attention to direct statements by the author.  I figured I could at least trust that he wouldn't make up his own quotes.  Sadly, even his own voice had lost its luster for me.  I wasn't as excited by his research summaries or his observations.  The author had lost my trust, and as a result, his words became less meaningful.

So, what is my (new) takeaway?  How can these revelations connect to my own creative life? I think it comes down to the words truth and honesty.  Trust and authenticity.  When I write my own stories (and teach my own classes), I want to do so in a way that honors the implied contract I have with my readers (and students).  I want my readers to get lost in the magic of the words on the page. I want my students to get lost in the magic of learning. I want my readers and students to know that my facts are accurate and my examples are real. I want my rhyme patterns to be dependable and trustworthy.  I want my characters to ring true and my voice to be authentic.   I want my standards to remain high, no matter what markets I am writing for, no matter what venues I am teaching in.  My readers and my students deserve my best work, always.