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!