Category Archives: Sign Language

Unsolicited Signing Time Commercial

What Rilla’s saying at the end there is “With Alex, Leah, and Hopkins.” Totally unprompted, I swear.

When I watched our Christmas 2005 video
the other day, the bit that gave me the biggest pang of nostalgia was
watching Wonderboy signing away. He hardly signs at all anymore, now
that he talks so much. I’m thrilled with his verbal speech, but I
really miss the signing. It’s funny to think back on how much ASL dominated our lives
(in a rich and satisfying way) for a couple of years there, and now our
use and pursuit of sign language has slipped to the back burner,
becoming something of a hobby rather than a daily necessity. Jane still
wants to certify as an ASL interpreter someday, and every few months we
pull out our materials and learn another chunk of vocabulary and
grammar. There are community college courses we might take next year.
It’s a beautiful and important language, and I don’t want to let it go,
even if our boy doesn’t need rely on it for communication the way he
once did.

And of course the Signing Time
DVDs remain in great demand with my little people, as the video above
attests. With Rilla, we’re seeing all the benefits of sign language we
saw with the first three girls—because rudimentary ASL was a part of
our baby & toddler life from the get-go, long before we had a
Wonderboy or knew he had hearing loss.

Here are some old posts singing the praises of our favorite kiddie DVDs:

It Must Be a Sign

Something Else to Buy Instead of Curriculum: Signing Time

Hard-of-Hearing Kid Posts

Still trying to tidy up my archives. Here are the most substantive posts I’ve written about Wonderboy’s hearing loss:

The Speech Banana (hearing loss diagnosis)

Getting Ear Molds Made
(a photoessay)

Practicing for Hearing Tests
(games to help preschoolers in the sound booth)

Speech Therapy at Home

Visual Phonics

Newborn Hearing Test Advice

Sign Language (how awesome it is)

Learning ASL as a Family

Fun with FM
(heh heh)

Expressive and Receptive Language

Signing with Babies, My Favorite Topic

After watching Rilla, Monica asked:

I was wondering what the research says about how hearing kids learning
sign affects (if it does at all) their verbal speech acquisition. I
assume it is like my 4yo learning romanian and english. his english is
miles ahead of romanian, but learning romanian hasnt affected his
english at all. just wondering if you had read anything about this.

That’s a very good question! As a matter of fact, teaching babies to sign does seem to have an affect on their verbal language development—a good one. I’ve read about at least two separate studies whose results demonstrated that children who used sign language as babies tend to score higher on IQ tests than non-signers. There was a study at the University of Alaska and another one at Davis, I believe. One of them tracked kids through age 8 and found that the baby-signers wound up reading at earlier ages and showed higher cognitive and verbal skills.

But honestly, even if that weren’t the case I’d be on board with baby sign just for the way it smooths the toddler years. You get to bypass that stage where the little one knows exactly what she wants to tell you but doesn’t have the words for it yet, leading to the intense frustration that often winds up in a meltdown.

We’ve used baby sign with all our babies, even before Wonderboy came along. When Jane was about a year old, Scott’s boss’s wife very thoughtfully sent me an article on the subject, and I thought it was a brilliant concept. I taught Jane a few signs but we didn’t really take off with it until Rose came along. By then, Jane was three and had spent a lot of time in the hospital where she saw an ASL interpreter working with another patient. She was very interested and I was a young would-be homeschooling mommy eager to start strewing. 😉 I ordered this set of videos from the Timberdoodle catalog and we dove in.

The videos didn’t appeal to Jane—they are intended as tutorials for the parents of deaf babies and toddlers (and yes, how goosebumpy is that, considering what was in store for us a few babies later? God’s providence, anyone?) and the format is rather dry. But the vocabulary was perfect for daily use with my little ones. By the time Rose was 18 months, she was using about two dozen signs on a regular basis. I remember my relatives being impressed by her "please" and "thank you" at a family funeral. It is awfully nice to have "please" be a habit even before verbal speech begins.

When Beanie was a year old, Jane was six, and she and her friend Summer were both interested in learning ASL, so we watched the Sign With Me videos again. The little girls hung in there with the videos despite their dry format, and since they both had one-year-old sisters they really enjoyed being able to sign words like "yucky" and "silly." We started checking children’s sign DVDs out of the library, and Summer’s family came across Signing Time. That was the beginning of a beeyootiful friendship…

But we had no idea, then, how important the Signing Time series—or, indeed, ASL itself—would become to us. When Wonderboy was born I launched right into baby sign, same as always, having no clue that he had hearing loss. He was six months old before we started to seriously worry about his hearing, and it was another three months (after a set of tubes proved fluid buildup wasn’t the problem) before we got a firm diagnosis.

I’ve already written about what happened next
: how our family threw ourselves into the study of ASL for Wonderboy’s sake—and our own intense enjoyment. ASL is a beautiful, beautiful language. I wish I were more fluent—we are still plugging away on our own, but one of these days we’d like to study with a fluent signer. Jane hopes to become certified as an interpreter one day.

One piece of advice I have about teaching babies to sign is that it’s better to use real ASL (American Sign Language—if you’re American, that is) rather than one of the made-up "baby sign" programs. It seems to me that as long as you’re teaching signs, why not give the child a head start on a real second language? That’s one of the reasons I come out so strong for Signing Time (and no, I don’t get a commission from those folks)—it uses ASL.

We recently received the three latest installments of Signing Time, and once again I’m blown away by how fun and engaging they are, how practically useful the vocabulary is, and how effective the instruction is. Both Wonderboy and Rilla are doing a lot of counting these days, because there is a new "Counting Time" section of the show. The "ABC Time" segment has also been a big hit. The new editions are:

Move and Groove
Happy Birthday to You
Nice to Meet You

I really like the manners signs taught in that last one. I admit I still think the songs in Volumes 4, 5, and 6 are the best of the whole series, but once again the music is catchy and fun, and I honestly can’t say enough good things about these DVDs. Rachel Coleman and crew have hit upon a perfect format. In fact, I also think Signing Time gives reading skills a boost, since the English word for each sign is displayed next to the person demonstrating it.

Once Wonderboy’s hearing loss was diagnosed, we knew ASL would be an important second language for him—both as a bridge to verbal speech and as a backup for times when he isn’t wearing his hearing aids (or in case his hearing degenerates further as he gets older). There are different theories about signing with hard-of-hearing kids, and the "Total Communication" approach is what made most sense to us. His expressive and receptive language skills have consistently tested as at-or-above-age-level despite his "speech delay"—that delay is only with pronunciation. I am so grateful that we were already primed to jump into the use of ASL with him because of the "baby sign" trend. Some trends are sound and sensible. This is one!

Rilla Signs

Whoops, it’s all pixelly. No time to fix it now—back later!

UPDATED: Well, I tried and tried. I don’t know what’s wrong with the upload. Tried saving the movie file in various formats, but it comes out pixellated every time. Ah, well. She’s cute even in tiny dots.
Don’t ask me why I picked that particular moment to capture her litany of signs on film—a moment when one hand was clutching the treasured Pink Plastic Phone. She was there, the camera was there, and I’ve been meaning to record her baby signs for weeks. She is exploding with new ones every day, courtesy of her big brother and Signing Time. When Wonderboy and Rilla start signing to each other, I swear my heart turns to jelly. It’s sweeter than I could ever have imagined, back when she was in utero, kicking him through my belly as he signed himself to sleep.

Speech Therapy at Home

You know how enthusiastically I recommend the Signing Time DVDs as a resource for developing expressive and receptive language skills in young children, even those whose hearing is normal.

I’ve written, too, about how useful I am finding the Visual Phonics program as an aide to helping Wonderboy (3 1/2 years old, moderate hearing loss) expand the range of consonant sounds he can make.

I’m always on the lookout for useful resources, and this website looks promising: Mommy Speech Therapy. Posts range from practical advice for helping a child work on specific sounds to informative discussions about working with speech professionals, getting a diagnosis, and when to be concerned about things like lisps, pacifiers, and thumb-sucking.

Something Else to Buy Instead of Curriculum: Signing Time

It’s been a while since I wrote about Signing Time, but it occurred to me that I ought to mention it for new readers.

The Signing Time DVDs are a wonderful series of half-hour shows designed to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to children. Adults who happen to be in the room will find they can’t help but learn as well. The shows are delightful, with catchy songs, cute kids, and practical ASL vocabulary.

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote about Signing Time two years ago:

It’s hard for me to imagine our lives without Signing Time. Rachel
Coleman, the creator, and her daughter Leah, who is deaf, and Leah’s
cousin Alex, who is hearing, are practically part of our family.
"Rachel says" and "Leah says" are regular utterances around here. When
Wonderboy watches the videos, he looks back and forth from me to
Rachel, or from his sisters to the children, in awed delight. His hands
soar through the air, mimicking his beloved Rachel. He understands the
spoken words "Signing Time" even without his hearing aids in. (This is significant. He probably hears something like "eye-ee-eye," but he sure knows what it means.)

Rachel’s songs have become my personal highway belt-it-out favorites
(along with Marie Bellet and Bruce Springsteen), because she *gets it*
so completely. Leah was a year old when her parents learned she was
deaf. Rachel’s family’s love and occupation is music, and my hat is off
to Rachel Coleman for finding a way to so beautifully combine her old
life with her new one. Next to the joy she has brought my children, my
favorite thing about Rachel Coleman is her honesty in lyrics. Her song,
"The Good," expresses my understanding of motherhood better than
anything I’ve ever written: "Maybe we won’t find easy, but baby we’ve found the good."

Lately, Wonderboy has been re-immersed in these DVDs, asking for them daily. They are the ONLY television show he has ever shown any interest in watching, ever. When his sisters watch other shows, even cartoons, Wonderboy pays no attention. But for Signing Time, he is always all eyes and ears.

He has learned a ton of vocabulary from them, including (just lately) words like "remember," "learn," and "smart." I wrote a post for Bonny Glen last night about what a big deal it is that he is now beginning to grasp abstract concepts (such as remember, learn, and smart!). I really think ST has a great deal to do with that.

Rilla (she is 15 months now) is also enchanted by ST and enchants the rest of us with her perfectly scrumptious signing…when she signs "More," her daddy is putty in her plump little hands.

I also think the DVDs spurred Beanie along the path to reading when she was four and five years old. The English words for each sign appear on the screen before the signs are demonstrated, and those were some of the first words she learned how to read.

The shows are now being aired on PBS, so you can check your listings to see if it’s playing in your area. But the DVDs are a worthy investment (and they make great gifts). (And no, I don’t get a commission on these materials! I just love them.)

The first three volumes are simpler, younger, than later editions. Volumes 4-6 are my family’s favorites, except for Wonderboy, who prefers, ironically, the "Welcome to School" disk.

I see on the website there are two new "Practice Time" DVDs—I haven’t seen those yet.

We seem to have lost Volume 11, "My Neighborhood," somewhere along the trail during our cross-country trip. I’m thinking about re-ordering it, because I know Wonderboy would be very into the whole police- officer-firefighter theme right now.

There is also a Signing Time blog and forum.    

Speech Therapy and Visual Phonics

Monday morning, early. Wonderboy and I are off to speech therapy in a few minutes. His sessions have been going wonderfully well, and he is now regularly saying B and P sounds. This is huge progress; two months ago his only consonants were M, hard G, K, N, and an occasional H (as in "Huh moni!"—that’s "Good morning" to you conventionally annunciating types).

He loves Miss Tammie, the speech therapist, and our fun half-hours in her room, playing games, singing (okay, listening to Miss Tammie sing), putting the buh buh baby and the puh puh popcorn on the buh buh bus, and the puh puh puppy goes in the buh buh box.

His astonishing and rapid progress is due in large part, I believe, to Tammie’s use of something called "Visual Phonics." This language development program is actually new to Tammie, and we are more or less learning it together. The concept is truly brilliant. In Visual Phonics, a hand sign is assigned to every single sound. It’s like taking the sign language alphabet (with which Wonderboy is already quite familiar, though he does not sign it himself yet—when he was two, his favorite way to fall asleep was to watch my hand while I signed and sang the ABCs) one step further.

For example, there a sign for the B sound (buh). You use the ASL sign for B, a flat hand, fingers together and pointing up, thumb folded over the palm, and you hold that handshape up by your mouth, moving the B away from your lips as you say "Buh."

Not all the Visual Phonics signs are based on the ASL alphabet; the P has your fingers sort of exploding away from your lips. Really, it hardly matters WHAT the signs are; the brilliant innovation was in attaching signs to these small units of sound. There are signs for every speech sound, including consonant blends and all the vowel sounds, including diphthongs.

Wonderboy GETS sign language; he knows how to connect a sign to a spoken word to a thing or idea. He clicked with the concept of buh and puh immediately, just as soon as we turned the sounds into Real Things for him by giving them signs.

I missed a chance to go to a Visual Phonics training session last month, but I’ll share more about the program as I learn about it. It is primarily intended to help kids struggling with reading, but Gallaudet and other institutions have recognized its immense value in both reading and speech instruction for deaf/hard-of-hearing kids. I imagine Visual Phonics is going to be a big part of our lives these next few years, first in helping my boy learn to speak English, and later in helping him learn to read.

Buh buh brilliant. Also, buh buh bye—I’ve got to run or we’ll be late!

Now I Really Have Seen the Sweetest Thing Ever

A while back, when I was pregnant with Rilla, I wrote about lying next to Wonderboy at naptime and watching him chatter in sign language before he drifted off to sleep. "I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen anything sweeter," I wrote, "than a toddler signing ‘love.’ "

Well, I was wrong. Because what that boy is doing now is even sweeter still. He is teaching his baby sister to sign. He’ll touch her forehead with his thumb, fingers pointing up: Daddy. Same sign on her chin: Mommy. He strokes her cheek in our special name-sign for Rose, then takes her through the rest of the family. Jane, Beanie, baby.

He forgets to name himself. He’s too busy taking her chubby hands in his and trying to get her to cross her arms over her chest. She belly-laughs, beaming at him. She may not be able to sign it, but she knows he is teaching her love.

Tell it to Me, Baby

Wonderboy has speech therapy today. It’s been a while (we’ve been on a break since Rilla was born in April) and I’m eager to hear what his therapist has to say. He’s made big strides in both speech and sign since the last time she saw him. Between this and his newfound ability to get up, he’s had quite an amazing couple of months.

Every now and then, though, I step back from my up-close-and-elated view of his accomplishments and recognize that as far as he has come, he still has a long way to go. When I wrote that post about the speech banana last week, I ended the first draft with “The speech banana? It doesn’t scare me” and later amended that to “The speech banana? We’ll get there one way or the other.” Even the revised version was nagging at me as not being quite what I meant, and I realized that it’s because of the difference between speech and comprehension, between expressive and receptive language skills.

In that post, in those sentences, I was talking about receptive language, what he hears, sees, and understands. His receptive language skills are excellent, given the degree of his hearing loss. He understands a great deal of what we say. Sort of. Yesterday I was unloading the dishwasher and I took out a pot.

“Pot!” I said, showing him.

“Ah!” he agreed—signing “hot.”

Um. Not quite, but I like that he was repeating what he thought he’d heard. He can’t hear the P, see, and I hadn’t signed along with my speech that time. He really needs the visual cues for comprehension.

Despite hitches like this, he really is doing beautifully as far as receptive language goes, gaining comprehension at a lightning rate. And that’s what I was thinking of when I said the speech banana, and where his range of hearing falls on the chart, doesn’t scare me. He may not hear all the sounds, even with hearing aids, but if he’s understanding as much as he is at age two, I really believe he’ll have total comprehension when he’s older.

His expressive language ability, however: that’s another ball of wax. Here again, I’m not worried about his being eventually able to express his thoughts in one way or another. He is already using a combination of sign and speech to communicate, and thanks to the gorgeous marvel that is ASL, he can tell me most of what a two-year-old wants to say. And then with verbal speech, he seems to be smitten. He loves to talk, spends much of the day practicing words. Without his signs to cue me, I probably wouldn’t be able to translate them: to know that “ah ah ee ah” is caterpillar and “eh-ah” is elephant.

“Watermelon,” I’ll say, signing it also.

“Ah ah eng!” he’ll shout triumphantly, believing that he is echoing me completely. His hand comes to his mouth, three fingers pointing up like a W, tapping his chin—”water”—and then he pokes the back of his hand with a finger, like tapping a melon. Watermelon. Ah-ah-eng. I gotcha.

So, yes, when it comes to his slow crawl toward verbal speech I am comfortable, but not complacent. I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us if he is going to manage some of these consonants that elude his ears. We play babbling games; I press his lips together and say “buh buh buh,” trying to help him catch the B. He laughs, touches my mouth, says, “Uh uh uh.” So far, that B is nowhere on his radar.

But oh how he loves to experiment with talking! His joy is infectious; you can’t help but grin.

“Amp Ha ain ow-hie!” he tells me, his flying fingers clueing me in to his meaning. Grandpa train outside. Yes, buddy, you and Grandpa saw a train on your walk, didn’t you? Two months ago. That ain made a big impression on this little boy.

Big impression on my heart, too.

Learning American Sign Language

Amy asks,

Are you learning alongside your children and just signing as you can, or are you the “expert” in the family? How are you teaching yourself?

Actually, Jane is the family expert. We are all learning together, but she’s ahead of me. My downfall is fingerspelling—I can spell words quickly, but I can’t read fingerspelling to save my life!

We have used (are using) a number of different resources. The Signing Time DVDs are definitely our family favorites, and all of us—including Wonderboy—have learned dozens of practical, useful, everyday signs from those. A dear friend of mine gave us the four new volumes as a baby gift for Rilla. Such a great present!

I’ve heard there’s now a Signing Time show on PBS—anybody know if that’s correct?

Another video series we have learned from—and I get goosebumps over the fact that we actually went through this program long before Wonderboy was born, just because Jane and I both had an interest in learning ASL—is the Sign with Me program published by Boys’ Town. This video series (not available on DVD, unfortunately) is aimed at parents of deaf children, with the vocabulary consisting of words frequently used when talking to babies and toddlers. This made it a delight for then-seven-year-old Jane and four-year-old Rose, who enjoyed being able to sign important things like “yucky,” “sticky,” and “Cookie Monster” to their baby sister. After Wonderboy—and his diagnosis—came along, we watched the 3-volume series all over again. And somehow I think having gone through it once already, having watched deaf toddlers signing on the video, helped me take Wonderboy’s hard-of-hearing diagnosis in stride.

Last year Jane and I took a course online. Signing Online is geared for college students or older, but it worked out beautifully for us. Each lesson teaches conversational vocabulary through video clips. Again, we found the vocab extremely pertinent and functional: phrases like “What are you doing?” and “Of course!” really help you to converse in a natural manner. (There are a good many nouns, verbs, etc also.) It was a little pricey but we felt it was worth the expense. I think the full course is the equivalent of a semester at the university level.

However, there are some excellent free resources as well:

ASL Pro and ASL Browser are free online American Sign Language dictionaries with video demonstrations of each sign.

ASL University offers a free online tutorial with a combination of video clips and stills.

• I really have no excuse for my lousy fingerspelling skills—I could be honing them with this Fingerspelling Quiz.

• Finally, if your family has a deaf or hard of hearing member, you automatically qualify to use the Captioned Media Program’s free lending library of videos and DVDs—including a wide selection of ASL instructional materials. You can even view them via streaming video! Jane, Rose, Beanie, and I plan to begin a new series in the fall. (I just have to figure out which one.) CMP is funded by the Department of Education and has a library containing thousands of captioned movies, documentaries, and other resources. It’s an amazing program. Your tax dollars at work!