Monday, October 28, 2013

Signing with Babies : An Easy Intervention

A new research study from Stanford University has revealed that low-income children have already fallen significantly behind in verbal vocabulary development by 18 months. In addition, Dr. Anne Fernald and her students found that this negative standing in comparison to higher-income children keeps growing. Specifically, by 2 years of age, the more affluent children had learned 30 % more words in the intervening months than had the lower-income children. One reason for the gap, research shows, is because low-income children simply hear fewer words directed at them each day—and learning a language depends on hearing that language!

Why is this early vocabulary gap a concern? One important reason is that vocabulary size at early ages is a good predictor of the ease with which children learn to read—and reading, by anyone’s estimation, is a key contributor to doing well in school. Another important reason is because verbal language is the vehicle by which children can ask questions and understand answers—also a key contributor to success academically.

Why do I bring his up in a blog about signing with babies? The answer is probably obvious to those of you who already enjoy signing with your child. Our NIH-funded research has shown that signing speeds up verbal learning, and one reason it does so, is because signing by a child pulls words from the adults around him or her, thus contributing to the overall number of words the child hears.

Think about how you would respond if your baby, during a stroll in the park, suddenly turned to you with a smile and signed “butterfly.” Would you ignore the sign or simply say “Yeah, that’s a butterfly”? Not likely. What is practically inevitable is a reply like “You’re right! That’s a butterfly! Oh look, there’s another butterfly. See how yellow they are?” etc., etc., etc. Without that sign, in contrast, parent and baby would be more likely to proceed in silence. In other words, signs enable babies to initiate conversations about things in which they are interested, and when one is interested in something, one is more likely to pay attention to what is said in return.

The larger point I’d like to make given what I’ve said above is that introducing low-income families to signing is an easy and inexpensive intervention that can help close the vocabulary gap. What’s more, signing would also bring lots of other proven benefits--like lower frustration and happier parent-baby interactions--benefits that make life easier and more satisfying to parent and baby alike.

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
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