Linking the Baby Signs® Program and Literacy Development
Catherine Brown, M.A., CCC-SLP
The buzz word is literacy. All around we hear about the importance of literacy. Parents are told to read, read, read to their children – without much instruction on the “do’s and don’ts” of doing so. We hear about the “No Child Left Behind” program and how government funding these days usually means proving that your program relates to literacy development. We hear more and more about dyslexia and the hope that neuroscience will be able to identify new remedies. With all this emphasis on literacy, it seems particularly important to review the connection between literacy and the Baby Signs® Program.
Although we traditionally think of literacy as the ability to read, it is now recognized that the skills needed in the technologically advanced world that we live in go beyond reading. The National Institute for Literacy actually defines literacy much more broadly as “an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society.” Somewhat more narrowly, the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 defines reading skills as “a complex system of deriving meaning from print that requires all of the following:
• The skills and knowledge to understand how phonemes, or speech sounds, are connected to print
• The ability to decode unfamiliar words
• The ability to read fluently
• Sufficient background information and vocabulary to foster reading comprehension
• The development of appropriate active strategies to construct meaning from print
• The development and maintenance of a motivation to read.”
Whether defined broadly or narrowly, literacy is now recognized to start well before the school years. In fact, there is growing appreciation for what are now referred to as emergent literacy skills. These include a variety of behaviors that research has shown predict success in learning to read. And many of these, it turns out, are helped along by signing. Some examples:
Verbal language skills
Research shows that children who are strong in verbal language skills have an easier time learning to read. Reasons for this relationship include the following: Knowing lots of words helps children comprehend what is read, guess at words that are difficult to decode, explain problems they are having, and understand explanations and instructions teachers provide. And how does the Baby Signs® program figure in all this? The NIH-supported research published by Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn showed that infants exposed to signs during infancy had better receptive and expressive language vocabularies by the time they were two and three years old. In fact, the infants who learned to use signs as infants had verbal IQ scores that remained high well into the elementary school years.
Familiarity with print and enjoyment of books
Ask any Baby Signs® family and you are likely to hear that their children love books. The reason is because the ability to use signs enables babies to take an active role in book-reading. Instead of simply listening passively as their parents name things on the page, signers can provide the names themselves long before they would be able to do so with words. And the praise they receive in return makes them eager to keep exploring new books. In fact, parents even report that their toddlers sit down and read their books by signing to themselves!
This term refers to recognition of the fact that words are comprised of separate sounds (or phonemes)—that “cat,” for example, is made of “c” + “ah” + “t.” Because individual letters stand for individual sounds, it’s easy to see why knowing that words are composed of separate sounds is important to learning to read. And one of the best ways to help children develop this awareness is through the use of rhymes. When a child becomes familiar with a rhyme (e.g., Jack and Jill when up the hill), he or she learns that words can differ in how they begin but be the same in how they end. This realization, by definition, involves recognizing that words are made up of individual sounds. Voila! Phonological awareness.
And what’s the role of the Baby Signs® Program in developing this skill? One of the most popular ways that parents teach signs is through rhymes and songs, like Twinkle Twinkle, Itsy, Bitsy Spider, and the many songs and rhymes created specifically for the Baby Signs® Program. These rhymes and the rhythm that we expose children to while we are singing and signing help children develop this crucial emergent literacy skill.