ASL University

 Sign Language in Early Intervention:

Eileen Hitzeman

March 9, 2015


Sign Language in Early Intervention


 The ability to communicate, to make our wants and needs known, to interact with the world around us is an essential part of life.  For those with disabilities communication skills can expand opportunities to be a functional member of their community.  Establishing language/communication skills at an early age is a vital foundation for success in life. 


In 1986 Congress established the program of Early Intervention for infants and toddlers from birth up to their third birthday to address the needs of those with developmental delays and handicaps as part C of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  On September 6, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education announced the release of the final regulations for the Early Intervention which included emphasis on quality early learning for the birth to three population with disabilities. (IDEA 2004: Building the Legacy Part C) [1]


As reported by the Data Accountability Center, in 2011 over 330,000 eligible infants and toddlers birth through age 2 received Early Intervention services (Center for Parent Information and Resources March 2014) [2].  Of those enrolled in Early Intervention it is estimated that almost fifty percent receive Speech/Language therapies.


From birth babies learn language and communication skills.  During the 24-36 month age span language development soars.  For the child with a delay it is equally important to put strategies into place to promote language development.  Many Speech/Language Pathologists use various methods to build vocabulary and communication skills.  Sign language is one of those methods.


Sign language can reduce frustration by allowing preverbal children a way to express their wants and needs.  In two of the most common developmental delays, Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Sign language is often used as part of speech/language therapies.


When a child with Down Syndrome is not developmentally ready to use speech there will be a period when there is a need for a transitional language system.  The most frequently used transitional language systems are sign language (total communication in which sign and speech are used to teach language), Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), communication boards, and electronic communication devices. (Kumin, L. 2012) [3].


According to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute's Center for Autism Research, there is no way to predict when or if a child will talk so it is important to give them a means of communication.  Having an alternate way to communicate often decreases behavior issues because the child can communicate their wants and needs.  There is also research that shows alternate forms of communication can help with verbal language [4].


Utilizing sign language as a therapy tool can also help improve visual processing, fine-motor coordination and planning, and reinforces the spoken word with the symbol. For children who learn tactilely, signing is an excellent way to incorporate this sensory method into the therapy session. Signing can strengthen both hemispheres of the brain, which is vital for learning. (Myers, C. 2005)(5)


Sign language and fingerspelling can improve language, vocabulary and reading skills.  "Sign language supports oral language development through repetitions of words or concepts using multiple modalities. When a word is spoken and signed, the child hears and sees the word. The child is actually receiving two repetitions of the word through two modalities. When a child says and signs a word, he is imprinting the word or concept through auditory and kinesthetic means.  Multi-modality repetitions strengthen a child's recall and enhance the development of oral language for reading comprehension.  The use of signs accommodates a wide range of learning styles. The benefit of using this system is the representation of information through seeing, hearing, and movement. The more pathways created in the brain, the stronger the memory." (Edmunds & Krupinski 2005)(6)


Sign language is static giving the child more opportunity to store it in long-term memory.  Language input and output that is paired with sign promotes faster, more organized and durable language development (Robertson 2007). (7)


There is much debate about the effectiveness of visual language and/or sign language in Early Intervention programs.  You can easily find empirical evidence on both sides of said debate.  I believe we must also consider anecdotal evidence when choosing sign language as a therapy component in Early Intervention.


The anecdotal evidence I present here comes from two sources.  First, I will share my own experience with our daughter who has Down Syndrome. Second, I will discuss my observations from working in an Early Intervention program for the past seventeen years.  While this evidence is not scientific or measurable it can be helpful along with empirical evidence when considering the use of sign language in an Early Intervention setting.


When our daughter was born with Down Syndrome we immediately enrolled her in our local Early Intervention program.  I had been studying to become an interpreter for the Deaf and had a functional knowledge of American Sign Language.  The Speech Language Pathologist assigned to us encouraged us to begin using sign with our daughter from the beginning.  By the time she was eighteen months old she had a fifty word sign vocabulary.  We continued using sign with her as her speech developed.  She used it well into her elementary years as a tool for clarification.  She also found fingerspelling to be very useful on spelling tests in elementary school.  We also believe her knowledge of sign language helped her with reading.  As our daughter's speech developed she dropped the signing but still retains some sign vocabulary.  She graduated from her community high school with a fifth grade reading level (considered functional) and maintained a 3.4 GPA through high school (revised classes).  We believe much of her academic success results from a good language/vocabulary foundation built through the use of sign language in her early years.


In addition to my experience with my daughter I have observed many children in Early Intervention have successful outcomes using sign language.  I work as a support person with Speech Language Pathologists providing Augmentative Communication resources (sign language, pictures, technology) to families with children with various speech delays.  We have found using sign language is a very useful tool to help the children communicate while working on speech as well.  What I have observed is reduced frustration and increased communication in many of the children.  Our program averages 300+ children per year many with speech delays.  While sign language does not work in every situation we have seen many use it successfully.


When used with other methods sign language can be an effective tool for building vocabulary, speech and communication skills in the birth to three (Early Intervention) population.






1.  U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs' (OSEP's) Part C of the IDEA .  IDEA 2004: Building the Legacy Part C.  Retrieved 2/2014

2.   Center for Parent Information and Resources Early Intervention, Then and Now. A legacy resource from NICHCY.  Retrieved 2/2015


3. Kumin, Libby  National Down Syndrome CongressSpeech and Language Resource Guide For Parents of Infants and Toddlers with Down Syndrome: Birth To First Word     Retrieved 10/2014


4.  The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 2014  American Sign Language Retrieved 3/2015


5.  Meyers, Carol.  ADVANCE for Occupational Therapy Practitioners March 2005, Vol. 21 •Issue 6 • Page 39  Baby Talk with a Twist  Retrieved 3/2015


6.  Edmunds, Marilyn and Krupinski, Debra  PBS TeacherSource:  From The Start:

     The Issues: Using Sign Language and Fingerspelling to Facilitate Early Literacy Skills May 17, 2005 page 2


7.  Shari Robertson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP  ASHA Convention, 2007  USING SIGN TO FACILIATE ORAL LANGUAGE: BUILDING A CASE WITH PARENTS   Retrieved 10/2014









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