Signing up to give toddlers a voice

VIDEO Classes for babies to learn sign language are springing up across Suffolk. Are they just the latest craze from America, or do they sign the way to enhanced parent-children relationships?

By Tracey Sparling

CLASSES for babies to learn sign language are springing up across Suffolk. Are they just the latest craze from America, or do they sign the way to enhanced parent-children relationships?

Features editor TRACEY SPARLING meets the Suffolk mums spearheading a new way to communicate better with your child - before they can even talk.

IT could be Jessie Cat playing peek-a-boo from a brightly-coloured box, playing instruments, or taking a turn to pull a toy from the magic bag.

Whatever rhyme comes next, the toddlers are mesmerised. They crowd round teacher Hazel Stacey to take part, as the tunes take on a whole new dimension. They learning 'baby signing' which marries words and actions, and is today's new way to communicate with your baby.

“Pig” sings Hazel, curling her fist on her nose, then “cow” mimicking a bull's horns with a sweep of her hands. The 'Sing and Sign' programme which she teaches, gives gestures to help you communicate with your baby.

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Babies typically go through a very gestural stage between nine and 18 months and can learn more specific gestures to let you know what they want. There are about 100 signs relating to your baby's world, derived from the sign language for the deaf, but the experts say you only need learn a few moves to make a significant difference to your baby's ability to communicate, plus lessen your frustration and have fun.

Hazel started classes when her daughter Jasmine was six months old, when they moved to Stowmarket in April 2006 and couldn't find any sessions locally. Jasmine, now aged two, uses over 75 signs - which she learned before she could talk. Although she's now speaking well, she still uses the signs to enforce what she wants.

Hazel said the techniques are far more than just actions to nursery rhymes: “It can be very useful for your baby to tell you things, like their teeth are hurting, or they want medicine for example.

“Jasmine's speech is fantastic now- she's using five-word sentences and her health visitor said it was probably due to the signing. It's got to be. Even now though, if she wants to emphasise her words she'll use the sign too. Some babies do when they can't pronounce the words.

“The other night I heard her shouting and went to check on her and she was doing the sign for 'out'. I realised she'd pushed blue tack up her nose and wanted it out! If she hadn't done that sign I might have gone back to sleep and never known.”

She added: “My son is 11 weeks old now and I can't wait to start teaching him.”

Business partners Hazel and Holly Trueman run classes for under two year olds, in Stowmarket, Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Honington, and will start sessions in Stowupland, Hadleigh, Thurston and Long Melford in September.

Holly, a learning disabilities nurse, taught her daughter Pheobe baby signing by learning it from a book and found Sing and Sign when she had her second daughter Leila.

She said: “We both have young children and as most activities seem to stop for the summer holidays, we decided to run some summer sessions to give parents and carers of young children, somewhere to go and have fun and meet up with like-minded people.”

“It's lovely to see them clapping and giggling with delight, as they anticipate what is coming next.”

Hazel added: “The first week we had 14 families turn up so it's proving really popular.”

Mum Julie Brown, 33, from Offton, was attending with her daughter Lauren who is nearly two. Julie said: “We've been coming since Christmas and we really enjoy it. If there's something Lauren can't explain with words she communicates with signs.”

The sessions take place every Tuesday during August at the Hillside Community Centre in Stowmarket between 10am and 11.30am, for babies and children aged under two, and their siblings.

Local business Messy Mites is also there doing some craft and face painting with the older children.

There is an hour playtime with a drink and a snack, followed by a session of Sing and Sign at 11am.

The sessions cost £4.50 per family on the day or if you pay in advance it's £3.50.

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The next ten-week course starts the week beginning September 17. Anyone interested can attend a free taster session held the week beginning September 3 - find out venues and book a place with Hazel Stacey on 01449 777030 or 07739 330595.

N See the video of Hazel teaching some common signs, at www.eveningstar.co.uk.

Research into the use of baby signing took place in America in the late 1980s, in two camps; Joseph Garcia in one and Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn in the other.

Having worked as an interpreter, Joseph Garcia had a wide network of friends in the deaf community and he had seen how the hearing offspring of signing deaf parents began to use signing long before their spoken language developed. In 1987, Garcia began to research the use of American Sign Language with hearing babies who are exposed to signs regularly and consistently at six to seven months of age can begin expressive communication by their eighth or ninth month.

Drs Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn conducted a study funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, which showed that signing babies understood more words, had larger vocabularies and engaged in more sophisticated play than non-signing babies. Parents of the signing babies in the study noted decreased frustration, increased communication, and enriched parent-infant bonding. Signing babies also displayed an increased interest in books.

They revisited the families when the children were seven and eight years old. The children who signed as babies had a mean IQ of 114 compared to the non-signing control group's mean of 102.

Garcia, Acredolo and Goodwyn then set about pioneering the use of signing with babies.Garcia developed the 'SIGNwith your BABY' program while Acredolo and Goodwyn produced a book called Baby Signs.

The overall message in both is similar, although there is one main difference: Garcia promotes the use of a standard sign language such as American Sign Language or British Sign Language, whereas Acredolo and Goodwyn advocate parents and infants making up their own signs.

Source: www.literacytrust.org.uk/talktoyourbaby/signing

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