Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

February 2, 2017

Teaching sign language to kids, tips from our speech therapy team

Image result for child sign language

The Child and Family Development speech therapy team helps young children who have expressive and receptive language difficulties.  Often, a speech therapist will recommend teaching some basic sign language to expedite improved communication.

Sign language does not hinder or replace verbal speech.  In fact, research shows it promotes verbal expression as well as understanding. Here is the rationale:

  • REDUCE FRUSTRATION: Have the child’s basic needs understood.  Children who have access to sign language (seeing it and/or producing it) are able to communicate at some level, even if not verbally, which usually decreases frustration for both the child and parent/ caregiver.
  • SYMBOLIC COMMUNICATION:  Sign can be important to young children with little to no speech because it is symbolic communication.  Kids are learning that they can label and request things and use the signs to communicate.  This is important and empowering.  Most kids do this with words.  Kids with a speech delay also need a way and this way can emphasize the ongoing acquisition of language skills and minimize even further delays in development.
  • SUCCESSFUL COMMUNICATION: When a child uses a sign, the listener can have a better chance of understanding the message and respond appropriately.  Kids need to feel successful and be encouraged to use their voice, even if the spoken word is not intelligible.  When understood (by sign, by voice, or both!), they are delighted and more likely to keep trying.
  • REACH THE VISUAL AND TACTILE LEARNER: Signs are multisensory and allow a child to both see and feel language.


  • Begin by demonstrating the sign.
  • Focus on 5 or less signs to start, using eye contact and saying the word aloud.  Try signs which can be used in various activities, such as “more” and “all done”.  
  • Repeat the signs consistently on a regular basis.  Encourage all people around the child to get involved.
  • Notice when the child mimics the sign and reward any attempt immediately.
  • If the child is learning how to imitate or is not mimicking signs on his own, physically help him make the sign (hand-over-hand).
  • Accept all attempts to use signs or language.  As long as the caregiver understands the meaning, it is success! 
  • Once a few basic signs are mastered, add signs that are more specific like “ball” or “eat”. 

There are 8 speech therapists on our team.  Read more about our services here.