Angela Youngman finds out about a scheme to improve communication in early years settings through the use of sign language

Why do children of deaf parents often have advanced English skills? The reaosn is believed to lie in the use of sign language. By having to watch and concentrate on understanding signs, children become more focused; their ability concentrate is increased, thus leading to a better understanding of English.

As a result, a new sign language programme has been developed to raise language and literacy skills among hearing children. It is suitable for use at all ages including nursery and infant. Creator of the programme is Kathy Robinson, who herself had two deaf daughters and had noticed how quickly they picked up English skills after being taught sign language. ‘Signing works because you are physically performing language and this helps retention and understanding,’ comments Kathy. She developed the programme with the aid of five primary schools in Nechells, Birmingham following a successful pilot project in a Cleveland primary school.

It is claimed that the programme has immense benefits for all concerned. It helps behaviour control; encourages children to look, listen and learn. Children enjoy participating, and it instils self-discipline. Classroom noise levels are reduced, as the children have to switch off their voices and sign. It also improves self-esteen, as children feel empowered to make signs and communicate; especially if English is not their first language or they have some other form of communication difficulties. ChHildren learn faster and retain the knowledge much longer. Professor Tim Brighouse, commissioner of London schools, says: ‘It capitalises on recent research showing the signinficant benefits of sign language if used in the early stages of a child’s life. As a multi-sensory tool, sign language has immense appeal.’

The programme

So how does the programme work? Signs for Success comprises an manual and a DVD, as well as training schemes for teachers and staff. This focuses on learning British sign language, which can then be taught to children. Even just learning one sign a day soon mounts up. Often signs are taught during the daily assembly the whole school tries to use the sign during the day. The first signs taught are usually commands like ‘quiet please’, ‘listen’, and this immediately gets children’s attemtion. Linked in to this is WOW, a signing literacy programme for use in nursery classes and primary schools. A large poster shows the signs for every letter of the alphabet and there are distinctive pink and yellow gloves to encourage children to follow demonstrations and practise signing the letters.

Children learn to finger spell quickly, often before they can read written words. It also provides a common language for children whose first language is not English. They can more quickly undestand signs than the spoken word. According to Kathy, learning the finger-spelling alphabet can be done in less than an hour. Children enjoy writing in the air. It helps their memory skills because they are physically doing an action, while learning. Quite often, parents see their children signing at home and ask for some tuition themselves. If can help non-English speaking parents communicate with teachers about their children or gain confidence from basic social communication with staff.

Introducingt signing into the classroom helssp behaviour management as Kathy explains: ‘When teachers switch off their voice and start signing children have to concentrate more. Many teachers use the signs for “sit down and quiet please”‘ at transition times. One school, which introduced this system, found that children became disciplined and quiet, ready to learn, whereas before they had been noisy and unsettled. Children have to look at the teacher to see what the signs say. It is something that strikes a chord which children respond to.’

Helping with communication difficulties

Teachers who have used the system are extremely impressed and speak enthusiastically about it.

Julie Bryant, assistant head teacher of Allenscroft Children’s Centre in Birmingham, uses signing with children from two to four and a half years old. ‘It is an integral part of what we do. It enables us to have a universal communication system with all children whatever their ages. Many of the children attending the centre have communication difficulties and have English as their second language. We have used signing since September and it has inspired staff and parents. It helps us get quieter times – switch off your voice and sign. Very young ones are able to communicate their needs. There was one little girl who could only say “I can’t do it”: we taught her to use the sign for “please help” and it helped her develop and move on. Some children find it hard to say “sorry” ; but find they can sign it more easily. We often sign and speak at the same time; it does help the children learn.’

Joanne Raybould, head teacher of Mere Green Combined School, said: ‘We have found that it has to be a whole-school effort. We do it from nursery to Year 6 and have been signing for two years now. Even dinner ladies and the school secretary learn some basic signs so they can communicate too. Children pick it up very quickly, usually quicker than adults. Signing is part of our normal school day, helping with writing during curriculum time. We have brought it into our nativity and Mother’s Day activities.’

‘It has helped those with communication difficulties and has been particularly important with early years and transition years. Signing has worked because children have grown up with it, especially in phonics work, reading and writing. Nursery children finger spell and identify the letters much better. We use it alongside other methods like Vcop and BigWriting. It is a gut feeling – signing just works best, espeically when you see children with communication difficulties learning more and having their self-esteem raised.’

Further information

To enquire about training, contact Signs for Success, PO Box 249, Twickenham TW1 3WY