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Signing with Children

geraldinesphoto.jpg In April 2009, Milkshake Montessori Nursery School introduced the Signs for SuccessTM methodology and practice into the setting through the "Signing with Babies and Young Children" accredited CPD course. The achievements made by children, parents/carers & early years practitioners have been impressive, rewarding & inspiring.

Signs for SuccessTM is concurrent with the principals of the Montessori philosophy of education. It reaffirms a child's innate desire to learn and notes that a child's learning capacity is enhanced when provided with a prepared environment under the guidance of a trained early years practitioner. Indeed, Signs for SuccessTM emphasises how a child's development can be transformed through the simultaneous use of signed and spoken language. This benefits hearing, hearing-impaired and non-hearing children. It offers a combination of theory and practical activities which are differentiated for babies and young children and diverse schemas of learning. The programme is varied and stimulating through the use of puppets, signing books, posters, supporting DVDs and ideas for supplementary activities. Central to the benefits of the programme is the social and emotional, language and cognitive development of the child.

Social and Emotional Development

Infants are born with an instinctive desire to be acknowledged and feel safe and secure (Erickson, 1950). A child's emotional development reflects their feelings in response to changes in their close environment and their needs being met. Signs for SuccessTM allows infants, young children and their parents/carers/early years practitioners to communicate and respond to these issues from an early age. Notably, a baby's motor skills develop before speech. From approximately seven months a baby is able to make gestures through hand signals (e.g. for 'drink') whereas the spoken word occurs much later at approximately eighteen months. Signing gives a window into the infant's mind and personality as they can communicate outside of the here and now.

As a result, the simultaneous use of spoken and sign language can strengthen the bond and sense of trust between the child and its carers. Notably, Bowlby (1969) emphasised the importance of attachment theory and its integral role for a child's emotional development. Spoken and sign language activities can be done with the child's primary attachment (mother) or secondary attachment (carer/practitioner). Signing promotes positive interaction strategies such as following the child's focus of interest, making eye contact, speaking slowly and using simple key words. As a result, the child's feelings of belonging, being close, acknowledged and accepted are strengthened as it receives audible and visual interaction and praise. Signing can be learnt quickly and thus is very empowering for the child - especially for children with English as foreign/additional language (EFL/EAL) and children with special educational needs (SEN).

Concurrently, a child's social development is also supported by the programme. Signs for SuccessTM offers a range of stimulating activities (songs/rhymes/ stories/imaginative role-play) that promote one-to one and small group activities with the scope of them being child initiated/led. Notably, Vygotsky and Cole (1978) emphasised that how a child learns to live with others is a process of socialisation. Social exchanges through spoken and sign language can be beneficial for a child in learning the rules of social behaviour through turn-taking in play activities. A minimum of two individuals interact by looking, listening and responding. This can help lower levels of frustration of being misunderstood and can also be used for positive behaviour management techniques. An adult can 'turn-off' their voice and through concise sign language a child clearly understands what is being communicated

Language Development

Closely linked to a child's emotional and social development is the child's need to communicate (Chomsky, 1972). However, there are various forms of communication of which only 20% is verbal. Indeed, 'language' is composed of sounds, grammar, semantics, pragmatics, written code and visual signs.

From an early age children seek to find their own 'voice'. Notably, babies innately communicate by rooting with their mouths, making eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures and pre-speech vocalisations (Skinner, 1953). Signs for SuccessTM supports these natural forms of communication. By using universal signs (British Sign Language) alongside verbal language, meaning and value is given to invisible spoken words. A child will try to simultaneously imitate spoken and sign language. As a result language acquisition, embedded with understanding, may occur at a faster rate (Acredolo and Goodwyn, 2002).

Indeed, Piaget (1959) and Vygotsky (1978) note the importance of adults scaffolding language acquirement. Children exposed to sign language not only have earlier speech development but additionally broader vocabularies and use of grammar. They are often more confident in questioning and problem-solving. Similarly, Signs for SuccessTM introduces early phonics through finger-spelt letters and words. This picturesque language aids the child's comprehension of the association between sounds and letters. The range of activities also helps promote literacy development through the range of written text materials (books, posters etc). These simple and levelling activities can be invaluable for children and parents/ carers with EAL/EFL as they are learning together. It can also aid children with SEN and be useful in the early detection of possible language delays/disorders.

Cognitive Development

A child's cognitive development is the acquisition of conceptual knowledge and understanding. It is a product of reasoning and making sense of the world - inclusive of memory, logic, problem-solving and intelligence (Shayer and Adey, 2002). Signs for SuccessTM emphasises that as a child concurrently uses spoken and sign language this can have a positive impact on brain development. As the child looks, listens and responds, new neuron connections in the brain are made and reinforced. The brain is intellectually stimulated through a range of sensory stimuli offered by the programme's varied activities. This aids cognitive acceleration and many children can understand and sign a word before they can say it.

Similarly, Signs for SuccessTM supports a variety of schemas of learning. Indeed, Gardner (1983) highlights 'multiple intelligences': kinaesthetic; visual and auditory. The programme is inclusive of these forms of learning. Clues are given from all directions, as the child hears the spoken word, sees the visual sign and responds through physical signs (fine motor skills) and the spoken word. This is of particular benefit for children with EAL/EFL and SEN as it aids focus and concentration and gives meaning to communication.

In addition, Vygotsky (1978) noted that at this stage of learning a child's 'zone of proximal development' can be extended. Through high-quality adult interactions development can be broadened beyond that which could be achieved alone. Signs for SuccessTM offers activities where children can engage in sustained shared thinking through in-depth one-to-one or small group discussions with their peers and adults to further their understanding. As a result, children often become more confident, self-assured and often have higher IQs. They become more engaged and motivated in independent learning.


An evaluation of the Sign for SuccessTM programme has confirmed its benefits to early childhood development. Children at Milkshake Montessori are more self-confident, self-disciplined and energised in their learning. Furthermore, the programme works in harmony with the Montessori ethos of education. Children are enjoying learning through their senses and having the freedom to develop as spontaneous and creative individuals. The programme allows the individual child to guide their own development and enjoy both the process and result of learning.

The programme addresses the holistic development of the child, inclusive of their social and emotional, language and cognitive development. It is an inclusive programme which encompasses all schemas of learning and children with EAL/EFL and SEN. Signs for SuccessTM strengthens the triadic partnership between the individual child, parent/carer and early years setting. It provides a firm foundation for future learning and development.

Signing with Babies and Young Children EDEXCEL accredited course and 6 credits at Level 2 or 3 is available from www.signsforsuccess.co.uk or email kathy@signsforsuccess.co.uk or phone 0208 274 8027 for further information.


Acredolo, L. and Goodwyn, S, (2002) Baby Signs (London: McGraw Hill Higher Education)

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss (New York: Basic Books)

Chomsky, N. ((1972) Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

Erickson, E. H. (1950) Childhood and Society (New York: Norton)

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (2nd edition) (London: Heinemann)

Piaget, J. (1959) The Language and Thought of the Child (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)

Robinson, K. (1987) Children of Silence: The Story of Sarah and Joanne's Triumph over Deafness (London, Gollancz)

Shayer, M. and Adey, P. (eds) (2002) Learning Intelligences (Buckingham: Open University Press)

Skinner, B. F. (1953) Science and Human Behaviour (London: Macmillan)

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Thought and Language (Cambridge MA: MIT Press)

Vygotsky, L. and Cole, M (eds) (1978) Mind in Society, The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

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