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Preparing a child to use signs and to speak

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HealthWiki > Helping Children Who Are Deaf > Chapter 4: Basic communication skills > Preparing a child to use signs and to speak

While a child is learning that communication can make things happen, you can help her learn to understand words and signs. This will prepare her to use signs and to speak. To understand words and signs, she must first learn to pay attention to them and learn that words and signs have meanings. See Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 for suggestions to help your child learn the meaning of signs and words, and learn how to use signs and words herself.

Encourage your child to use hand movements

It is natural for a child to use gestures. Both deaf and hearing people already use their hands, bodies, and make expressions with their faces to communicate many things — both with words and without words. These movements are called gestures. We wave 'good-bye', shake our heads when we mean 'no', and we point.

Here are some examples of people using gestures:

A boy pulls on his mother's arm as she speaks with another woman.
This child is telling his mother that he wants something.
A man speaks to another man, who extends his hands and raises his shoulders.
Do you think it will rain?
This man is answering that he does not know.

Using gestures and signs does not prevent a child from learning to talk. Gestures help prepare a child to sign and speak. By using them he learns that he can send specific messages. For example, he learns that by shaking his head, he makes it clear he does not want to do something.

When you are with your child, expect him to use gestures, signs, or sounds. Your child needs to learn that his words or signs are important and that people react to his communication.

  • Use gestures often to send messages to your child.
A small boy approaching a woman with her arms extended.
Sunil's aunt is using a gesture.
A woman wags her finger as she speaks to a small boy.
Titus' grandmother is using a gesture
and word
  • Use the hand movements your child already uses to communicate. Many children begin to make up hand movements that name objects, people, or activities. If you watch for these movements, you and your family can begin to develop 'home signs'
    For example:
Tae Woo points at a bird. Tae Woo makes a 'flying'
movement to name the bird.
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Woo's mother uses his movement together with words.
A woman flaps her arms as she speaks.
A bird!

These signs are very useful for family members to communicate with each other but they may not be understood by other people. See more information on home signs.

  • Play games that help a child learn to point.
A woman pulls her baby's shirt over his eyes.
Where's mama?
The baby uncovers his face and points to his mother as she speaks.
Yes! Here's mama!
  • Draw pictures of different family members, and of the foods your child usually eats, the objects he likes to play with, and the clothes he wears. Encourage him to point to what he needs.
HCWD Ch4 Page 39-3.png
A small boy gives his mother flowers while she touches his cheek.

  • Help your child show what he feels by using gestures. He will remember the gestures you make and he will copy them.

Communicate with home signs

When a family has a deaf child, gestures help them begin to communicate with each other. But people need more complete ways to communicate than simple gestures. It would be best if you could ask a deaf adult to help you and your family learn the local sign language. But when you cannot find a deaf adult, you can make up and use 'home signs'— hand and body movements to express yourselves and communicate with your deaf child. Here is an example:

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Let's go (home)
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riding the mule
HCWD Ch4 Page 40-4.png

A Mexican man went to a village with his 6-year-old deaf son. When the boy wanted to go home, he pulled on his father's clothes. Then he used home signs that he and his family had made up.

HCWD Ch4 Page 40-1.png
This boy is pulling on his father's clothes, pointing and also using home signs ('riding the mule' and 'please').

This helps him communicate more than he could by simply using gestures.

Making up and using home signs is natural for families with children who are deaf or cannot hear well. Other deaf and hearing people will probably not understand the signs you have made up, but you can share them with friends just as you have done with the family.

Your child and your family are probably using gestures and home signs right now. It makes sense to continue doing this. Even though home signs do not make up a complete language, they can be very helpful for expressing simple ideas and are a good start to communicating. To learn more about teaching your child the sign language that is used where you live, see Chapter 8.

Making up home signs

Making up signs can be fun. Remember, it will take time and patience. But there will be big rewards as you and your child begin to understand each other. The section below gives ideas for making up signs. You can change them to fit the gestures, customs, and language of your area. You and your family will have many ideas for creating your own home signs.

Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

  1. Try to make signs look like the things or actions you want to communicate.
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-1.png
    This sign for 'baby' looks like someone holding
    a baby.
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-2.png

  2. Watch for signs your child makes up and use them. Many children, for example, make up signs to name people in the family.
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-3.png
    One child made this sign for her sister, Maria, who wears glasses.

  3. Use hand shape, position, and movement to make different signs. For example, when making the sign for drinking from a cup you could...

    Shape your hand like a cup. Then move your hand as if you were drinking from the cup. Or, if you wanted to sign about drinking from your hands, you could change your hand shape like this:
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-4.png
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-5.png
    drink (from a cup) drink (from hands)

  4. Try to create similar signs for actions or things that go together. For example:
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-6.png
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-7.png
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-8.png
    stand lie down jump

    You can also create similar signs for opposites, like 'push' and 'pull'.

  5. "Put the cup on the table."
    HCWD Ch4 Page 41-9.png
    cup cup on table
  6. Combine signs for objects, actions, and ideas to create sentences. A child who learns to put ideas together will develop more complete communication skills.

Examples of signs

These signs are from American Sign Language. You may find useful ideas for creating your own home signs from these signs, together with signs from your local sign language. These examples also show the many types of signs a child needs to know in order to communicate.

Signs for people

woman mother sister his, her, their, your
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direct sign
man father brother our
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Signs for things

water bread money
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house village,
school toilet shoe, sandal
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Describing signs

happy angry clean, nice dirty thirsty
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hot cold deaf red blue
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HCWD Ch4 Page 42-28.png

These examples also show how each sign can be changed and combined with other signs to give it new meaning.

Action signs

about doing something about thinking about relating to others
start stop understand forget like love
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use walk want
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help play
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Question signs

HCWD Ch4 Page 43-13.png
where why who no yes
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Signs about direction

under inside outside to "Throw the ball to her"
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Direct the
sign toward
the person or
HCWD Ch4 Page 43-22.png
ball throw to her

Signs about time

future "It's going to rain." past "It rained"
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future-sign rain past-sign rain
now "It is
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day night
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rain now

Encourage your child to make sounds

Children start using hand movements and gestures at an early age, and these can become the basis for developing communication and sign language. Children also start making sounds and noises at an early age, and these too can become the basis of communication and the development of spoken language.

Your child needs to learn that a person makes sounds with the lips, the tongue, the breath, and vibrations in the throat and nose.

Teach a child how sounds feel in his body, how to control his breath, and how to shape his mouth and tongue to make different sounds.

As you do the activities below, encourage your child to imitate you. It can be difficult for a deaf child to learn to make sounds. So when he does, let him know he has done something important.

A man signs to a small child lying on his chest.
La la la...
  • Lay your child on your chest. At first, let him feel your chest rise and fall as you breathe normally, without talking.

    Then talk or sing, letting your child feel the different ways your chest moves.
A small child touches his father's face.
Encourage him to feel the breath coming out of
your mouth, too.
  • In a natural voice, speak very closely (about 8 centimeters or 3 inches) to your child's ear. Speaking this close makes sounds easier to hear. Your child will also feel your breath as you speak.
A woman leans close to speak to a small boy who plays with bricks.
Manuel, what are you making with your

A man speaking as he carries his child.
Ba ba ba ba.
  • Make up sounds that are easy to see on your lips and repeat them often during the day.

  • Try matching a sound with an object.
A boy plays with his younger brother.
The boy and his younger brother speaking.
That's right, bang!
Praise your child when he makes a sound or says a word.

  • Try matching the length of
    a sign to a movement...
...or the length of a word
to a movement.
A girl bounces a ball and signs to her little brother.
Bounce... bounce... bounce... bounce.
The girl rolls a ball to her little brother.
A man talks to his daughter.
Yes, Emilia! You want some water?

Encourage your child to make sounds by praising her as soon as she makes a sound or says a word. Small praise is enough — you can use a smile as praise. Or point to your ear and say, "I heard you." Or nod or say, "Yes." Remember, it is very difficult for her to learn how to speak clearly and to communicate using spoken words.

Here are 3 ways to show your child you are paying attention to his sounds:

  • You can imitate him, showing that you enjoy imitating him. For example, if your child says "ooo" then you do that too, and wait to see if he does it again.
  • You can respond to his sound like it is the beginning of a conversation. Try to understand what your child is communicating and answer it.

A boy points to a bird while his mother flaps her arms.
Bird. That's a bird in the tree.
  • You can ask him questions about what he is communicating. It will encourage him to start a conversation. Besides, asking questions is a good way to encourage him to ask you questions.