Hesperian Health Guides

Using groups of signs

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HealthWiki > Helping Children Who Are Deaf > Chapter 8: Learning to use a sign language > Using groups of signs

You have been using groups of signs to communicate with your child. For a child to begin using groups of signs by himself, he needs to know several signs so he can put them together in different ways.

Ways to encourage your child to put signs together

When your child signs a single sign, encourage him to expand on what he says. You could:

  • expand on the sign yourself and encourage him to copy you.
A man and his son signing to each other beside a tree.
Can you sign
'big tree'?
Big tree!
  • ask a question and encourage her to answer.
A woman signs to her daughter, who runs toward her with a necklace in her hand.
That is a pretty necklace Maryam! Who gave it to you?

  • ask your child about what he is doing.
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A man and his son signing to each other.
What are you making, Minh?
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What are you making it with?
Sticks and leaves.

Here are some more ways to encourage your child to use groups of signs:

A woman signing to her son; her husband works in a field close by.
Tell Papa 'come eat'.
  • Ask your child to deliver a simple message.
A woman and her grandson signing to each other while the boy lies in bed.
Three goats were walking down the road... Who did the goats meet?
  • Try telling stories together. When your child has seen you tell a story many times, he may be able to sign part of it himself.
A woman speaking to her son as she ties an apron around him.
Now you be Mama for a while.
A woman and her son wearing an apron and signing to each other.
What does Mama do?
  • Encourage your child to take on different roles.

Use questions to encourage your child to think

Asking questions is a good way to keep communication going. Questions also encourage your child to think.

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take out
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  • Give your child tasks that ask her to think in new ways. Then encourage her to communicate about what she is doing.

A woman and her daughter signing to each other as the woman holds a bowl of beans.
Please take out the stones and throw them away. How can you tell which are stones and which are beans?
Beans are bigger.
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A woman signing to her child, who pulls a trolly loaded with heavy objects.
The wagon is too heavy to pull. What should we do?
  • When your child has a problem, ask her to tell you how to solve it.
  • When you notice your child is expressing an emotion, ask her to explain how she feels.

If she has trouble answering you, first think about whether she knows the signs she needs to answer the question. If she does not, help her learn these signs.

A small girl signs to her father as she points to 2 children that play together close by.
Li Ming, why are you crying?
I want
to play.

‘Why’ questions can be complicated and difficult for a child to answer. Because the answers to ‘why’ questions must often include things, actions and emotions, they are important for developing children’s thinking skills. A child needs a lot of practice to answer these questions, so keep working on ‘why’ questions. If your child still has trouble answering the question, give her several choices.

The small girl and her father sign to each other.
Li Ming, you look upset. Are you feeling sad? Or angry?

How to help your child follow 2-step requests

When your child understands more signs, he can begin to follow more difficult requests. You can start by expanding the simple requests your child already understands, by turning them into requests with 2 steps.

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wash hands
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A girl signing to her little brother.
Carlos, wash your hands and then come eat.

First, make a request about something your child can see.

A woman signs to her grandchild, boy who holds food in his hands.
Carlos, after you eat, please bring some firewood from outside.

Then slowly make the requests more difficult.

Help your child notice that how a sign is made is part of its meaning

A person adds meaning to her signs by making them larger or smaller, by making some signs slower or faster than others, and by changing the way her face looks.

Help your child pay attention to these different ways of signing so he will understand more of the message being sent.

If you want to say something is bad, you can make a sign like this:
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If you want to say it is very bad, you would make the same sign (‘bad’) larger and faster:
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bad very bad

Telling stories is one of the most enjoyable ways to teach your child sign language. Try signing in different ways as you play different characters. Also try putting a lot of emotion (like joy or sadness) in your voice and on your face to show how the characters are feeling.

A man signs to his child, who sits on his knee.
The papa bear says, ‘Who’s been sitting
in my chair?’
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'papa bear' sign
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'baby bear' sign

A man signs to his son, who sits on his knee.
and the baby bear
says, ‘Who’s been sitting in my chair?’

Signing for different characters helps a child pay attention to the story. It also helps a child see the expression, the size, and the different ways signs are made.