Literacy Before Language

Celia signs "Alligator"

Parents who use infant signs report that their children are interested in books from a very early age.  This observational study will capture infants who use signs “reading” (interacting with books) on their own or with their parents. This study is designed to document the role of typical and symbolic gestures in children’s early interactions with books. This will serve as a foundational study to examine the role of infant signs/ symbolic gestures in early pre-literacy skills.

Read more about the basis of these ideas below:

The development of language and communication skills in early childhood supports a wide range of cognitive and social skills that contribute to children’s successes, both socially and academically, in school and beyond. A large body of research has shown that children’s home environments – specifically the richness of parent-child communication using both words and gestures – affects children’s language and literacy skills.

Celia signs "Elephant".

Research on parents’, teachers’, and children’s use of gesture has shown that gesture supports early language and literacy development. A recent study by Rowe and Goldin-Meadow (2009) revealed that parents’ use of gestures mediates the relationship between socio-economic status and children’s language skills.  Further, the original intervention study on infants’ use of symbolic gestures – popularly referred to as Baby Signs ® or Infant Signs – showed that language skills can actually be promoted by encouraging parents to use symbolic gestures with children before they can talk (Goodwyn, Acredolo, & Brown, 2000). This experimental study showed that children in the sign intervention faired far better than those in the no-intervention control group, and even better than those in a comparison group in which parents were instructed to provide richer language modeling.  Thus the results point to a unique role for gesture in early language development. Further, though the intervention was relatively short, the positive effects of the intervention on children’s language skills persisted through children’s school years, even increasing the signing group’s verbal IQ up through 2nd grade (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 2000).

Turning to the effect of children’s gestures on literacy activities and skills, parents in the experimental group of the original Baby Signs study were more likely than control group parents to report that their children were interested in books (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 2002).  And a follow-up study from this sample showed that the children who were taught symbolic gestures in infancy learned earlier than the control group about written symbols, and had larger reading vocabularies at 6th grade  (Elder, 2005). The idea of using sign language to teach reading to normally hearing older children (and adults) has been around for several decades, reporting fairly consistent positive benefits (Felzer, 1998; Wilson, Teague, & Teague, 1985). For example, Daniels (2004) has shown that teaching Kindergartners to use American Sign Language improved their literacy skills, including both expressive and receptive vocabulary and emergent reading level.

However, we are left to wonder about the mechanisms by which the practice of using signs benefits children’s language and literacy skills. Do signing children elicit more language, or more types of language, from their parents, which then encourages their own language? Do parents of signing children choose to engage their children in more language-based activities, such as reading, with the result of promoting early literacy skills? Or are signing children advantaged in language and literacy because they have an earlier entrée into the world of representation, the recognition that one thing can stand for another?

Research by Goldin-Meadow and colleagues provides some clues to understand the potential mechanisms by which gesturing enhances language development. They found that children’s use of gestures that complemented their own speech drew richer language from their mothers (Goldin-Meadow, Goodrich, Sauer, & Iverson, 2007). Further, we know that language development is promoted when parents talk to children about their children’s specific interests (Adamson, Bakeman, & Decker, 2004). Thus we may reasonably speculate that preverbal children’s use of a greater variety of gestures draws greater language from adults, which helps adults attend to children’s interests and draws child-relevant speech from adults, promoting children’s vocabulary development.

However, communication is not the only function of gesture; gesture and speech both serve the two functions of language – communication and representation (Goldin-Meadow, 2005). That is, gesture, like language, is a tool for thought as well as a tool for communication. A child’s own variety of gestures – or the number of different things they refer to using gesture during toddlerhood – predicts their vocabulary development, while their own pairings of words and gestures predicts the complexity of their sentences (Rowe & Goldin-Meadow, 2009b).  In school-aged children, studies have found that it is not only teachers’ gestures that support student learning, but children’s own gesture use supports their own learning as well (Cook & Goldin-Meadow, 2006). Goldin-Meadow (2009) claims that ideas generated in gesture are transferred to the mind; that is, children literally think with their hands. There is evidence that this relationship exists in preverbal children as well. The frequency of pointing in infancy predicts not only a child’s skills in engaging others, but also the number of social themes he will act out symbolically in his play during toddlerhood (Vallotton & Ayoub, 2009). Further, infants who use infant signs have been documented to use those signs to compare 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional objects (Vallotton, in press), and to “think out loud” to themselves, using the signs as mental tools (Vygotsky, 1986) in a form of self-regulatory self-gesture (Vallotton, 2008). Thus, though most of the evidence thus far is limited to conventional gestures, we may wonder whether early symbolic gestures (a.k.a. Infant Signs) also play a constructive role in the development of young children’s symbol skills, helping them build mental representations of their worlds, and to understand the nature of representations. If that is the case, then providing preverb al children with preverbal symbols should result in an earlier understanding of the nature of representations, advanced representational behavior, and ultimately advanced language and literacy skills.

Celia signs "Pig" to herself as she "reads" a picture book.