At only six-and-a-half months, Zeke Heller was able to sign "I love you" to his parents. Now, just under one year, Zeke has a vocabulary of approximately 15 signs. He recently strung together a two-word request for "more music" when his mobile stopped playing, something not normally expressed verbally until 18 months.
Zeke is one of a growing number of hearing children who are learning to communicate with American Sign Language. Zeke¹s mother, Lora Heller, started signing with him at birth so he would be able to express what he is unable to say. "Research shows that the use of sign language boosts IQ, accelerates verbal language acquisition, and helps to enrich communication between parents and children," Heller says.
Besides being mom to Zeke, Lora Heller is also a music therapist and teacher of the deaf. She is so convinced of the benefits of teaching signs to babies and toddlers that she recently founded the Manhattan-based Baby Fingers, a program that offers sign language instruction through music.
Her classes consist of 50-minute sessions in which hearing or deaf infants and their parents or caretakers sing songs and learn signs that they can use in everyday communication. Topics include greetings, names and practical words. "To teach the sign for 'more', we sing the song 'The More We Get Together' and practice the sign with our hands. We talk about applications, like how to use the sign at dinner to ask for more," Heller explains.
While some children learn to sign within weeks, others take months. The development of sign language depends on age, motivation, and practice at home. Heller cautions that parents should take on signing with reason, saying, "Demanding that children sign is not key. Offering the sign, looking for a response to the sign, and helping a child to produce the sign is useful. When parents sign, children are focused. With focus, language development can speed along."
A 10-year study recently completed at the University of California at Davis indicates that Lora Heller is on the right track. Research shows that seven-year-olds who signed as babies were an average of 12 points higher in their standard IQ scores than the control group. Proponents of signing believe babies who sign in their first three years actually speed up their brain processes, since this is the time when the majority of synaptic development occurs and learning capability is at a peak.
But does signing delay the onset of verbal language? As it turns out, the opposite is true. "Sign language actually results in an earlier onset of spoken language, because motor skills in hands develop before oral skills. Signing lets children use words and syntax at an earlier age," Lora Heller explains.
Perhaps the most important aspect of learning to sign is the emotional advantage children have when they are able to express what they are unable to say. "When my son is crying and he can tell me it's because he's thirsty, what a relief," Heller says. Parents who use the system say their children are less frustrated and have fewer tantrums.
The added benefit of music during Baby Fingers classes not only focuses and motivates babies to learn signs but also may enhance their ability to read. Studies show a correlation between keeping a steady beat and basic reading skills. This is partly because of the cadences and phrases involved in reading, and partly because both reading and music are rhythmic.
There's still time to sign up for Baby Fingers' summer session. The six-week classes begin on June 14 on the Upper East Side, and July 5 and 6 on the Upper West Side. There are discounts for parents registering more than one child and for those who sign up with a friend. On June 7, Lora Heller will offer a sample class at Munch Mom's Luncheon. For more information, contact Lora Heller at BabyFingers@Hellerhome.com or (212) 874-5978.