Language & Communication & Young Children

“Language empowers children to participate in both the cognitive and affective parts of the educational program. Experience with written and oral language provides children with the tools to interact with others, and to represent their thoughts, feelings, and experiences” (Kagan, S.L., Moore, E., & Bredekamp, S., June, 1995).

The ability to process and understand the spoken language of others (Child Care Aware, 2008) is termed receptive language skills. For the first few months of life, infants are only able to absorb communication which is directed at them (Flavell, 1985 as cited in Ratcliff, 1988).  Before the end of their first year, though, they are able to respond, reason and receive instruction and correction (Flavell, 1985 as cited in Ratcliff, 1988).

Through the toddler and preschool years, the receptive language skills are further developed and refined as the child learns how to negotiate their expressive language skills, the ability to communicate one’s thoughts and feelings in words and actions (Child Care Aware, 2008).

Language skills are key components within the learning environment. The imparting of knowledge is accomplished through language and enhanced by language comprehension skills. Young children benefit tremendously through the use of multiple communication devices such as verbal and non-verbal language, thoughtful questioning strategies, music, books, associations, multiple language uses and sign language (Wallinga and Skeen, 1988).

Additionally, language is mainly how the learned concepts of preschool children are evaluated (Ratcliff, 1988). Far more superior to recitation is the ability of a child to retell a story, restate an idea, describe an event or provide an explanation, all of which exemplify the child’s understanding (Ratcliff, 1988).

Sign Language and Language Development

For over twenty years, researchers Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn from the University of California at Davis have conducted research on the benefits of teaching pre-verbal children sign language. In their book Baby Signs (2002), these benefits are outlined:

  • Pre-verbal children are better able to communicate their needs and focus their parent’s attention, enriching the parent-child bond and decreasing the need for tears, tantrums, power-struggles and aggressive behaviors.
  • Sign language provides a developmentally appropriate way for pre-verbal children to communicate what they notice, understand and remember about their world.
  • Pre-verbal babies who use sign language demonstrate verbal language skills earlier and with broader vocabularies than non-signing peers.
  • Each sign learned by a pre-verbal baby strengthens and broadens the language foundation on which additional language skills are built.
  • Increased language skills have long-term effects on cognitive skills, imaginative play and the ability to recall where specific items are located.
  • Pre-verbal babies who learned sign language have shown early academic successes due in part to increased understanding, expressiveness and questioning.
  • Self-confidence is developed because of the real conversations about observations and concerns which matter to the pre-verbal child.
  • Pre-verbal children who feel heard and understood demonstrate deeper feelings of peace, trust and self-worth.

In addition to the many studies conducted by Goodwyn and Acredolo, Garcia (1999) has written how infants and toddlers can learn to express feelings, needs and name objects using sign language.

In the preschool classroom, Heller, Manning, Pavur and Wagner (1998) found that coupling sign language with verbal instructions improved social interactions and increased the children’s vocabulary and understanding of words and letters. Similarly, Lohmann (1999) has studied the benefits of using visual and physical signs for words when working with special needs children and found the children more readily understood speech and began to speak more.

Preschool classrooms with English language learners have experienced similar results. Donovan (2000) documented that young children learning English gain more English vocabulary, experience increased social interaction and less frustration when a common language, such as sign language, is used by teachers and students alike.

The benefits of using sign language as a communication tool with young children should not come as a surprise. Besides the research focused on the use of sign language, empirical studies repeatedly confirm the importance of using interactive, concrete learning activities with young children (Bredekamp, 1987; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Hence, a curriculum for young children should include fun, simple and meaningful sign language components which are relevant to daily routines and thematic topics and incorporates existing classroom materials (Dennis & Azpiri, 2005).

©Christine Gillan Byrne, 2008. Young Child Ministries

Speaking appointments are typically scheduled 12 months in advance. To schedule an appointment, call (479) 216-9771, or email


Acredolo, L., & Goodwyn, S. (2002). Baby signs: How to talk with your baby before your baby can talk (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 0-07-138776-5.

Bredekamp, Sue (Ed.). (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (Exp. ed.).Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bredekamp, Sue, & Copple, Carol (Eds.). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Child Care Aware. (2008). Retrieved September 23, 2008 from:

Dennis, K. & Azpiri, T. (2005). Sign to learn: American Sign Language in the early childhood classroom. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. ISBN-13:978-1-929610-69-3.

Donovan, P. (2000). ECRC begins sign-language program. University of Buffalo reporter, 32 (4). Retrieved October 21, 2008, from

Garcia, J. (1999). Sign with your baby. Bellingham, WA: Stratton-Kehl Publications.

Heller, I., Manning, D., Pavur, D., & Wagner, K. (1999, Jan. – Feb.). Let’s all sign: Enhancing language development in an inclusive preschool. Teaching Exceptional Children, 50-53.

Kagan, S.L., Moore, E., & Bredekamp, S. (June, 1995). Reconsidering children’s early development and learning: Toward common views and vocabulary (National Education Goals Panel ISBN-0-16-048151-1). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lohmann, B. (1999, April 7). A time to speak. Richmond Times Dispatch, p. D1. In Dennis, K. & Azpiri, T. (2005). Sign to learn: American Sign Language in the early childhood classroom. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. ISBN-13:978-1-929610-69-3.

Ratcliff, D. (1988). Handbook of preschool religious education (Ed.) Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Wallings, C. and Skeen, P. (1988). Physical, language, and social-emotional development, in D. Ratcliff (ed.), Handbook of Pre0school Religious Education, pp. 30-58, Birmingham, Alabama: Religious Education Press.