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Does Sign Language Aid Language Developement in Toddlers?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 9260 words Published: 18th May 2020

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This study analyses the debate of whether sign language will aid toddler’s language development. A child’s development is the most crucial in their early years and finding the best techniques to help their development is very important. It was predicted that children (specifically toddlers) would benefit from using sign language alongside speech within their daily routines.

In order to retrieve the data required for the study, practitioners and parents were asked to complete a questionnaire that analysed each individual child’s language development. This was carried out at the beginning of the study and again at the end. This helped to discover whether the hypothesis could be proved or disproved. Children were observed in 2 focus groups whilst participating in an adult- led activity, one group experience the use of sign language and the other did not.

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There has been a variety of results from the research and it is felt that further research would need to be carried out in order to gain further insight into whether sign language does in fact aid a child’s language development or whether it hinders it. Children did show signs of their language development improving, however there we some data collected that did not support the hypothesis at all, leading to the thought that sign language will only aid certain children’s development due to every child and their development journey being so unique.


There is an enormous debate on whether sign language (such as Makaton) should be used when teaching babies to speak. ‘Baby sign’ is used to help children communicate their wants and needs before they are able to talk and is known as an augmentative communication approach, meaning it is used to supplement speech or writing for individuals with impairments (Communication Matters, 2018). Clinicians and researchers have recommended teaching children sign during the first 2 years of their life. This is not an entirely new approach that is being used, it was first used by speech and language therapists for decades with children who have speech and/or cognitive impairments, for example Clibbens et al, 2002. It is widely recognised that communication is at the heart of child development whether it cognitive, social, emotional or behavioural. (British Psychology Society, 2018)

One of the most interesting aspects of language is that it can be processed and learned just as easily by eye- and- hand as by ear- and- mouth. In other words, language can be constructed out of manual signs or out of spoken words (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017). Over 50 years ago there was very little agreement on whether the language of signs could be a ‘real language’. With sign language eventually being accepted within todays society, it has opened up numerous fundamental questions and the welcoming of sign language could force individuals to rethink their views of what language actually is (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017).

Existing research claims there may be benefits to teaching baby sign. Tabor, 1988 suggested that signing could be good for those who have poor oral; motor control but adequate manual control. Bonvillian, Orlansky and Novack, 1983 carried out a study with 11 hearing children of deaf parents and reported that children produced their first recognisable sign at the mean age of 8.5 months, with the earliest sign at 5.5 months. A similar study carried out by Goodwyn and Acredolo in 1993 found that when hearing parents were trained to encourage the use of symbolic gestures such as palms up for “where is it?” their hearing infants began to use gestures a mean of 0.69 months before their first vocal words.

There are many concerns with teaching baby sign, as some believe it may cause delay in the onset of vocal language, however a study carried out by Goodwyn, Acredolo and Brown (2000) suggests that sign training may facilitate rather than hinder the development of vocal language (Thompson et al., 2007). In other opinions it is said that, if done correctly it could be a beneficial way for parents and/or carers further chance to bond with their children and can be a fun and educational for the child (Hoecker, 2019).

Literature Review

It has been recognised that caregivers often speak differently to children than they do to other adults, and this implications for infant development (Golinkoff, Can, Soderstrom and Hirsh- Pasek, 2015). Sign language has become one of the main sources of communication, not only for individuals with speech and language impairments but for every day use in communication with infants as well (Golinkoff et al., 2015). In a body of studies, a high correlation has been found between the amount of speech that is heard by infants and their language outcomes. For example, children with parents who speak less to them tend to have a smaller vocabulary at the age of 3 compared to those with parents who speak to them religiously, this is thought to come with a high correlation being socioeconomic status and academic achievement (Rowe, 2012). Therefore, with these two particular correlations, it would mean that children who are brought up using Makaton/ baby sign language would have a small vocabulary by the age of 3 as the signs are only for 1 word and do not construct full sentences.

In the early 1960’s, sign language was initially considered nothing more than a pantomime or a language of gestures, this opinion has now swung in the opposing direction and sign language is now seen to be like speech on many dimensions. This has been a surprising result as ‘it underscores that lack of impact that modality has on linguistic structure. During this time period, sign language was considered just like another language until now where the pendulum has turned again as researchers have discovered that modality does in fact influence the structure of language, and some have revived the claim that sign is gestural (Goldin- Meadow and Brentani, 2017).

Due to some advantages linked to sign language and A-typical developing children, researchers and clinicians (Acredolo and Goodwin, 1996; Garcia, 1999) recommended that sign language should also be taught to typically developing children within the first two years (Thompson, Cotnoir- Bichelman, McKerchar, Tate and Dancho, 2007). A study was conducted by Bonvillian, Orlansky and Novack in 1983, where “11 hearing children of deaf parents” were reported as being able to “produce their first recognisable sign at a mean age of just 8.5 months”. In line with this study, Goodwyn and Acredolo (1993) discovered that when hearing parents taught symbolic gestures to their hearing children, they began to use gestures at a mean age of 0.69 before their very first vocal word (Thompson et al., 2007).

In the article written by Goldin- Meadow and Brentani (2017), they discuss sign language as not being a language and sign language being a spoken language. They start their discussion with sign not being a language and begin this discussion in 1880. The International Congress of the Educators of Deaf, passed a resolution condemning the use of manualist methods to teach language to deaf children (Facchini, 1983). This resolution reflected significantly on the wide spread belief that sign was not an adequate enough language and this attitude of deaf educators maintained for a period of time (Goldin- Meadow and Brentani, 2017). At the same time as Myklebust was writing, discoveries in linguistics were leading to a view that speech is a ‘special vehicle’ for language.  As an example, it was said that listeners are not able to accurately perceive sounds that vary continuously ailing a continuum like ‘voice onset time (VOT). Importantly, the VOT continuum perceptual categories match the phonetical categories of the language listeners speak. The categorical perception was first believed to be restricted speech and early attempts to find categorical perception in sign were not successful as subsequent work found that categorical perception is not unique t humans nor to speech sounds (Cutting and Rosner, 1974). At the time, it seemed important to show sign had the characteristics of speech that appeared to make it a good vehicle for language. (Goldin- Meadow and Brentani, 2017). In 1960, Hockett designed a list of 13 features that damaged the though of sign being a language. Hockett was said to consider some of the features to be ‘so obvious that they almost went without saying’ (Goldin- Meadows and Brentani, 2017). The first of these ‘obvious features’ was vocal- auditory channel, which rules out sign language. In correspondence to this, Landar maintained that “a signalling system that does not involve a vocal- auditory channel directly connecting addresser and addressee lacks a crucial design feature of human language” (Goldin- Meadows and Brentani, 2017). By 1978, Hockett had revised his list of design features so that it no longer contained vocal- auditory channelling, a reflection of his having been convinced by this time that sign language does indeed have a language structure. Despite the attempt over the years by many researchers to apply the tools of linguistics to sign language, there remained a great deal of scepticism about whether the tools were appropriate enough. For instance, DeMatteo (1977) attempted to describe the syntactic relationships, morphological processes, and sign semantics in American Sign Language, and concluded that the patterns cannot be characterised without the use of visual imagery (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017). DeMatteo’s concerns were seen by the field as evidence that sign language was different from spoken language and therefore, not a ‘real language’.

The following section of the Goldin- Meadow and Brentari (2017) article that was spoken about was: ‘Sign language is just like spoken language and therefore a language’. It was said one of the best ways to determine whether sign language is similar to or different from spoken languages was to attempt to characterise sign language using the linguistic tools that were developed to characterise spoken language. Klima, Bellugi and their team of researcher, fundamentally changed the way that sign language was viewed in linguistics, psychology and deaf education. (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017). In evidence of this, a study was carried out by Lane et al. in 1976 that was modelled around Miller and Nicely’s classic study of consonants. The study was conducted around the features of ASL hand- shapes based on Stokoe’s list of hand configurations. They presented the hand configurations under visual masking to generate confusions and used the confusability patterns to formulate a set of features in ASL hand configurations. They ensured their findings were consistent with psycholinguistic studies of memory errors is ASL (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017). Alongside this, Frishberg (1975) was able to show the processes found in spoken language could account for the changes seen in American Sign Language over time. Also, Battison (1978) showed that assimilation processes of spoken language could account for the changes to fingerspelling as they were “borrowed” into ASL. Studies like these had the ability to highlight evidence to support the phonological structure in at least one sign language and that being ASL (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017). The earlier studies have made it clear that sign language can in fact be described using tools developed to describe spoken languages. In past years, the number of scholars studying the structure of sign has grown substantially, as has the number and variety of sign languages that have been analysed. Goldin- Meadow and Brentani (2017) discuss the examples of structure that have comparisons in sign and speech at each different level: Phonology, Morphology and Syntax.



It is said that sign languages have features and segmental structure, as mentioned by Brentari (1998); Liddell and Johnson (1989); and Sandler (1989), as well as syllabic and prosodic structures akin to those found in spoken languages. The clearest example of a feature that applies to sign language phonology in a parallel manner is known as ‘aperture’. It is clear that spoken language can be placed in a scale from fully close to fully open, with that being said hand shapes in sign languages can be placed on a similar scale to fully close to fully open, this is due to the flat, bent and curved movement of the hands (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017). As we know in spoken language, there are phonotactics, also known as phonological rules, that regulate the sequencing of open and closed signs; similarly, phonotactics regulate in alterations between open and closed handshapes (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017).  There are many similar features in spoken language and sign language, meaning that children should benefit from using sign language to aid language development.


Likewise, with sign language having similarities with spoken language in a phonological sense, it is also said to have similarities on the morphological level. Reduplication is considered a morpho- phonological process that both sign and spoken languages endure and research has shown that native users of both language types treat reduplication as a rule in grammar. In spoken language, the most common form of reduplication is considered to be consonant reduplication at the right edge of a Semitic languages (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017).  As an example, the Hebrew word ‘simem’ (meaning drug, to poison) is formed from a biconsonantal root which has undergone reduplication. The same process takes place in reduplication in ASL. For instance, one- movement stems can surface as single movements when used as a verb but as reduplicated restrained movements when used as a noun i.e. ‘closed window’ vs. ‘window’ (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017). “Berent et al. (2014) hypothesised that if is a core word- formational rule for ASL signers as it for Hebrew speakers, then signers should have a slower reaction times when deciding whether disyllabic, reduplicated no sign is an actual sign than if the non- sign is disyllabic but not reduplicated” (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017).  It has been proven that disyllabic signs in which the movement was reduplicated according to derivational process on ASL, were in fact more difficult for signers to reject than disyllabic signs on which the movement was not reduplicated. Finally, reduplication appears to be a core word- formational strategy for signers as well as speakers (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017).


With syntax, many of the constituent structures found with in spoken languages are the same as those found with in sign languages. For example, relative clauses in Italian, English, Italian Sign Language (LIS) and ASL. All four have complex sentences containing relative clauses, although each language has a different way of marking that clause. Italians and English both complementize in order to introduce the relative clause. Both LIS and ASL, also use complementizers, alongside raised eyebrows over the relative clause. Italian sign language puts the complementizer, the sign PE at the right edge of the relative clause, whereas American Sign Language puts the complementizer, the WHO sign, at the left edge (Goldin- Meadow and Brentari, 2017).

According to research conducted by Miller et al. (2006) provided evidence that alternative means of communication (such as sign language) does not cause any delay on a child’s language, it in fact may support their ability to speak. This research was carried out on individuals with developmental disabilities. However, Miller and Light also found that using sign language as an alternative means of communication could help older children to learn to communicate as well as younger individuals (Clark, 2016).

With this, a study carried out by Capirci, et al. (1998) found that learning sign language could help to improve cognitive functioning in typically- developing, hearing children. The first study conducted used 28 children from the two first year elementary school classed and the study continued from 2 years. Half of the children attended a course in Italian sign language and the other half had no such experience, this was the control group. The afternoon programme that was conducted allowed the children to decided between a course in sign language, music and gymnastics. 14 of the children chose to participate in the sign language course whist the other 14 split between the music or gymnastics course. All the children were from monolingual Italian speaking families and had no experience with deaf culture what so ever. At the beginning of the course, the mean age of the children in the LIS group was 6.6 years, and the mean age in the control group was 6.5 years (Capirci, et al., 1998).

The study was conducted in one hour session in an afternoon for 7 months for the first year, then 8 months for the second year. These sessions were conducted solely by a deaf teacher whose first language was Italian Sign Language. All of these sessions were video recorded and transcribed by an experimenter. All of the children in the LIS group worked for one hour a week with a hearing teacher who had knowledge of LIS, in addition to the 1 hour session per week with the deaf teacher. The educational experience was carried out on the methodological principles of: 1) presenting LIS through a native signer interacting with the children exclusively in this language, 2) offering children the opportunity to experiment with LIS in familiar contexts, 3) never translating from one language to another, only stimulating children to capture; analogies, 4) improving the development of comprehension skills, especially in the first year stage, 5) letting children spontaneously develop their production skills (Capirci, et al., 1998). The results showed that once the first year was complete both groups held similar results, however once the second year of the course was completed, the group attending the LIS course showed evidential gains, whilst those who did not attend the course showed slight improvements but none that were close to the LIS group (Capirci, et al., 1998).

The first study then led Capirci et al. to conduct a second experiment in order to determine whether the acquisition of LIS or the exposure to the second language enhances visual discrimination and recognition of spatial relations. The second study involved the children attending an English course as a second language. This time they used 49 first grade students from 3 different classes. 20 of the students from one class attended a course in LIS and another 20 attended a course in English, and the remaining 9 students had no second language exposure. The LIS course lasted a duration of 5 months during the first grade with the same procedure as study one. Whereas the English course took place in the afternoon for two hours a week. The children attending the English course took a test in the very first session and the final session of the course (Capirci, et al., 1998).  The overall results for this particular study showed that hearing children who learn sign language as a second language in the early school years improved more rapidly on tests of visual- spatial cognition and spatial memory than those who did not attend a sign language course (Capirci, et al., 1998).


Within the literature review there has been significant arguments that support both sides as to whether children may or may not benefit from using sign language to aid their language development. It has been predicted that children (aged 2-3) may not benefit from using sign language as every child’s development is unique and personal.

The Paradigm:

A paradigm in research consists of four components, these being (Scotland, 2015): ‘Ontology’ (what is reality?), ‘Epistemology’ (How do you know something?), ‘Methodology’ (How do you find out about it?), and ‘Methods’ (What tools are used to acquire the knowledge?) (Patel, 2015). There are three main sections to the paradigms and this research will fit into one of these categories: Positivism( a single reality that links to quantitative data collection), Constructivists (there is no single truth or reality and links most commonly to qualitative data collection), and Pragmatists (The belief that the reality is constantly changing, being renegotiated, debated, interpreted and linked with research types that require some problem solving) (Patel, 2015). From carrying out in depth research on paradigms, the category this particular research fits into the best is ‘Pragmatists’. If broken down into the four sections of paradigms we discover for ‘Ontology’, literature is constantly debating and interpreting whether sign language should or should not be used with children developing their language acquisition. The above is then followed by the “methodology, ethnography, action research, grounded theory and phenomenological research, and closely followed by the method of how the research would be carried out (Patel, 2015).

The Aims and Objectives of the Research:

The main objectives of the research were to identify whether children would benefit from using sign language to aid their language development or whether it would in fact hinder their language development. The following objectives were set in place:

“To critically review literature to see which is more beneficial to children; using sign language with every day speech to communicate or just using speech to communicate.

To closely observe children aged 2 to 3 within the nursery setting and monitor whether they begin to use sign language and how it helps their development

To evaluate opinions on the child’s development from the children’s parents and practitioners in order to compare later in the study.

To evaluate all findings from the research and identify further strategies that could be put in place once discovering which seems more beneficial to the children.”

The research revolved around the hypothesis that children will benefit from using sign language within everyday communication, however every child’s development is unique and what may benefit one child, could hinder another.

The Approach:

The researched carried out is strongly ‘child- centred’ (Robert- Holmes, 2014). This is due to the topic of the question focussing on what will benefit children the most, using sign language or not using sign language in daily routine. After undertaking in depth research on methods for collecting data, it was decided that the qualitative approach was best suited for this particular study. In order to prove or disprove the hypothesis, observations were made on children participating in an activity. Twenty- six children participated in the study, so in order to gain the best results, it was decided to use two focus groups. The children were split into the two focus groups and then took part in similar activities to each other, the only difference was, one group had sign language incorporated into the activity and the other group used speech alone. The activity itself, required the children to find the picture of the object being said by the researcher, and once the children in focus group one had found the picture, they would then complete the sign for that particular object. It was hoped that the children in focus group one would then be able to find the object through a picture of the sign.

Parents and practitioners were also asked to complete a questionnaire which provided an insight in to each individual child’s language development. It was decided to use direct contact with the children for the observations due to the nature of the activity that was being used in order to collect the data. Whilst carrying out the observations on the children during the focus groups, a journal was kept that was completed on a frequent basis which was added to research and findings in order to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

When researching in to different approaches, it was found that students typically use the quantitative approach rather than the qualitative approach, however, as mentioned previously, it was found that qualitative research was best fitted to the questions being researched (Silverman, 2013).

Why use the qualitative approach?

For this research project, it was felt the qualitative data collection method was most appropriate due its ‘zigzagging’ effect, meaning this sort of research very rarely displays a smooth trajectory from the hypothesis to the findings (Silverman, 2013). Qualitative data is known for being heavily reliant on a form of communication with participants, whether it spoken or written, as a form of analysis and is typically associated with exploratory activity (Wellington, 2000). Due to having such a high level of interaction with participants, qualitative was decided as best approach using the more typical methods of the approach (questionnaires and observations). As mention previously, observations of how the children communicated with the researcher was recorded during the time the children were participating in the activity planned, for example: did they use sign language alone? Did they use speech alone? Did they use speech and sign together? Or no communication at all? Whilst making these observations, a journal was frequently kept which has contributed to the research and findings that help to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Alongside this, parents and practitioners were asked to complete a questionnaire on language development in order to give the researcher a better insight into the child’s language development. When researching in to different approaches, it was found that most students go for the quantitative approach rather than the qualitative, yet it was found that qualitative research was best fit to the questions being asked in the case of this project (Silverman, 2013).

Justification for the choice of methodology:

As part of being rigorous in qualitative data collection, there are four techniques that should be used: ‘Triangulation’, ‘Reflexivity’, ‘Multiple Coding’ and ‘Respondent Validation’ (Leung, 2015). This is an important part of qualitative research as it provides reliability and validity to the findings. Triangulation involves the use of ‘Multiple Methods’, ‘Multiple Data Sources’, or ‘Multiple Researchers’ (Carter, Bryant- Lukosius, DiCenso, Blythe and Neville, 2014). In this case, ‘Multiple Methods’ of a questionnaire, and observations of an activity have been used to ensure validity to the research findings. The next technique that was considered was the reflexivity, this involved the position of the

researcher, interaction with the participants and how these may have impacted the findings (Cohen and Crabtree, 2006). With the study involving observations of the children participating in an activity, the children were asked to sit in a semi- circle with the researcher sat in front of them, alongside the activity. The interaction with the child participants was high, yet the interaction with practitioner and parent participants was kept to a minimum due to not wanting to influence the answers to the questionnaires they were provided with. These techniques were the main used to ensure validity and reliability of the findings for the study.

The observations were carried out as ‘the observer as a participant’. This meaning the researcher has some interaction with the participants, however this interaction is kept as minimal as possible in order to achieve the research goals (Sauro, 2015).


When creating the plan for how this research was going to take place, confidentiality and privacy of the participants were high on the list of priorities (Kaiser, 2009). It was also extremely important to observe the children in an area that they felt most comfortable and safe in, in order to gain the best results with the research being heavily language based and involving communication from the children. However, the main focus of confidentiality and privacy was how the data was going to be collected and where it was going to be stored safely, and also providing the participants the right to withdraw at any moment in the study was a compulsory factor (Flewitt, 2015). To ensure that this was all conducting in the correct manner, a form was completed and submitted to the ethics board, how ensured no boundaries were going to be overstepped whilst the research was being conducted.

When recruiting participants for the study, a consent form was handed out to parents and carers which allowed them to declare they were happy for them and their child to participate within the study (See Appendices 1.). attached to this was an in depth letter that informed the participants about the researcher and what was going to be taking place in order to gather the data that was required. The letter contained information on the following points: the nature of the research, what will be expected from the participants, risks (if any), notification of their right to withdraw from the research and a notification of the method put in place to ensure full confidentiality and privacy (Kaiser, 2009).“Children are now being seen as being an agent of their own lives, rather than being passive recipients of adult care and decision making. Children are increasingly being noticed for being more capable of making decisions about themselves, especially where research is based (Waller and Davis, 2009).

It is said that a child, no matter the age, knows when they do not want to be involved in an activity, whether it research based, or curriculum based, therefore this was another main focus when carrying out the research. It was noted through a child’s body language and behaviour before each session was carried out, to ensure that each child was happy to be participating in the activity (Roberts- Holmes, 2015).

The way observations can be carried out falls into 3 different categories: unaware participants, aware participants and active participants (Alderson, 2004). The children who took part in the study were told indirectly that they were participating within research, making the participants aware, however it was decided the children were too young to understand ‘you are participating within a study’ so were therefore told in a way they would understand. Parents and Practitioners were considered as active participants due to completely questionnaires anonymously. 

What took place?

In order to begin the research process, contacted needed to be made with a nursery setting that was appropriate. Contact was made in the form of an email, to the gate keeper of Sandfield Day Nursery, in order to gain access to the setting. The emailed contained information about the researcher, the title of the research being conducted and a brief insight into said research, the duration of time that would be needing to be spent within the setting collecting the data, knowledge of safeguarding in order to prove professional knowledge, as well as reassurance of an academic DBS.

 Once granted access to the setting, a more in depth letter was provided to the gate keeper that had a consent form attached, that declared that the setting was happy for the research to be conducted (See Appendices 2.). Once the above was completed, time was spent within the setting in order to allow the children, practitioners and parents to become familiar with the researcher and the researcher to become familiar with the settings routine. After receiving the go ahead from the ethics board to carry out the research, information letters and consent forms were handed out to parents and practitioners in order to being recruiting participants. The questionnaires were handed out alongside these, and once all of these were returned, the research process began.

It was extremely beneficial to start the observations as early as possibly as it enabled a large quantity of data which helps to support the research process and hypothesis. The observations where written via a table that was composed at the very beginning of the study. The table contained a letter which each child was allocated in order to keep data collected private and confidential. During the observation period, notes were kept in a reflective diary, in order to ensure the fluidity of the research process.

What went well?

There were many things that went well with the research process. For example, the amount of observations that was gained from the children was incredibly useful and helped enormously when trying to prove or disprove the hypothesis. A large number of questionnaires were also completed and returned by practitioners and parents which made the process a lot easier when seeing how and if using sign language had help to improve the children language development, which again helped with the hypothesis.

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Alongside this, all the parents were more than happy to allow their children to participate within the study, and some even made it known that they felt their child would benefit immensely from participating within the study and were more than happy to help in anyway they could. The questionnaires were completed in a clear and in depth manner which again helped to see if each child’s language had developed further or not.

Being able to develop professional relationships with the practitioners within the setting also helped when completing the research, as they became more open on their own opinions on using sign language with ‘typically’ developing children, which was then able to be used as contribution to the research. Not only were these professional relationships beneficial as contribution to the research but they allowed the practitioners to become supportive and help with reminding parents to return any forms that they had been asked to complete.

Were there any issues when carrying out the research?

There were a couple of hiccups along the way of conducting the research, however the main issue was getting the parents to complete the consent forms due to the cover letter being quite lengthy and most parents having English as an additional language. In order to resolve this issue, the researcher sat down with parents individually and explain the happenings of the research and then asked them to complete the consent form in person if they were happy for them and their child to participate. Once this was completed the rest of the research was conducted in a smooth manner.

Data Analysis

Detail of findings:

Evidence was collected by using the qualitative data collection method, as mentioned above. The data collected was used to support the hypothesis that children (aged two- three) would in fact benefit from using sign language throughout their daily routines in order to help their language development, despite every child’s developmental progress being so individual and unique.

The Questionnaires:

Questionnaires were handed out 40 parents of toddlers in the nursery setting, alongside the consent forms. Of these parents 26 brought back the questionnaires and allowed their children to participate within the research process.

The questionnaire (Appendices 3.) asked about the children’s language development, therefore one was handed out at the beginning of the study and at the end of the study in order to see whether the children’s language development had benefitted from using sign language from a few short weeks of activities. Practitioners in the nursery were also asked to complete the same questionnaires as parents. This was done on a key worker bases and also allowed a professional opinion on each child’s development as well as a parental one.

Each child’s first questionnaire showed different levels of language acquisition. The questionnaire consisted of seventy yes/no questions, where parents were asked to tick or cross at the side if their child was or was not performing the statement, for example “Calls you “Mama” or “Dada” or similar name”, “Uses at least 10 words”, “Asks for a drink or for food, using words or sounds”, “Waves “bye-bye” or good bye”. From the first group of questionnaires that were received, most children were on track developmentally with their speech and understanding, some were below the curriculum for speech and understanding however these children spoke English as an additional language or were special educational needs.

Once the activity sessions were completed, it was then asked again that the parents completed the questionnaire for the second time. This was done in order to see if any of the children’s language had improved, even marginally. Practitioners were also asked to complete the same questionnaires again at the end of the research process, again to gain a professional opinion on the children’s language development. From this, the second group of questionnaires showed some improvement in a small amount of the children who participated, as well as no improvement in some of the children participating in the study.

The figures above have been placed into graphs, showing the difference in the questionnaires from parents and practitioners. This has been done for both times the questionnaire was completed and has been displayed with a percentage on each graph.

The Observations:

A total of 26 children participated within the observed activity. The number of participants was divided into two groups meaning there were 2 focus groups consisting of 13 children. The children in focus group one, were the children who completed the activity with sign language and focus group two, consisted of the children who completed the activity with speech alone. When conducting the research, it is clear the main focus was on Sign Language and whether it aids children’s language development, therefore the style of sign language used was ‘Makaton’. This was found to be the best style as Makaton is single word signs that are used alongside everyday speech (The Makaton Charity, 2017).

The observations for the research were carried out by using a table (Appendices 4.), the main focus in the observation period was focus group one as they were the ones who were using sign language within the activity. The observations were assessed on whether the child could ‘successfully use signs’, begin to use sign in their daily routine’, ‘use sign with words’, ‘Use sign without words’ of whether they would not use sign or words. It was found that most of the children in focus group one was able to use the signs successfully when shown by adult. A third of focus group one began to use sign in daily routine when requesting something for the needs (See Figure 1.), with this, only a few of the children used words with the signs and the rest either used the signs without words or neither used words or the signs (See Figure 2.). Some of the children participating in focus group one was very shy and this was noted when conducting the observations. Observations were still made on children in focus group two, however this just noted whether they used speech to interact when completely the activity or whether they were reserved.

Analysis and its Significance:

The evidence above holds incredible significance to the research that has been conducted in more ways than one. From comparing the questionnaires from when the children first started to use sign language and after the 4 weeks course of research, it was found there was a consistent improvement across all questions with only a few showing no progress (See Figure 3.) 

When analysing the data that was collected from the observations of the activity, it was found that 77% of children successfully used sign language with the research process and 69% of children successfully used sign language and had begun to use sign language with in their daily routine (See Figure 2.). These two sets of data were analysed as even though more than 75% of the children successfully used sign language whilst participating in the study, 10% of those children did not adapt to using sign language within their daily routines when communicating their wants and needs.

A chart was also created to compare the data of children who successfully used sign language to the rest of the children in focus group one. It was found that 70% of the children who could successfully use sign language also sign whilst using speech, 30% of the children used sign language without the use of speech (See Figure 4.). For the children that have used sign language on a daily basis, this split is improved to 78% of children use sign language also sign whilst using speech, and 22% of children used sign language without using speech. When compared to children would did not successfully complete sign language 67% of the children used speech without sign language, and 33% of children could not using speech nor sign when participating within the activity (See Figure 6.). From these results, it would suggest that children would benefit from using sign language in every day routine, however there is still a percentage of children how have not acknowledged the sign language and in some cases sign language, nor speech and therefore the question ‘why is that?’ would need to be investigated.

From the evidence collected from parents it is believed that over the course of the four weeks that the observations were carried out, there has been an improvement in not only the children’s overall vocabulary but also their use of words and sentence coherence. This can be seen through the 11 children across both groups that had a vocabulary of less then 10 words, 6 of those now use more than 10 word. Also, with the 15 children across both groups that used less then 20 words, 8 now use more the 20 words, which means more than half of the children improved their vocabulary throughout the length of the study. In regard to the improvement in coherence of sentences that are a number of questions such as the correct use of words such as ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’, there was clear improvement across both groups with around a third of the children now being able to use these words correctly more time than not that couldn’t previously.

The results for this particular study have shown great significance to the hypothesis. It is said that the first few years of a child’s life is when the largest amount of development takes place, and by the time a child reaches the age of 3 years their brain will have developed to 80% of the adult volume (Ofsted, 2015). Therefore, if this study proves the hypothesis to be correct, it would be better to begin the sign language with children from as early as six months old, in order to gain the best development as possible. The evidence that has been collected overall, will highlight whether sign language should or should not be used in a child’s early development.

In Education Corners report it was stated that, “children benefit from receiving some type of education during their early developmental years. However, there is not one- size fits all instructions best suited for all children”. This meaning that every child is unique, so you are not able to place one just one approach onto development within a setting where you can find such a large variance of abilities. This relates to the ‘a unique child’ section of the current curriculum. Every child will be different with their preference to toys, how they engage, and how they develop in different areas (Early Education, 2012). “children develop in the context of relationships and the environment around them: this is unique to each family and reflects individual communities and culture” (EYFS, 2014).


The aims of the research were to discover whether ‘sign language helps to aid toddlers in their language development’. Children are greatly unique when it comes to their own development (Early Years Matters, 2019) and what may more for five children, may hinder another child’s. it is also felt that the study would need to be carried out over a course of three years in order to gain a full insight into whether a child’s language does in fact develop from the help of sign language. With a percentage of the children using sign language and adapting it into their daily routines, it indicates that the children are susceptible to using this technique, but we struggle to gain a clear indication of whether it will aid their language development.

The hypothesis that ‘children (specifically toddlers) will benefit from using sign language within everyday communication’, has been neither proved nor disproved. Below are some recommendations for further study into this topic below:

There is an incredible amount of room for further research into this topic, due to the different paths, opinions and debates that are being created in the literature. It is felt that there was unanswered question from this study, for example would children benefit from using sign language from an earlier age than 2-3 years. However, the research for this would need to be carried out from the earliest of six months through to the age of 3 where a child’s brain has gained 80% of its adult capacity.

For the research to be developed further, a larger number of participants would be recommended as with the limited sample size it is unreliable to assess if the improvements observed were statistically significant or not. Also, using children from different a range of settings and even expanding it further and looking at how sign language could help children who are multilingual/ EAL.

There is also the option to look at the socioeconomical side of the study and how the language of children from different socioeconomical back grounds develops from using sign language within their daily routines. It would be recommended to use children from settings in both rural and urban environments, in order to gain data to analysis the comparisons and contrasts of the opinions and observations of the participants. This particular further development of the study would provide a larger insight in to the topic as there would be a suspected difference in the results between the rural and urban setting and would therefore be able to consider the opinions of the families that are disadvantaged and those who are not (Ofsted, 2015). 

The incorporation of a larger more diverse sample of children would not only provide more useful insight into the effect of social and economic backgrounds into the child’s, development and participation but would also assist in reducing any bias in the population due to any selection bias by observing children all from one nursery and area (Bock, 2018).






Appendices 1.- Consent form (Parental)

Appendices 2.- Detailed letter to the setting


Appendices 3.- Language Questionnaire

Appendices 4.- Example of the Observation Table used













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