One-year-old Raphael rests his head on his hands and nursery nurse Aga instantly knows he wants a nap. Raphael's grasp of early sign language means he is better able to communicate his needs to adults around him.
He has been learning to sign since joining the bilingual 0-2s centre at Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children in Camden, London (see box). The children who attend the centre are both hearing and deaf, experiencing care in the bilingual environment of English and British Sign Language (BSL).
The inclusive nature of the setting has proved very successful for children, often producing advanced communication skills for their age.
Head of centre Sarah Twomey explains, 'We're using everyday signs to help the children communicate the physical and emotional needs they have now. Parents say they're really glad because now they know why their son or daughter is crying. It's helping them communicate with their child before they can talk.'
Signing is incorporated in all aspects of the provision with repetitive, daily use, so the children pick up the signs as they go along. At the moment they are learning emotive signs, such as 'happy' and 'sad'.
Ms Twomey highlights mealtimes as a great time to learn. 'There's more giggling, more crying, more facial expressions. They will point their fingers at each other, and bop up and down, all looking at each other. It's also when we use lots of signs like "hungry", "thirsty", "more and "finished". When a child is upset and crying they will use signs and mealtimes is another time when we all use signing the most. They learn from each other in these situations.'
The 0-2s centre, developed and led by assistant head Emma Kelty, began as a trial, but was so successful it opened officially in September 2008.
'The first reason we set up the 0-2s centre was because there was no deaf provision for this age group,' explains school head Karen Simpson. 'The early years are the biggest gap in provision and need to be developed, if we're serious about language development.'
Three staff work in the centre - head Ms Twomey, and one hearing and one deaf nursery nurse, Aga and Seval.
All three are trained to work with deaf children and have in-depth knowledge of hearing aids, implants and acoustics. Controlling these factors are essential to a deaf child's learning potential and happiness in a setting. Visual awareness is also taught - for example, a practitioner must always maintain good eye contact with a child.
Benefits of signing
Most children in the centre can hear; two out of 13 are deaf. Ms Simpson says, 'The earlier you start provision in a rich linguistic environment, the better, and there is now much evidence that early sign language is beneficial to deaf children as well as hearing children.'
Ms Kelty adds, 'There is much feedback from our parents that their child's language has been enhanced and stimulated and they are working at a higher level when they move on from the centre.'
This has been particularly mentioned by parents of children who have English as an Additional Language (EAL). Over half of the children at the centre have EAL, speaking French and Polish as their first language.
Ms Kelty finds that many parents of hearing children wish they could stay on after they finish at the centre because they have seen the impact of signing on their development.
'Teaching hearing children through sign has only really been practised in recent years,' she says. 'People haven't seen the full benefits yet, especially when taught by deaf people. In fact, baby signing normally stops at the age of three, so we don't actually know what the benefits would be beyond that, and of course we know how successful it is with our deaf children. My personal view is, imagine what could be achieved if we carry that on past this age.'
The five-year strategic plan for the school is to move into a new state-of-the-art building, co-located with another new primary school at King's Cross, and to become a centre of excellence for the UK.
'Our vision for the future is to create a 0-5s assessment centre when we move in September,' says Ms Simpson. 'We will offer BSL, spoken English, EAL, home languages. It will be a linguistically rich environment. And there will be personalised opportunities for inclusion for every child.
'We think of deaf children as being part of a linguistic minority group. We don't think of deafness as a "disability or impairment", but as a positive experience, to have access to such a wonderfully rich and vibrant community as well as the wider hearing community.'
Frank Barnes School, a sign bilingual primary school, caters for children who are severely to profoundly deaf. Sign bilingualism is an approach to the education of deaf children in which the language of the deaf community (BSL) and of the hearing community (English) are used.
Karen Simpson became head teacher in 1999, and led the school to an 'outstanding' Ofsted grade last year.
Ms Simpson says, 'We're about high achievement and attainment, helping children reach their potential. And we believe that early intervention is important for this. We want to challenge the presumption that sign language means there is not enough English language development. The school has a bilingual philosophy because its aim is to promote the development of both languages equally.'
BSL is the preferred and dominant language of all children at the school, so it is used to access the curriculum and teach English as a second language. Inclusion is also practised in other areas, as 60 per cent of the children also have additional needs.
Providing a fulfilling nursery environment for a deaf child requires a peer influence for the child, preferably from both a practitioner and other children. 'Without other deaf people, a deaf child will feel isolated,' says Ms Simpson. 'The whole school community needs to embrace deaf communication and the deaf way of life.'
- The National Deaf Children's Society, www.ndcs.org.uk
- Frank Barnes School, www.fbarnes.camden.sch.uk - includes information on courses for parents and professionals.