Gove urged to introduce sign language in settings

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The mother of two profoundly deaf daughters is campaigning for signing to become mandatory in the early years curriculum.


Inspired by her children, who are now teachers of the deaf, with both attending mainstream nurseries and schools, Kathy Robinson has started an online petition calling on Education Secretary Michael Gove to introduce sign language into all early years settings.

At the time of going to press, the petition had more than 400 signatures.

Ms Robinson argues that the benefits of signing are far-reaching and that research shows that all children can benefit from it because it advances their language and literacy skills.

She also developed the Signs for Success programme, which has now been running for 15 years.

Through the programme, she has worked with 22 local authorities and has trained hundreds of early years practitioners and SENCOs who have found that signing benefits the early stages of language and literacy in young children, particularly from birth and up to six years old.

She also developed the 'Using/promoting Signing to Advance Speech, Language and Communication' qualification, which has been on the Qualifications Credit Framework since December 2012 and is delivered by the awarding body NOCN.

According to Ms Robinson, nine out of 10 deaf children are in mainstream schools. 'They have siblings and peers who need to know how to communicate with them.'

But she told Nursery World she believes that all children can benefit from signing key words in spoken sentences, including a child in the early stages of language and literacy, a child struggling with English as an additional language, a child with a hearing or speech impairment, or children lacking in confidence.

'We've had the most incredible successes,' she added. 'When children sign, they are more engaged. Studies have shown behaviour significantly improves, they concentrate for longer and they learn effortlessly, because they understand more.'

Ms Robinson highlighted results of an independent study that showed that children's spelling ages increased by more than six months in just six weeks with fingerspelling - the spelling out of letters and words on the hands. Other research showed that children's phonic knowledge increased by 76 per cent, compared to 20 per cent with the non-signing comparison.

'It makes total sense. Young children love using their hands. They learn quicker and retain learning longer if they have a visual "indicator" to the meaning of words, either written or spoken.

'Signing and fingerspelling is "English in action" and that's a very powerful and empowering tool.'

She said that she hoped the petition would raise awareness and encourage the education secretary to take 'a fresh look at illiteracy'.

She added, 'I'm not asking Mr Gove to recommend my programme, but to realise that he's missing a raising attainment trick. Collectively, I hope we can make a difference and raise children's literacy levels.'

Signs for Success has recently begun working with Professor Jim Kyle at the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol to develop more large-scale research on the impact of sign language for all children.

They believe there is enough research on positive aspects of bilingualism to justify the introduction of signing with a wide range of children.

The centre has been carrying out research on how deaf children acquire sign language since 1985.

Professor Kyle told Nursery World that although we can show that sign language develops in just the way spoken language does - as long as the child has interaction with parents who can sign themselves - there is a particular concern that half of the deaf population did not learn their first language - signing - until after the age of five years.

It should be obvious that any child (deaf or hearing) without good language skills on arrival at school will have problems in early education, he said.

Research has also found that while mothers become involved in supporting deaf children with their language development, the other children in the family may not be able to communicate.

Professor Kyle said, 'What we're trying to do is to carry out systematic research to see if signing can provide benefits for all children. Is there an advantage for any child to learn a language that is not a spoken language from an early stage? Could it be a major asset for all children?'

There are suggestions based on American research that language that is not spoken develops earlier.

The project is in its early stages and looking for funding to extend the work, but an initial study will involve two groups (60 children) aged between three and eight years old.

The first group will involve children with language and learning difficulties who will learn signing in the nursery or school.

The second will be a group of siblings of deaf children and will look at the impact of signing on the family environment, as well as on children's language and literacy development.


Erica Hewetson is assistant head at a primary in Birmingham and mother of Megan, 11, Isaac, nine, and Ethan, two weeks old.

She said, 'We first started using signing in nursery, because we had a child who was three and non-verbal (and later diagnosed with autism) and we thought it might really help him. We chose some basic signs - please, thank you, toilet, food, sleep - and he showed an interest straight away. We saw an enormous reduction in his physical outbursts and he was a happier and more relaxed child. He was speaking by the time he left nursery.

'I was really impressed with the impact it had on all children. We have 27 languages. With children with English as an additional language, it's particularly helpful. It has a big impact on noise levels and helps practitioners to turn their voices down and simplify their language, so that they are still using new vocabulary but not in overly complicated sentences.

'We use signing up to Year 6. In nursery, we teach children the sign for the first letter of their name and they soon start spotting other children's names that start with the same letter.

'I signed with my daughter from four months and she was well ahead of her milestones. Then my son was diagnosed with glue ear at six weeks with no hearing at all. He has excellent vocabulary and speech, and the consultant is convinced this is down to the stimulation he had from myself and my husband Tony signing with him. After several operations, his hearing is reasonably good now, but we still sometimes use signing. I'm going to sign with Ethan too.'

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