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Sunday, 6 October, 2002, 01:12 GMT 02:12 UK
How baby signing aids communication
Jordan Wood, 20 months old
Rio's sister Jordan is now learning to sign

When baby Rio Wood was just over six months old she was able to tell the teachers at her nursery that she needed her nappy changed, that she wanted a drink of milk or that she needed medicine for her teething gums.

They were stunned by the way she could communicate with them.

All the other babies could do was cry - they couldn't tell us what was wrong

Ruby Kareer, Rio's nursery
But contrary to appearances Rio is not a child prodigy - for her communication was non-vocal.

At the age of just six and a half months Rio was taught sign language by her mother Michelle.

Neither mother nor child has problems with hearing - the idea was that Rio would be able to communicate before learning to talk.

Mrs Wood is keen to introduce other parents to this form of communication and now runs classes in baby signing, which form part of the University of Bristol's continuing education programme.

Now aged three, Rio speaks well, but at the height of her signing she was using about 50 signs for words like milk, more and eat.

Signing at nursery

Ruby Kareer, the owner of Rio's nursery, Sydenham House, admits they were all amazed by the child's ability to communicate.

crying baby
Crying is a baby's usual mode of communication
"She would tell us if she needed medicine, or if her nappies needed changing or if she wanted some more milk," said Ms Kareer.

"Rio's mother brought in a book and a video so that we all knew what it was that Rio was signing to us.

"It really helped us if she was miserable. We would ask her what was wrong and then she would sign to us what she wanted.

"All the other babies could do was cry - they couldn't tell us what was wrong.

"It's really good for children to be able to communicate."

Concerns over speech

Ms Kareer said that some of the other parents had been worried that teaching signing would delay their child's ability to speak, but she said this had certainly not been the case with Rio.

"Rio is really good at speaking now. You can have an adult conversation with her. Learning to sign hasn't hindered her at all."

Mrs Wood said one of the benefits of teaching Rio to sign is that she can communicate with her little sister Jordan.

Jordan is just 20 months old, but has been able to "talk" to Rio since she was around six months.

Through the use of signs Rio can ensure her sister does not touch her favourite toys.

She even interprets for her when Jordan signs to others.

Sceptical husband

Mrs Wood first became interested in signing after watching a programme on TV.

She decided to take up signing and studied American Sign Language.

But she admits she had a struggle to convince her husband, Dean, of the benefits.

Children are like sponges, they just pick up things

Michelle Wood
"My husband was really sceptical. He was not anti-signing he just did not believe it would work.

"But then when Rio was eight and a half months old she woke up crying one night and signed to him that she wanted her medicine for her teeth."

After this Mr Wood was a convert. And his wife is delighted.

"People worry that if children sign they will not be able to speak properly. But Rio was very forward with her speech.

"That is just one of the misconceptions that it will delay speech. In fact it brought Rio's speech on.

"Children are like sponges, they just pick up things.

"Being able to sign means that every child can do it. It breaks down all the language barriers and means that all children can talk to each other whatever language they speak."

Building self esteem

Elizabeth Morris, principal at the School of Emotional Literacy in Gloucester, who also lectures in signing, agrees, adding that signing helps babies to build confidence.

"My speciality is self esteem building and I think it is particularly good for putting a very early foundation of self esteem in place.

"It helps children communicate and adults understand.

"It also helps adults focus on the child and really understand what they are doing and 'saying'. This helps them bond enormously."

And she said it was myth that signing delayed a child from speaking.

"Children are wired to communicate and they will do this by whatever means they have available to them.

"As soon as they can use words to supplement their signs they use both, gradually letting the signing go as soon as they get proficient in language.

"I have found that children who have been signed to are great little communicators and hardly draw breath."

See also:

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