Using Sign Language With Your Nonspeaking Students
AACs are amazing!
It’s true. Augmentative and alternative communication devices (AACs), including speech-generating devices (SGDs), have revolutionized how individuals with speech and language impairments communicate.
But what happens when an AAC device is unavailable, and a student is hungry or thirsty or needs to use the bathroom? What if a student can’t find their device or the device is broken or out of charge? What if the user becomes separated from their device in an emergency? Or what if they become too overwhelmed or frustrated to use it? What if AAC isn’t suitable for an individual, considering their disabilities?
Sign language to the rescue! This time-tested method of communication serves as a reliable resource when technology fails.
Here’s a look at:
- Research on using sign language with nonspeaking students
- Who SLPs can use sign language with
- How students can benefit from sign language
- SLP tips for teaching sign language to nonspeaking students
- Resources to begin using sign language with your students
Sign Language for Nonspeaking Students – The Research
Research shows sign language is effective for nonspeaking students, helping with both communication and behavior:
- In a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Bonvillian et al. analyzed research on teaching sign language to nonspeaking autistic children. They found that the nearly 100+ autistic children studied learned expressive and receptive signs, and many developed the ability to combine signs. The researchers also noted that the children showed significant improvements in adaptive behaviors.
Further, although some professionals suggest AAC should always be the primary tool for nonverbal individuals, research shows this decision should be based on the individual:
Which Students Can SLPs Use Sign Language With?
Speech-language pathologists can use sign language with individuals with a range of primary speech-related disorders or secondary specific language impairments (SLI) related to:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Developmental disability
- Hearing loss
- Intellectual disability
- Late language emergence
- Spoken language disorder
- Traumatic brain injury
- Psychological/emotional disorder
Benefits of Using Sign Language With Nonspeaking Students
Sign language can help many students because it is visually based, easily learned, unaided, effective, rapid, portable and ubiquitous.
Sign language may also:
- Increase independence and ability to express oneself
- Reduce negative behaviors, frustration, aggression, self-injury and tantrums
- Lead to vocal language, especially when used in conjunction with spoken words
- Help students begin to accept physical props (Barbera)
- Serve as a bridge for students who are not ready to speak
- Help accelerate language development
- Encourage pre-linguistic communication skills
- Provide a way to connect with the environment
- Serve as an alternative to grunting and pointing (Reedy)
- Allow for spontaneous communication without prompting
- Improve social skills and attention to social cues
- Help ease depression and anxiety (Delano)
SLP Tips for Teaching Sign Language to Nonspeaking Students
- Teach only a few simple signs to start.
- Use verbal communication along with the signs.
- Use flashcards if student can process them developmentally.
- Use hand-over-hand assistance if the child has trouble forming the sign.
- Use rewards for attempts to sign.
- Use signs with target activity (sign for eat and then give food; sign for all done when cleaning up)
Sign Language Resources for SLPs to Use With Students
Sign Tribe – This site has a helpful video demonstrating functional signs: hungry, hurt, eat, drink, more, tired, yes, no, finished, and bathroom.
Sign Language Flash Cards – National Autism Resources has flashcards for sale which teach signs for verbs, adjectives, and noun sets for colors, clothes, everyday objects, food, people, toys and more.
Healthy Hearing – Healthy hearing lists language apps for learning ASL. Note: While some SLPs use American Sign Language (ASL), others prefer Signing Exact English (SEE). Read about the difference here.
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