Child psychologist Jean Piaget claimed that the "real social language of the child" involves "gesture and mime - language in movement." The exaggerated grimaces, pouty looks, wagging fingers, and embracing arms evoke a preliteral discourse of their own and are not dissimilar to the basics of American Sign Language (ASL) taught regularly to hearing impaired children in the United States. Marilyn Daniels, assistant professor of speech communication at the Penn State Worthington Scranton Campus, believes that a more visceral unspoken language is second nature to human nature - for both hearing impaired and hearing individuals. "For children, Sign language might be a more natural communication code than merely spoken English," Daniels says.

Daniels, who has been researching the benefits of teaching ASL to hearing children for five years, also discovered an extra benefit. The children who learn ASL at an early age score much better on vocabulary and language tests than their peers. Her most recent research was conducted in the Washington D.C. area, where, she says, people are more responsive to the deaf community because of the proximity of Gallaudet University. "You often see people signing on the nightly news there, she says, "and signing is promoted in the schools."

Last year, Daniels conducted her research in a Prince Georges County, MD, public school on sixty students in four pre-kindergarten classes. Half of the students received instruction in all classes from a teacher using both ASL and spoken English. In the control groups, the teacher taught the traditional curriculum but did not use ASL. At the end of the year, all of the students took the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. The students who used ASL scored fifteen points higher than those who did not.

In April, Daniels completed another one-year study involving two kindergarten classes in Baltimore County, MD. The classes each comprised seventeen students; both were taught by the same teacher; and the Peabody Test results duplicated those from the previous study. The ASL-assisted class again scored fifteen points higher than the traditional curriculum class. Cindy Bowen, supervisor of reading at Baltimore County Public Schools, says, "The program is extremely motivational, and the kids love it. We notice that the kids keep their eyes on the teacher all of the time, and they even Sign songs when they sing them."

Daniels says that using ASL encourages shy children to increase their language-acquisition skills in a relatively pressure-free environment. "It's difficult for some children to speak well," she says, "but with ASL, the children are on more of an even playing field and don't feel inhibited." In addition, Daniels notes, the children are more attentive simply because they have to be. "When you're speaking to someone, you really don't have to make eye contact," she says, "but when you're using Sign language, you naturally and unconsciously focus. Also, the teachers have reported that there's less conflict in the classroom when students are signing."

Though researchers aren't sure why ASL boosts a hearing child's language capability, the phenomenon is often reported by deaf parents whose children interpret for them. Such children grow up in signing households where little language is spoken, yet they have strong language skills. Daniels believes that brain stimulation explains some of the dichotomy. "You intake signs with your eyes, using the right side of the brain. Then, like any other language, ASL is processed and stored in the left hemisphere. Studies show that the brain needs to be used to develop." But whatever the reason behind ASL's success, Daniels says, "These scores are a powerful indicator of the value of Sign instruction for preschool children."

The article you just read is about the work of Dr. Marilyn Daniels, a professor of Speech Communication at Penn State Worthington Scranton. She has written a book, "Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy," about her extensive research with Sign and hearing kids, the research of others regarding this subject, and advice for teachers and parents/guardians on how to use Sign with hearing children.

If you wish to visit her web site, which lists eight articles she has written for academic journals about Sign's benefits for hearing kids, click here.

This article appeared first in the Penn Stater, July/August 1995, and they own all copyrights