How Sign Language, Singing and Reading Help Toddlers Learn to Communicate

Parents often ask if things like singing, sign language and reading will be effective in helping their child learn to communicate. The short sign language answer is, yes, yes and yes! Sign language, singing and reading to a child are all excellent ways to encourage a toddler’s expressive language. This blog will describe why and how each of these activities will benefit toddlers as they develop speech and language.

How sign language can encourage spoken language:

Language is a symbolic system, requiring the exchange of “symbols” that have meaning. For example, the word “ball” is a symbol for a round object that bounces. When children have an expressive language delay, sign language is a very effective (and well-researched) way to reinforce that symbolic system in the temporary absence of words.

Here are a few important things to consider when using basic signs with your child:

  • Pair the sign with the spoken word to ensure your child makes a connection between the two.
  • Keep in mind that communication goes far beyond spoken words; it also includes gestures (e.g. pointing, waving), facial expressions, eye-gaze and tone of voice.
  • reinforce and encourage other methods of intentional communication, while we do want children (if they are able) to eventually use speech, it’s equally important to encourage other ways that they can communicate.

How singing can encourage spoken language:

Children learn language primarily through hearing and imitating. Singing is a fun and engaging way for children to hear and imitate language structures. Singing to your child promotes skills such as imitation, gestures, listening, speech sound development and expressive language.

Here are a few things to consider when singing to your child:

  • Don’t be afraid to sing the same songs over and over! The repetition will help your child anticipate and learn new language structures.
  • Leave out sound or words and let your child fill in the gaps as your child becomes familiar with a favorite song,
  • Incorporate songs with gestures and hand motions. If your child is having difficulty imitating speech, start with simply encouraging them to imitate other motor movements, such as the gestures to “Wheels on the Bus”.

How reading can encourage spoken language:

Reading is another fun and engaging way for children to hear and imitate language structures. In addition,, reading promotes engagement, social interaction, vocabulary development and listening skills. As your child becomes familiar with the words to a favorite book, they will be able to anticipate what comes next, fill in missing words and even recite parts independently.

Tips For Spoken Language:

  • Introduce new vocabulary. Talk about new words and provide your child with examples. Try to use their new vocabulary words throughout the following week.
  • Label pictures and describe what is happening. Label different objects and actions on each page. You might want to even encourage your child to find the objects or actions that you name.
  • Ask your child questions about what’s happening in the story. By asking your child questions while reading, you can monitor their comprehension while practicing various “wh-” questions.
  • Let your child fill in words. As your child becomes familiar with a particular book, leave out key words and let your child fill them in. This works particularly well in repetitive books, such as Brown Bear Brown Bear. You might say, “Brown bear brown bear, what do you ___?”

What else can parents do?

There are countless other ways in which parents can encourage their toddler’s expressive language. Keep in mind that language is social, therefore it is important to practice language in a social context. While flashcards and computer-based programs might seem appealing (and there’s certainly a time and place for these as children learn), do not underestimate the power of simply playing with your child. In fact, I believe it is one of the most beneficial things that parents can do to encourage their toddler’s communication.

While playing together:

  • Get down to your child’s level (literally) so that you are communicating face-to-face, and have fun talking and playing together.
  • Encourage activities, such as pretend play.
  • Engage in turn-taking games.
  • Model and encourage sound play (e.g. imitating animal sounds and environmental noises) as well as motor-imitation (e.g. imitating gestures and movements).
  • Practice and encourage following directions.
  • Ask your child various questions as you play together.
  • Narrate what is happening as you play together.

As the foundation of language is social interaction, we want children to learn in fun and engaging contexts. Parents can help their child by modeling and reinforcing language, as well as providing fun opportunities to engage on their child’s level face-to-face. Sign language, singing and reading are all fun and engaging ways in which parents can encourage their toddler’s communication while enjoying time together.