two women speaking by using sign language

Six tips on teaching sign language


Language is a critical component to cognitive and healthy personality development. Communication is source of comfort, security and self-expression for everyone, and most importantly, for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When verbal language is delayed or nonexistent, sign language has often been considered as a last resort. With training, signs are not difficult for most family or staff to learn. After learning sign language, those who frequently interact with persons with disabilities can simultaneously present speech and signs to teach communication skills.

People who communicate with signs may communicate with others who use sign language. According to the World Federation of the Deaf, about 70 million people who are deaf use sign language as their primary language. An extremely limited number of people comprehend the communicative attempts of those who have no formal language structure.

Which individuals are likely candidates for sign language?

  • Finds traditional language training unsuccessful
  • Comprehends gestures
  • Uses gestures to communicate intents, needs and protests
  • Understands spoken language
  • Receptive to learning
  • Uses arm, hand, finger movements
  • Access to committed trainer(s)

Introducing signs

sign language vocabularyInitial sign selection should be functional to the needs, desires and feelings of the person who has a disability. Selected signs that can be used in all environments, for example, at home and school, day program or workplace, are recommended.
It is helpful to introduce signs representing assistance requests and other social vocabulary, including refusal. Favorites, people, health and waste signs are equally important. See examples in the table to the right:

Iconic signs, meaning signs that closely resemble what they represent, are learned more rapidly and are easiest to remember. Most people recognize iconic signs like “car,” which resembles operating a steering wheel when signed.

Using recommended signs

It is imperative that trainers use the same reference materials. American Sign Language, rather than Signing Exact English, is most frequently used by Americans who communicate primarily through signs.
It is helpful if trainers consider the complexity of the hand shape, palm orientation, location and movement when identifying which signs will be introduced. To minimize confusion, similar signs should initially be avoided. For example, there is little difference between “apple” and “candy.” Both signs twist the index finger at the side of the mouth.

Teaching Tips

  1. Introduce concrete objects or color photos rather than abstract black and white pictures enhances learning for people with intellectual disabilities.
  2. If the learner has cerebral palsy, communicative attempts using one hand rather than both for two handed signs should be rewarded.
  3. If a person with self-stimulation behavior is able to keep his or her hands in their lap, training sessions will be more successful.
  4. When an individual has a limited short-term memory, fewer signs should be introduced at each session.
  5. When possessing a vocabulary of 50 words, people begin to use two-word utterances (e.g.: noun/verb).
  6. After acquiring a vocabulary of 50 signs, individuals produce two consecutive signs.

Cindy Powell is a training and development specialist at Carmel Community Living Corporation. Cindy has provided direct and administrative services to Coloradoans and Montanans with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1975. Since 1979, she has provided group instruction on sign language training strategies, team involvement, initial sign selection, prompting, recording progress and resources.


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