For Nicole Miller, sign language is far more than a convenience or a novelty. For a time, it was an important part of daily life. A genetic condition gradually compromised her hearing ability, causing her to ultimately leave a career in higher education. Although surgery has since restored much of her hearing, she continues to use sign language to communicate with her twins, 3-year-olds Ashton and Jordyn. About a year ago, she decided to start sharing this skill with other families. She now offers Signing Times courses through Crouse Hospital in Syracuse and at the Fayetteville Free Library.
Miller says sign language offers families a means of basic communication with their beginning talkers that encourages their natural language development. It’s also just plain fun.
“I’m lucky in that I never had to depend on sign language to communicate,” explains Miller, who lives in Cicero with the twins and husband Mark. “But I’ve always been fascinated by sign language. I basically taught myself to sign when I was a child. As a family, we have totally incorporated it into our lives.”
Miller, who also teaches courses in baby and infant massage through Crouse’s Kienzle Family Maternity Center, figures that her children now know how to sign more than 400 words.
Miller initially offered the Baby Signs program in her courses, but recently switched to the Signing Times program because it does not require participants to purchase a separate DVD—as Baby Signs does.
Signing Times was launched by the mother of two disabled girls. “Both depended on sign language for early communication,” Miller says. “To help others communicate with her oldest daughter she, and her sister, created videos to share with family and friends. The videos were a hit as word spread and now they have produced over 36 videos based on different topics.” Miller says the Fayetteville Library already has many of the Signing Times videos in circulation and plans to add more to its collection in support of the courses.
Children as young as 9 months old can benefit from learning simple signs that enable their caregivers to engage in basic communications, Miller says. Readiness is individual, but generally babies who can sit up and wave are ready to learn a few simple signs. A preverbal child’s ability to use signs for words such as “eat” or “drink” or “sad” can alleviate frustration and build confidence.
“Sometimes, babies are using subtle signs, or hand gestures, far earlier than we realize,” Miller says. “People innately sign on their own.”
At the Fayetteville Free Library, the course typically takes place just after an infant story time. “Parents come to bring their children to the literacy program and stay for the sign class,” Miller says. She adds that although she tries to keep classes small—no more than eight families per registration period—there’s no accounting for order when it comes to babies. “The one rule for our class is, ‘Babies Rule!’” Miller says. Materials to support sign teaching at home are included in the $55 course fee. The next four-week series at the Fayetteville Library will run on Mondays, April 2, 9, 16 and 23. The classes are scheduled for 11 a.m.
Miller has offered a 90-minute basic parent-signing workshop at the library for about a year. She just started offering a follow-up last fall. The expanded course offerings for this year are still being determined.
Although Miller’s twins are now avid talkers, they still enjoy signing and Miller considers them her co-teachers. In her family, Miller says signing has been helpful in defusing typical troubles—such as sharing. Developmentally, Miller is certain that signing has helped propel her children’s motor skill development and understanding of sentence structure. “By the time they were 3 they could sign the alphabet, and that’s a fine motor skill,” she says.
Quinn Murphy of Fayetteville, who with daughter Lark has taken Miller’s basic signing course, says she was first exposed to infant signing years ago when she babysat for a family who used it. After Lark was born, Murphy started using a few signs on her own. Then she discovered Miller’s class.
“We loved it. Babies just learn so quickly. I was happy to find a course so close to me, and I can’t tell you how much she likes it,” Murphy says. “The course makes you realize how much babies can understand.”
Murphy says Lark, now nearly 2, can relate to some of the things she sees in books and relay her understanding to her mother. “Babies love to get feedback from their parents, and this enables me to better understand her and respond,” Murphy says. She adds that some members of Lark’s extended family, who sometimes care for her, have started signing, too. “Everybody’s on board,” she says.
Miller says for her the challenge is to stay current on the research behind the course philosophy. Among the things she likes best about the Signing Times and Baby Signs programs—which is about 90 percent derived from American Sign Language, “with infant adaptations when necessary”— is that there are many support materials available so parents can continue their progress on their own.
Miller is also fascinated by the inroads signing has made in special education programs. Educators now commonly use sign in the classroom to better communicate with students with limited verbal abilities.
Other instructors, including Baby Signs with Mrs. Cincotta, a storefront at Shoppingtown Mall run by Sarah Cincotta, have begun offering classes in Central New York.
Miller is pleased that there is enough interest to keep the instructors busy. She adds that Crouse does its best to make the courses accessible to as many families as possible. “There are always new families who want to learn,” she says. “We’re helping the babies but we’re also helping the parents.”
Murphy says Miller’s enthusiasm for the material makes her an engaging instructor. “I really liked Nicole’s class; she really has fun with it. She’s a great resource for more information, too. We will look into taking another course if we can.”
Both of her roles with Crouse give her some nice fringe benefits. “I get to be with babies,” Miller says with a big smile. “That’s what’s great about this job.”
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.
Michael Davis Photo