I posted last week about the benefits of teaching babies and toddlers to use sign language while learning to communicate. Now I’m about to rail against one of the most egregious uses of sign language that I’ve ever encountered. Some therapists seem to think that teaching an all-purpose word like “more” will have this all-encompassing benefit. In fact, teaching a child to sign “more” as a first sign is one of the most detrimental things you can teach.
Picture this, a sweet little babe is sitting in a chair, nicely contained so that the well-meaning therapist can work with the child. It goes like this–I’ve done it before, but I don’t do it any longer–Feed a kid an M&M. Child loves the candy. Sign and say “more” and give the child another candy. Use a hand-over-hand to show the child the sign for “more”. Repeat until you run out of candy or until the child is repeatedly and enthusiastically asking for more.
Fast forward a few hours to dinnertime. Mom, who eagerly looked on while her little cherub was learning to sign “more” is excited to try this new task. She plops Sweetums up in the chair and pulls out what has been, up until now, her child’s favorite veggie: Peas. Sweetums looks on with interest. So far, this is looking quite favorable. She thinks back to the afternoon when she sat in the chair with the nice lady who had a bowl full of little candies. They were small and round and yummy. Sweetums looks at the bowl and signs “more.” Mom is excited. Her child has just signed spontaneously. They are communicating…she thinks.
Mom gives Sweetums a spoonful of peas. Indignantly, Sweetums spews them out of her mouth and signs, “more.” Mom gives it another shot and gives Sweetums more peas. Sweetums not only spits out the pea, she reaches down and flips the bowl out of Mom’s hand.
What went wrong?
For starters, the child did learn a sign. She learned that the sign for “more” is associated with an object. In this case, she associates it with candy. Peas are not an acceptable substitute. I think you’d agree.
When a child is learning to use words expressively, almost in every case, the first words are nouns. Children label things in their environment, and they are picky about what they name. If you look around your home, you will likely see a couch and walls and a dishwasher and towels and any number of other items that are never on the list of words that a child learns first even though the child sees those objects every single day. Babies comment on what they are interested in. They notice the family dog or a caregiver or a favorite toy. One of my daughters learned to say “chicken” well ahead of the first time she said “Mama.” Yeah, that stings. Sixteen hours of labor, and she repays me by talking to the chickens in the yard instead of me. But I digress…
Typically developing children learn existence first. You see this when they begin to label nouns around them. Then they learn non-existence. What’s that you ask? All done. Bye bye. Whatever it is that I am paying attention to isn’t here anymore. That’s non-existence.
Then, after a whole bunch of labeling and a whole bunch of waving and saying bye bye and all done, then comes recurrence. This is when the conceptual understanding for “more” comes in. Teaching this concept in place of labeling is just asking for trouble. If you would like to see the whole sequence, you can check out Bloom and Lahey’s chart right here. I had to learn it in college. Fascinating stuff. Really. OK, well, I learned it anyway.
So, don’t even bother with teaching a child to sign “more.” It will come eventually, and if you really really insist on teaching “more” then wait until the child has at least 50 words and/or signs in everyday use. By then, it is developmentally appropriate.
I’ve railed about “more” and haven’t made a peep about signing “please.” Go back up and insert “please” every time you see the word “more” and you’ll have my thoughts on that. When a child signs “please” in order to get a thing, the referent needs to be clear. If I introduce “please”–and I only do so if a family insists–then I introduce it when the child is already putting at least 2 words together. That way, the child can easily specify exactly what is wanted.
Anything else just leads to frustration, and I don’t see a need to generate any more of that than there already is in the world.