So says researcher Marilyn Daniels, an associate professor of speech communication at Pennsylvania State University. In seven separate studies comparing pre-schoolers and kindergarteners, Daniels found that students who were taught American Sign Language (ASL) wound up with higher reading levels than those who received no ASL instruction.
"All of the studies showed an improvement with the sign language," she says. "Vocabulary was improved 15 to 20 percent, so it was a really big vocabulary gain."
The studies were part of 10 years of research described in Daniels' new book, Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy.
In perhaps the strongest of the findings, Daniels tested her theory at a Prince George's County, Md., school with a largely African-American student population. The educators were concerned about studies showing that black children typically score 15 points lower than white children on standardized tests.
In comparing four pre-school classes -- two that had sign language instruction and two that did not -- Daniels found the test scores were significantly higher among those learning ASL. Their scores were up to the levels typically seen among white children, she says.
Daniels began investigating the impact of sign language on children's reading skills after her graduate students in speech communication at Central Connecticut State University observed that hearing children whose parents were deaf seemed to excel in reading and spoken English.
She knew that sign language was also used with special-needs children. So, she decided to find out whether any improvement could also be seen in students without disabilities.
The main reason sign language seems to help, she says, is because it gives an additional dimension to expressing and understanding the concept of words.
"It helps children in terms of giving a picture for the words. Most of the signs are iconic, so since the signs look like what the words are, it helps the child remember what the word is," she says.
"Since the child can associate the letters in a word with a sign, they are more easily able to remember it," she adds.
Jerry Johns, president-elect of the International Reading Association, says the use of ASL in classrooms has yet to catch on with mainstream educators. But, he adds, it does utilize techniques that improve reading skills.
"It's not something that has received much attention yet, but there is certainly a growing awareness of techniques using basic decoding skills -- such as phonics."
Meanwhile, Daniels says the sign language project has been so effective in classrooms participating in her studies, it has actually caused a problem in completing the research as planned.
"I had a teacher using ASL with a morning class and not the afternoon, because I needed to get really good comparison data," she says. "But she was having so much success she said, 'I've got to give this to the afternoon class as well; I can't withhold it from them because the morning class is doing so well.' "
And schools in which Daniels has done her research don't abandon the ASL approach when she leaves.
"I've never had a school implement this and then stop when the study is complete," she says. "They always continue to use it."
What To Do
Visit the International Reading Association for more information on reading-skills issues.
And you can learn more about children and reading in these HealthDay stories.