Blogger Kiera Parrott

Using Sign Language in Early Literacy Programs


While I absolutely enjoy singing and using music during my baby and toddler storytimes, no one could ever mistake me for Lisa Loeb. It’s a good day if I remember to clap correctly to Bingo the Dog, nevermind stay in key. I’ve often fantasized about learning the guitar and being a kind of librarian lovechild of Joni Mitchell and Raffi. But alas, it is simply not to be.

While I still hold out hope to one day learn enough chords to strum along to Wheels on the Bus, in the meantime I’ve found another way to strengthen the pre-literacy skills of my littlest patrons: American Sign Language (ASL).

As evidenced by the popularity of baby sign books and DVDs, using ASL with hearing populations is a major trend. And with good reason. Babies are capable of understanding words and meanings much earlier than they are physiologically capable of speech. A baby might not be able to say, “Hey Mom, I want some more milk!” but she can easily learn the sign for MILK.

Using signs in conjunction with spoken directions has also proven to be an effective way of communicating with some special needs children. And for kids who are more visually oriented learners, using sign language is a fun way to increase vocabulary and build narrative skills.

At my baby and toddler programs, I often begin by signing WELCOME before we sing our ‘hello song’. Sometimes I’ll throw in a few signs (like THANK YOU and GOOD) between books or songs – but the idea is to keep the usage natural and not break the “flow” of the program.

I find that it’s easiest to use simple signs to supplement the text and pictures in a book. These don’t necessarily have to be “baby sign” books. I like to use picture books that have simple text (either one word or a dominant sentence) and clear illustrations. For example, Rachel Isadora’s Peekaboo Morning is a great book to introduce the signs for MOMMY, DADDY, GRANDMA, and GRANDPA.

Here are a few baby/toddler books that work nicely in conjunction with simple signs:

I See by Helen Oxenbury

White on Black by Tana Hoban

Look Look! by Peter Linenthal

Margaret Miller’s Look Baby Books

When I use signs in my programs, I make it a point to let the parents know that I am not a fluent signer- but simply a student of the language. I feel that it is important to respect the history of the language and Deaf culture. I use only ASL signs (as opposed to Signed English or other forms of sign language). I also encourage parents or children interested in learning more to check out relevant books and DVDs on learning ASL.

If you’re interested in learning more about American Sign Language (and don’t have the time or money to take a course) is a great starting place.


  1. Sara Bingham, WeeHands

    Wonderful post! Thank you so much for the book suggestions. I’ve been looking for a good board book with family vocabulary for years!


    Sara Bingham, WeeHands Founder
    Author of The Baby Signing Book
    T: 1-866-746-SIGN

    “There are no hands so small that they cannot make a difference in the world.” – Author Unknown

  2. misssparky

    I love sign language! Right now I’m learning how to sign with my baby on MindBites:

    The author’s name is Laura Berg and she teaches baby sign language classes (you can sign up online, google search: Mysmarthands) as well as how to make your own baby sign language flash cards. I’m loving her baby sign language video on dictionary terms and I hope she comes out with a DVD soon!

  3. Heather

    When I first started working in libraries I met a baby who used signs to communicate. She was 9 months old and signed “More milk, mom”. All three signs! As soon as I saw that, I was sold on baby signing and adding signs to storytime!

    I like to use signs along with songs. One of my favorites is “One little, two little, three little spiders (or trees, or bats, or airplanes)…” I can easily adapt it to any theme or situation by learning one new sign.

  4. Pingback: American Sign Language (ASL) in Your Library | ALSC Blog

  5. Dawn Prochovnic

    I love these ideas! Here are some additional ideas summarized in a series of blog posts about signing in storytime:

    I will add the other ideas listed above to my own resource lists!

    Dawn Prochovnic, MA
    Author of Story Time with Signs and Rhymes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *