Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sign Language and Ear Infections

With the winter months coming it means that cold season is on its way. This may be a time when middle ear infections are on the rise with our little ones as well. Since the first 4 years of life are critical for the development of language, information regarding ear infections and the possible effects on speech and language development is important for parents. Early literacy skills also start to develop during this time. Can the use of American Sign Language help language and literacy development during cold and ear infection season? Yes!

Often if a child is experiencing otitis media or middle ear infections, it means that their middle ear, the area behind their ear drum, has a build up in fluid that may be infected. Otitis media is very common in young children. Hearing infections or otitis media is only second to the common cold in preschool children.

Tiny bones in the middle ear carry sound waves through vibrations to the inner ear so that we can hear. Fluid in the middle ear, due to otitis media may make it difficult for these tiny bones to carry the sounds waves or vibrations and this may result in a temporary hearing loss. Toddlers and preschoolers with repeated ear infections or otitis media may have times that they have difficulty hearing and processing language because of repeated middle ear infections and then temporary hearing loss due to these plugged little ears.

These temporary hearing losses may make it difficult to understand spoken speech. Imagine a little one with a cold, an ear ache and they can't hear your instructions - they'll definitely have a right to feel grumpy!

Signs of otitis media may be what appears to be inattentiveness, but this is not intentional since their ability to hear is lessened. If you notice that your child wants the television or music louder than usual, this may be a sign of an ear infection. Your child may also seem to be pulling or scratching their ear more often and may seem in general, more tired, listless and irritable.

If you notice your little one has any of these signs, talk with your family doctor. As well, routine visits with your local audiologist will be helpful in keeping an eye on those little ears.

With ear infections, sounds may be muffled and unclear. This may, temporarily, have a negative effect on understanding language but it may also have a negative effect on learning letter sounds and phonemic awareness. This can be frustrating for parents, educators and the child.

I've found that signing with young children, teaching them basic American Sign Language (ASL) vocabulary has been very helpful around times they may have hearing difficulties. Lisa Hinz Lach of Central Jersey, NJ adds that, children who may have a ear infection, "may be able to use sign language to tell you that they HURT or feel SICK."

Signing is also a great help when young children area learning to read. The use of sign language, including the ASL alphabet, has a great positive on a youngster's early reading skills. The use of American Sign Language, combined with speech, with a toddler or preschool child who is learning to read and print is helpful because it presents information to the child in three ways: visually since they can see the signs; auditorily because/when they can hear your speech and motoricaly because as they practice they can feel the differences in the signs with their own hands. The use of signs with little ones may also help get and keep their attention.

As well, parents and educators who sign and speak (and who aren't fluent in ASL) tend to slow down their own speech and repeat their words more often. Anyone learning a language, written or spoken, benefits when what they are learning is presenter in a slower fashion and repeated.The use of sign language with young children learning to read presents information to them in three ways (visually, auditorily and kinesthetically) and naturally encourages their teachers to slow down and repeat their speech. These are all great ways to foster literacy skills in young children!

Sara Bingham is the founder of WeeHands and the author of The Baby Signing Book. WeeHands is the world's leading children's sign language and language development program for babies, toddlers and preschool children.

Sara completed an Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics at the University of Ottawa, and has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Carleton University. Sara has earned a post-graduate diploma from Georgian College, as a Communicative Disorders Assistant. Sara has been studying American Sign Language since 1991 with the Canadian Hearing Society, the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf in Toronto and at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. Along with acting as the President and Founder of WeeHands Baby Sign Language Inc., Sara is also a professor with the Communicative Disorders Assistant program at Durham College.

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