From ‘milk’ to ‘monkeys’
(with ‘music’ and ‘more’ between!)


Jessica Crocker’s signing story

by her Mum, Caroline Crocker



Her version of "biscuit"

“It is incredible to think what we would have missed without signing,” is how my husband sums up our experience. We began classes when Jess was six months old and, six sessions later, after much signing by mummy, at eight months old she demonstrated her first sign to Adele. She used the ‘milk’ sign to ask for a rice cake in our last lesson! For the next month, Jess used ‘milk’ for anything she wanted to eat or drink but seemed to understand other signs. ‘Up’ followed soon after – along with the actual ‘drink’ sign – (used to ask for more breast milk when I thought a feed was over.)




In those early days of signing, when it feels like you are doing all the work, you watch intently for evidence that it is ‘going in’ and I soon realised that Jess laughed at signs she was ‘learning’. She did this when I waved ‘bye bye’ for a few days before first doing it herself well. I had been signing ‘love you’ to her last thing at night for a couple of months when she began to chuckle at it.  Obviously, when she began pointing to me (the ‘you’ sign) at bedtimes a couple of days later I knew what she meant. Others in the family delighted when she did it to them, but (despite the fact that she never pointed to objects or anything else at this time), they continued to tease me saying she didn’t mean it as love you at all.



Our signing adventure continued  with ‘sleep’ and a made up ‘hug’ sign which she did with an  ‘aaah’ sound. By 11 months old , Jess was experimenting with words. Interestingly, as  I look at the list now: ‘duck’, ‘bye’, ‘hello’, ‘up’, ‘boo’, ‘look’ and ‘Dad’, I notice that the first five were words I almost always accompanied with signs and ‘look’ was almost always said before signs. ‘Look Jess, a duck’. We never used the ‘Dad’ sign, but I think this work naturally comes early on in speech development.


The start of "giraffe"


At this time, I recorded in my diary that the ‘love you’ point was a huge part of our days. Jess would sign it to her Daddy when he came in from work and, at bedtime, she began to sign it to me before I could do it to her. This always made her laugh. She’d sneak it in earlier and earlier in our routine to make me smile. I realised the exact concept of love was beyond her grasp but was certain, from how and when she used it, that she at least understood it was a friendly thing to do! To ‘prove’ her intent I set out to get her to sign the ‘love’ part as well as ‘you’ and started wiggling as I signed ‘love’. She responded, almost immediately, refining her version to an amusing ‘WIGGLE, point! ’ Still, it did the trick and family members, now convinced, thought it was wonderful when she graced them with an, always well timed, wiggly ‘love-you’.




I signed to Jess throughout the day, but bedtimes became a special signing time. I would sign each of the animals on her Gro-bag in turn, chatting and signing away about other animals and bedtime routines too. Just before her first birthday Jess added ‘light’, ‘duck’ and a cute one fingered version of ‘cat’ to her repertoire.



There are certain signs, however, that changed our days for the better from the moment they appeared and the next of those was ‘music’. I always signed it if I put a CD on and, at 13 months, Jess did a perfect version of it to ask me to put the stereo on one lunchtime. She had such fun with that sign from then on. You could see the delight in her eyes at controlling this part of our routine and, anyway, she always had loved to ‘dance’. I think this success spurred both Jess and me on. She had a way of looking at me when she wanted me to show her the sign for something and began to mimic some new signs as I did them, usually repeating them to me at a suitable point within a day or so. Two weeks later, she had added ‘hat’, ‘all gone’, ‘bird’, ‘flower’ and ‘book’ to her collection. The latter was another that amazed me as I would never have known how often her books (kept behind closed doors due to her tendency to eat them if unsupervised) entered her mind. They became an even bigger part of our lives as a result of signing.



When Jess was 14 months old, we attended one of Adele’s classes as ‘experienced signers’. As I told her signing story, the ladies in the class signed to Jess and we all watched expectantly, but she didn’t seem to want to perform. However, when I handed her an animal book, she suddenly signed ‘pig’, ‘fish’ and ‘giraffe’ – all signs I regularly signed to her, but ones she’d never done herself before. Realising the delight she’d caused, and noticing that all the ladies could sign whatever she did, she began to ‘conduct’ them by looking at each in turn, waiting for them to sign, then moving her gaze to the next one in the circle until everyone had joined in!




During the next month, Jess used the sign for ‘dolly’ regularly and was really keen to sign new things back to me as she was shown them. ‘Where’ started in this way. We signed it together for a few days but then Jess started to use it independently and it remained a favourite of hers long after she could say the word. It was another useful one – allowing her to ask for toys or people and she often said it as she searched for something. Later, as she began talking more, she’d say and sign ‘where?’ then announce ‘I see…’ as she found it. Very cute.




Next we had great fun with ‘please’. One day I offered her a rice cake and she replied with the ‘please’ sign. Seeing how keen we were to fulfil any (reasonable) wish she punctuated with ‘please’, Jess began to experiment with it to see if it worked on previously denied items or experiences. (It didn’t!) One bedtime though, when we’d had our allotted book time, each time I tried to explain that it was sleepy time now, Jess signed ‘book’ back to me. I kept gently telling her we’d had enough books, but then she looked me right in the eyes and signed ‘please, book’ with an accompanying heart-melting smile. Her first signed phrase made me burst with pride and my reply?.... “Of course we can, my darling”. She was late to bed that night!



By 15 months, mealtimes were made much simpler with the addition of ‘full up’ or her own sign for ‘wipe clean’ when she wanted to get out of the highchair. She’d been using ‘more’ for ages by this point. (My favourite moment was when she asked for ‘more’ cuddles with me!). ‘Drink’ was always handy for when her beaker was dangling out of her reach on its strap and, of course, mealtimes were perfect for garden watching out of the window and she learnt ‘rain’ and ‘tree’ around this time. A typical day included about thirteen different signs and ten or so words at this stage. When a friend with a younger baby visited one day, Jess must have noticed the lady’s fascination in seeing a real baby ‘sign’, (she’d been reading about the concept), because she fetched her books and began signing everything she could see in them and the room as well – quickly signing around thirty signs and ensuring another signing convert.



As toddler frustrations set in at 16 months, I taught Jess to sign ‘help me’. I found that this, along with the ‘please’ sign, often got her through troubled moments and still does. If she is stropping, I say, “What do you say?” or “you know what to do if you want help” and, in the moment it takes her to pause and sign to me, her mood lifts. Before long, the ‘help me’ sign was accompanied by a plaintive ‘elp me’ which was more dramatic every time.




By this time Jess was really using signs to communicate needs, such as her sleep-time comfort cloth, and observations rather than just identifying things. We would have little conversations, (David says she and I will be good at charades when she’s older!) Jess would sign, for example, ‘bird’ and I would ask her “Can you see a bird? Where?” and she’d sign ‘tree’ and so we’d go on. I also noticed her beginning to refine her early versions of signs such as cat and, most importantly, she added the correct ‘love’ sign to her infamous ‘love you’ point!




The next part of Jess’ signing story is centred on family. At some point, I began using the ‘g’ sign for my dad, Gramps. Once she had mastered that, I invented one for my mum, Granny, (a smile traced on your mouth with your index finger.) Jess seemed to love the fact that she could initiate conversations about special people even when they weren’t there to point to. I considered my father-in-law, Grandad, a portly chap and momentarily wondered about basing a sign on that. Tapping my stomach with both hands, I said “Grandad”. I had second thoughts about being so cheeky, but it was too late. That afternoon, Jess fetched a photo album and proudly signed ‘Grandad’. The sign stuck. Before I could insult anyone else, Jess started saying ‘Nan’ and attempting the names of all her aunts and uncles, but the signing remained as a way of telling me about them. One memorable bedtime Jess signed ‘love’ and then said “Liz”, (she hadn’t seen my sister for days). I asked if she loved Aunty Liz and she smiled and said, “Yes” with a satisfaction she shows when she has communicated an idea to me.



Around this time Jess began using signs to recount events from days, or weeks before. Uncle Nick is a favourite topic of conversation and, at age 17 months, Jess relied on signs such as ‘bike’ and ‘hat’, (for helmet), in addition to his name, to get me to talk about his visits. Another one that ran for ages after the event was: ‘Gramps’ (signed), then a drill noise and I had to say “What was Gramps doing?” She would reply ‘holes’ to talk about him drilling the bedroom walls, or ‘moo’ to recount a different day when he hung a picture of farm animals.



Well, we are approaching the end of this signing story and the monkeys of the title have yet to appear. In fact, monkey was one of the many animals Jess had chosen to use a sound for, instead of a physical sign, but she had always liked them. The monkey signing story began in my friend’s car one day when we were driving along a tree-lined lane. Jess suddenly exclaimed “oh” from the back of the car and when I asked what she’s seen, she very clearly signed ‘bird, tree’. I then asked a typical confirmation question  - “Did you see a bird in the tree?” and she must have thought, ‘Didn’t I just sign so?’ because she grinned and said ‘oo oo’ – adding the tree sign. I laughed and in mock admonishment said, “You did not see a monkey”. She repeated her ‘oo oos’ and chuckled. A couple of days later, when out with my mum in her car, I was recounting this story, but saying “perhaps she meant owl” (as Jess has a ‘whoo whoo’ sound for them.) I heard a little voice say, “Mum”. I turned to look at Jess in her car seat and she signed ‘monkey’ (for the first time ever), said ‘oo oo’ and added a tree sign in case I was in any doubt!



Well, that was it, according to Jess, trees everywhere, (particularly the ones she can see in our garden from her highchair) started to have monkeys in them. My Dad suggested that we should all look out for a cuddly monkey in charity shops for Jess’ favourite tree in the garden. We now have four cuddly monkeys in our trees, (with plans for more as we find them) and Jess has great fun telling me they are there.



Jess signs "cat"

Realising our signing journey was nearing its natural end, I leapt at the chance to host ‘Rhyme and Sign’ classes at my house when Jess was almost 18 months old. Over six sessions, Jess learnt many new signs and whole signing songs, often demonstrating them in our bedtime reading sessions on the night of the lesson each week. In addition, she had new signed stories, to tell all week, of what she’d done with the adored signing doll, Nina!



Even now, at almost 20 months of age, when I estimate she uses around 200 words, signing is still very much part of our lives. New words are not always clear, especially when she’s excited about something, and Jess often signs to confirm or correct me when I query a word. She loves books and still uses some signs as she ‘reads’ them with me every day. In addition, she has her favourites like ‘doll’, which she always signs as well as saying ‘baby’ and ‘glasses’ which she signs to tell me to put my glasses on when I drive the car. Others, like ‘book’ or ‘please’, she uses for emphasis or if something isn’t happening as quickly as she’d like it to with the spoken word alone.



There are a few words which she still signs rather than speaking but, for the last two weeks, these have been reducing daily, mostly they exist alongside words now. At its height, Jess was signing over 100 words regularly. Her Dad and I are convinced that signing has accelerated her language skills, in particular, her desire to share her thoughts via little phrases. She is so used to using groups of signs, (or a mixture of signs and words) to relate events, she is already trying to communicate quite complicated ideas with her emerging speech. Signing makes you ‘listen’ more carefully to your child and concentrate on what they wish to communicate. Jess has grown used to this and delights in sharing her observations. With me as her mum, she would no doubt always have been a chatterbox, but signing opened up a world of early communication and gave us many precious and amusing moments.


Jess (and Nina doll) sign "glasses"


I realise that the more she speaks, the less I sign to her, and the excitement about her growing vocabulary is tinged with a sadness that the signs are fading away. Our experience of signing has definitely been incredible, and it will be with us for a while yet. It seems that three new signs from Adele’s classes have captured her imagination: ‘trouble’, ‘play’ and ‘share’. She will no doubt have reason to use these for quite a time to come!




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