Our #Education21 campaign highlights how educational research has helped us to better understand the needs of young people with Down syndrome and how it is improving outcomes for many thousands of children today. Find out more...

#1. Signing improves early vocabulary learning and communication

Educational research suggests that signs can help young children with Down syndrome to learn new words and to communicate more. This knowledge helps parents and therapists to support the children's early language development.

What educational research has shown

In the 1980s practitioners began to observe that if parents were taught to use signs with spoken words when talking to their babies and toddlers with Down syndrome, the children began to use signs to communicate before they could say the words. It appeared that signs increased the children's ability to communicate and reduced frustration. Signs also enabled the children to show that they understood more than had previously been assumed.

In 1992, Miller reported data from a carefully controlled study in Wisconsin which followed children over time. He presented data for productive vocabulary for sign only, word and sign together and word only for children with Down syndrome and typically developing children matched for mental age which shows that:

Miller concluded we have evidence that using signs does increase early vocabulary learning and communication but only at this early stage.

How this is helping

This paper and other studies of the benefits of sign use led to most practitioners in speech, language or early intervention programs encouraging parents to sign with their babies and toddlers with Down syndrome. This is helping the children's early language development.

Unanswered questions

Future research is needed to explore:


  1. Miller (1992) Development of speech and language in children with Down syndrome. In Lott, McCoy, Eds. Down syndrome: advances in medical care Wiley-Liss.