Ideas for Kids Who Are Talking But Still Clinging to a Favorite Sign


Do you have any kids on your caseload (or in your own house!) who hang on to a few favorite signs even though they are already using words?

Today I received this email from an SLP about her own son:

My little guy has is almost 2 years old and as his expressive vocabulary continues to grow with words like octopus and pizza?, he still signs milk instead of using verbal speech. This baffles my mind because it is such a high frequency word in our household as you can imagine! 

Actually, this is a fairly common scenario when children have become ‘expert’ signers. To me this means a kid who has mastered lots of signs pretty quickly and uses them frequently and spontaneously. They understand the interactive piece and certainly demonstrate communicative intent. For them, signs really are a substitute for words. (Contrast this with a child who only knows a couple of signs, needs physical assistance to perform the sign, or only signs when she’s heavily cued. Although these little friends are certainly trying and their efforts are better than nothing, they aren’t functional communicators yet.)

Here’s my response to her:

It sounds to me like his ‘motor plan’ (meaning how his little brain conceptualizes the word “milk”) is signing milk rather than saying the word.

To get him to say the word, try some of these options which have worked for me:

Feign ignorance when he uses his sign and say, “What???? Tell me! What????” and wait for the word.

Just as he begins to sign, playfully turn away so you don’t see his sign for milk. This will force him to try to get your attention. Hopefully he’ll use a word. Say things like, “What? Do want something?”

Go a completely different direction – more like sabotage. Give him the wrong drink and see if he’ll try to correct you.Give him the wrong drink. When he protests, say things like, “Huh??? What’s wrong?” or “Uh oh. You don’t want juice. Tell me what you need!”

After that, if he doesn’t say milk on his own, model “milk” a few times just as you would cue other “new” words. In this case, act like you’re starting over and teaching a completely new word.

Still no response? Try a totally different approach.

As you’re holding up the milk, ask him if it’s juice or milk. Here’s why… sometimes a child will answer a verbal question with a word, even if he signs as a request. (Try to figure that one out! It’s the same principle. If he learned to use the sign to make a request, he may say the actual word since he’s using a different pragmatic function – responding rather than requesting.)

Practice saying the word “milk” in a new context or setting. For example, when you’re at the grocery store, semi-shout “Milk, milk, milk!” when you’re at that spot in the dairy section. Sometimes kids will do something new when you’re in a different place because you interrupted their normal plan.

If a child loves vocal play and imitation games, begin by having them copy you as you do easy motor actions like clapping or patting a table, and then bump up to saying familiar words he can easily repeat. When he’s on a roll, sneak the word “milk” in there. Try another word or two and then go back to “milk” to give him additional practice. If this is successful, have that cup full of milk ready to quickly reward him when he says it. If he responds well to verbal praise, make a big deal when he’s said the word “milk” to reinforce his verbal attempts.

When these ideas don’t work, I have tried playfully holding a toddler’s little hands (so he can’t sign) and saying something like, “I know you can say this… tell me milk.”

Those are just a few strategies that have been successful for me.

Overall, don’t worry too much about this situation. He’s already talking, so you know everything is moving along. As nearly all children get older and begin to talk more and more, the signs will fade (since words are more efficient!), and then you’ll probably even miss those signs!




For more ideas for signing (and lots more!!), get my book Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual. It walks you through how to teach signs and use picture system for late talkers and other toddlers with language delays/disorders. You’ll also see strategies and activities for every receptive and expressive milestone from under 12 months to age 4. It’s a must-have resource for pediatric SLPs!

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