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Teaching a 4 year old

How do you begin to teach a child who has no functional language?

We use a natural approach to language development. First offering an environment which is visually linguistically rich – words, signs, posters, pictures, interactive representational materials (flashcards, slot charts, puzzles, pictures, videos, books, magazines).

Then we try to create ‘natural’ setting in which to use the language – play, cooking, cleaning, working, writing, coloring, games – in which the child is brought into the activity. We try to force communication by presenting choices at all turns and by not letting the child dictate too much of what happens. In the beginning, we will follow the child around talking about the things we are doing and seeing – SWING! YES YOU SWING. I LIKE SWINGS. THIS SWING RED. YOU SIT-ON BLUE SWING. etc.

Eventually, we impose some structure: Flags, Chapel, Calendar time, Prayer, Printing, Math, Counting, Computers, Story telling. The goal is to stimulate expressive language. Receptive language skills precede expressive language skills so there are multiple models fo language happening all around in classrooms, between staff, with other students – each instance of seeing language signed will impact the mind of our new students. This is as true for a 4 year old as it is for a 14 year old.

August 11, 2009
Day One

saul 2009 08The little boy in the grey shirt is 4 years old. On his first day of school, he learned to sign PLEASE. He signs PLEASE on his teacher’s chest when she has something he wants. Other times he seems to know the words means GIVE ME THAT .

Day Two

Our new little student does not know his name. He does not know his teacher’s name but he follows her everywhere. He is learning to trust others but he trusts her the most.

Today at El Yunque we played in a pool of water. He learned to sign ROCK. Not sure he knows THIS THING is a ROCK as he is using the ROCK sign to tap people (he loves reactions!) but he has retained PLEASE (signed it on his teacher’s chest today when he wanted the dish rag to wash his plate after lunch). Everyday holds wonderful surprises for this little student and his teacher and all who observe either from a far or up close.

Day Three

He still does not know his name but he has learned that a certain look from the teacher means “Say please.” The teacher and the boy played cards. Every time he signed “Please” he received a card from the stack.

One mother observed, “I remember having a four year-old who had no language.”

A father observed, “Wow, he is so young. He knows nothing!” Then the father began to introduce himself in sign language. Every little interaction will work together to bring an understanding of language to our new little boy.

Day Four

Though he does not have a formal language, I watched today as our newest student requested the assistance of a hearing worker. Once the worker was in his grasp, the little guy took off with his assistant running behind carrying 8 orange traffic cones. Fun to watch. Interesting to imagine a few years down the line how this will play out.

Oh, and, he did NOT sign PLEASE as part of the interaction. 🙁

Day Five

saul 2009 08 beachThe little guy is out there in the water somewhere. I think in his mother’s arms. His younger brother (younger by 2 years) is in the foreground. His younger brother hears and talks. Because his older brother and sister are both hearing impaired, the younger brother has many of their behaviors including communicating non-verbally.

Today the mother of this boy and the mother of another little deaf boy sat on the beach and chatted. There is so much to know about raising a deaf child and how to cope with the language, behaviors, and problems that we as hearing people don’t think about. Well, think about it now for a moment? What about hearing do you take for granted?

Week Two

Last week, one of the older boys made an issue of being friends with one child and not another. On Day Six, our little lad said to an older boy, “you me friend” after the older boy had helped him with his lunch plate. Ah!

Day Seven, he learned the sign for RAIN done with alternating hands rather than with simultaneous motions. He also sat in chapel alone and did not cry and fight about it like he did yesterday. Small steps.

Day Eight, maybe he knows his name sign but we aren’t sure about that. When playing a game involving running to colored chairs, he does respond to “Saul run to the blue chair.”

Day Nine, today he arrived to school a little late. He missed snack time with his classmates but since he had a bag of chips, his teacher allowed him to munch them down. While he was eating, another student looked at him and PLEASE at which he gave his friend a chip. He seems to enjoy the power of having chips and expecting someone to say PLEASE. One by one, he shared his chips as other classmates put on asking eyes and signed PLEASE.

Later the teacher was taking pictures. Our little guy wanted to see the picture she had taken and after her demonstration of the sign SEE, he copied and was rewarded with being shown the picture.

Bambi is his favorite movie and he especially likes the ice skating part. He participated very enthusiastically in an alphabet game prior to being able to watch Bambi in the cool of the library. His teacher said she has never seen such a cute and enthusiastic alphabet performer in her life.

Week Three

Monday our little boy and his assistant made a beanbag catcher. It looked like a fish net but was sturdy enough to handle alphabet bean bags. He was introduced to the sign SHOE and compared his shoes to those of everyone in the school.

Tuesday he looked closely at shoes. Later the class did some sidewalk painting.

Wednesday while playing with model magic putty, one of the teachers made the letter S. Our little boy suddenly took her by the hand and led her out of the classroom. They went directly to her name painted yesterday with sidewalk paint. Stefanie agreed that the S on the sidewalk matched the S she had just formed out of modeling medium. He signed APPLE to let his teacher know what was in his snack and that he wanted to eat it now.

Thursday he came in to chapel and sat without crying. He used non-verbal means to show that he wanted to be measured on the doorpost along with the others. His attention span is increasing. And it is possible that he bit no one today. He is fascinated with a sign language handshape website located in He looked at a book about trucks independently for 3 minutes! He still does not respond consistently to his name sign and so we are not sure that he knows his name yet.

Week Four

On Monday, our little guy taught our new classroom aide the sign for TURTLE!

He is learning to make S all on his own and circles the letter S consistently on a page of miscellaneous and scattered letters. He found the word SODIUM in fine print on his juice box and signalled the teacher S!!

In the middle of playing with playdough, he signalled his teacher HEY! closed his eyes and folded his hands as if to pray, and then signed AMEN!

saul 2009 09 caterpillarThe class has been reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Each child has their own butterfly wings they wear while reading the book. (Thanks Tonya!) He likes to puff up his face and act the picture of the caterpillar being fat. (You have to see the book, ok?) So on Thursday, he signalled a flapping motion with his arms and opened the drawer where the butterfly wings are stored. Maybe next week, he will sign BUTTERFLY but for the rest of this week, we are off to celebrate or endure Tropical Storm Erika. (Note: This storm bypassed us. )

How to you know what your 4 year old wants to eat? With our little guy, it’s hard. And until last week, we had no idea that his favorite part of the rice was the hard “pegao” (lightly burnt rice). One day on a whim, the food server handed him a good sized piece of the rice pot scrappings and he ate it! And showed that he wanted more. Now, we put it on his plate and he gobbles it down!

We play a game in which everyone possible sits in a circle and there is a ball to throw and we say a name and throw the ball to the person whose name was said. More recently, we are pretty sure that our little guy now KNOWS his name sign is an S on the shoulder. This is the sign name given to him by the kids in school. When we write his name, it is Saúl. And he knows it now!

Saúl has been writing S and L s. He writes his Ss backwards on the chalkboards and whiteboards. He locates them on the computer keyboard and enjoys typing SLSLSLSLSL in a size 100 font (we print pages in outline and then he traces and colors them later).

Saúl has been adding to his vocabulary regularly. This week while being carried kicking and screaming into the classroom, Saúl let it be known that he was upset because someone had messed up his mohawk! He was pacified when the teacher retrieved James (specifically Saúl asked for James to repair the hair damage) and the mohawk was re-formed and declared by James to be perfect.

Week Five

Saul is counting to THREE and arrives to school in a much more pleasant way these days.

This week he chose to WRITE in the classroom with his older sister rather than play in the other classroom with activities especially designed to provoke language and environmental awareness.

This week he chose to not use the washroom and ended up with wet shorts several times. Next week we are offering the choice of a bathroom or a diaper in place of the wet shorts.

This week, Saul is allowing various helpers to sit with him in chapel and sign the songs hand on hand or side by side. He still thinks of chapel singing as an opportunity to provide resistance training as he either holds arms back or tries to move them faster.

Saul is learning to say THANK YOU in addition to PLEASE.

This week, Saul played with Mr. Potato Head. We took pictures and made flashcards of body parts using them to play memory/matching games and practicing relating real life objects to symbols.

Saul now enjoys putting his S all over and knows for sure that S means him in some way.

Week Six

saul 2009 10 jenOn Monday he wet himself once.
On Tuesday, he wet himself twice before 10 a.m. The second time, he was wrestled into a diaper (brought from home, given by his younger brother, and despised by Saul).
On Wednesday, he did not wet himself ever.

On Tuesday, Saul accompanied his teacher to the post office. He came back with four cents and bartered for some candy with another teacher. He was able to “buy” three pieces of candy for each penny. As he received the candy, he also received instruction as to WHO should receive the candy. He cooperated and distributed the candy though he needed help to know which name meant which person. The last penny bought him his own three pieces. He enjoyed them!

On Wednesday, Saul wanted his juice. His teacher put the straw into the juice pouch at his request of PLEASE. Then the juice was held out of reach. He said PLEASE and was met with a smile and no movement. He then said PLEASE WATER (ok it’s his word for any drink just now and how exciting to see him put two signs together!). His teacher waited another few seconds and he smiled up at her and signed THANK-YOU.

We are waiting for him to begin naming other students spontaneously. He did ask for CANDY this week!

On Friday, he matched photos of people to the people. He signed the names for some of the people pictured but did not spontaneously name them.

Week Seven

saul 2009 riceThis week, Saúl sat down beside a boy and signed KEVIN. He was sitting beside Kevin! It may not seem a huge step in language use but for us it signifies that he knows not only the name sign of a person, but also the person whose name he is signing. Saúl is making choices and learning to use language to manipulate his environment.

Biting is not a new skill but it is one that is now in the limelight. Mr. Potato Head’s teeth were even tossed in to the trash can (and later removed from it and placed in the game box) to show that biting is not acceptable.

Today, the disciplinarian saw Saúl sign SORRY BITE followed by PLEASE SHOES (he had bitten and kicked thus resulting in a time out and having his shoes removed for staff safety). When his teacher re-entered the room, he chose to sign SORRY, PLEASE SHOES. Ah yes. Saúl has learned the meaning of words. He finally gave up and signed the required phrase and was sent on to his next task.

A few hours later, he looked at the bandage on his teacher’s hand and signed BITE NO. (Mr. Potato Head’s hand was bandaged as well.) Ten minutes later, he inflicted yet another bite on her hand. Little by little.

Week Eight

Saul continues to learn and grow in his signing and in his behavior.

He is able to understand the sentence, “PLEASE SIT NOW OR I WILL PUT YOU ON THE CHAIR.”

He understands if he wants to stay in the classroom with the 6 year olds, then he needs to write at his desk and not be disruptive. He understands that play time is over. But he doesn’t like it. And he resists with every ounce of his being. The battles are daily. But they seem to be getting shorter. And there are those times when someone will tell him, PLEASE SIT and he does it.

Week Nine

saul 2009 10 stefOn October 13, 2009, Saul signed very clearly in class prayer time BITE NO STEFANIE, AMEN. Which interpreted is,”I should not bite Stefanie. Amen.” A few hours later, he bit Jen. But he gave an uninitiated four sign sentence! With coherent meaning!

Week Ten

During the week of October 20, Saul demonstrated understanding of most of the color signs – BLUE RED YELLOW PURPLE GREEN ORANGE. He counts well but often uses the sign for SIX rather than signing THREE – a typical error. There were NO biting incidents this week and as his language skills increase, his behaviour is improving as well. There is much to be said for understanding and our little guy is understanding more every day.

Not a cuddly child, Saul looks to Jen for assurance in extreme circumstances as pictured here.

October 23, 2009

On Friday, October 23, we attended a Chemistry Festival. Saul liked the animal mascots from the university campuses doing the chemistry demonstrations. He spent quite some time with each mascot examining their teeth.

With all of this interest in TEETH, perhaps Saul will become a dentist!

October 29, 2009

October 29, while his expressive vocabulary is probably still less than 100 signs, Saul is capable of letting us know he is having thoughts. Pointing the sign YOU is explanation enough when his teacher asks, “What did you do?” Saul tugs hands and pulls chins in the direction he wants someone to look. He is learning more every day and quite the charming little boy when he wants to be so.

We are seeing many 3 and 4 sign sentences including a description of the interaction that caused a big lump on Saul’s forehead. He is a rough and tumble little boy!

November 6, 2009

November 6: We went to see a play in Cupey this week. Saúl fell asleep in the van on the way there. When he woke up, he did not scream and cry as was his habit previously. He accepted the explanation, “Let’s go find Jen” and walked with the van driver to the auditorium where the play was held. While waiting for the play to begin, the interpreter started to ask him, “Where is Johanely? Where is Kioney?” etc. He was able to look for and point out each person requested. Finally, the interpreter asked, “What’s my name?” He responded with the right answer!

Saúl continues to be interested in cause effect – especially as associated with biting. He is playing games with books about animals – putting his hands near the open jaws of the animals in the pictures and retracting them as if he has been bitten, getting others to be “bitten” as well. This play with books and pictures is encouraging as his initial reaction to books was to toss them away. He is representing real actions with play and has drawn himself with bite marks surrounding him. We hope to see him begin to understand print on an early scale soon – he still picks out S from print and identifies that as his name. Now to move on to the rest of the letters!

November 10, 2009

Saúl has been sick these past two weeks so he has not been regularly in school. His arrivals when he has come include refusing to get out of the car, fighting through chapel, and falling asleep quickly. The best thing for a sick child IS more sleep if they will do it and so we let him sleep. This gives his one-on-one worker, Stef, some time to read or clean or pray as she stays nearby.

Someone brought us a full-body leopard costume which Saúl delights to wear when he feels good. Yesterday, I watched a negotiation between him and his one-on-one worker:
Worker: Puzzles now, leopard later.
Worker: You want leopard. First puzzles. (This is mostly about obedience and compliance – which needs to be taught/learned early in life. Saúl tends to get his way at home and we tend to think he should work for the privilege of FUN things.)
The worker left and brought back the puzzles she wanted him to work on. She sat down at a table and started to do the puzzles herself. Seeing the puzzles, Saúl remembered how much he likes to do them. He indicated he wanted the puzzles. She said, “Come here.”

He went. Soon after that, Saúl dressed himself as a leopard and proceeded to “attack” unsuspecting (sic) by-standers.

December 9, 2009

December 9: Saul’s language is growing! Looking at the photos above, you see Saul negotiating with an older student. He is able to make his wishes (and demands) known and is able to keep up the argument in spite of forcefully replied NO!

In the next picture, you see Saul signing DEER. Stef, his personal teacher, traced him on the white board as he signed it. Saul began to add facial features and responded well when prompted to think about more than eyes and mouth.

On another occasion, they YOUTUBEd LEOPARD (he still loves the leopard costume) and talked about the leopards they saw in the videos.

On a recent handbell trip. Saul got to explore a very luxurious locker room/waiting room/washroom. It was kind of an open space concept usually used by ladies but they put all of in there to wait. Saul still grabs hands and pulls people to see things – he doesn’t yet have all of the words to describe what he is SEEing. But he is able to get us to help him to learn – in the last picture, Saul is learning about LOTION from the dispenser behind him.

SO think about this: How do you relate to things you don’t have words for? Just curious. Saul has great curiosity – I think this is part of being made in the image of God. Saul’s desire to experience and to learn the language of his experiences is part of God’s plan for Saul. Through this process, Saul is learning about the world God made for him and we pray that in the near future, Saul will begin to understand that all things were created by God, Saul included. We pray that as Saul now desires a relationship with his classmates and other students and teachers, he will also desire a life-changing, life-saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

January 2010

Saul has been with us for 6 months. Since is return from Christmas break,he has been doing well to resume the school routine though on a day when the older students were away on a trip, he reverted to some of his earlier behaviors including wetting himself.

Saul’s older sister Kioney is also hearing impaired. Having her signing to him at home is a bonus. Over the break he did not lose any of his signing skills and actually seems to have increased in some of them. This month, we are hoping that his mother and grandmother and perhaps other family members will begin a sign language class with us.

February 2010

saul 2010 normSaul loves to work. While some visitors were with us, he dug holes, used the power washer, and did all kinds of other jobs with them. But he is still a little boy and sometimes, even in the midst of excitement, he collapses in sleep.

Saul is getting better at communicating his wants and understanding the boundaries placed on him. Saul is beginning to help to plan his day as his teacher guides him to create a daily plan using photos of activities that they place together onto a velcro strip.

Saul looked at our white dog the other day and asked, “WHO WHITE?” meaning “what is the name of this white one?” WOW!

When asked to describe himself, Saul signed, “I SHY.”

He is communicating clearing “I WANT” followed by signs for things like “GO CHAPEL” or “PLAY SWING” or “GREG WORK”

And his understanding of alphabet letters is getting better. We are using an UPWORDS board and letters to play around and he was able to find the letters for his name. Another day, he placed SCRABBLE APPLE letters on the computer keyboard… when his teacher thought they would spell his name again…

Feb 26, 2010

Saul is climbing the walls – literally. So much stronger now than when he first came to school, we are thankful that he has language to express himself and that temper tantrums are lessening in length and severity. This week he learned about salad dressing. At lunch he was able to sign “LETTUCE WITH ORANGE” The opportunity was seized to add the sign for DRESSING (an A hand pretending to pour out of the thumb). He soon was signing MORE ORANGE DRESSING PLEASE.


He play signs as well as play fingerspells when he has something to say but doesn’t know the words for sure. It’s funny how this looks… I often have to do a double take to see if he is actually making a sign or just doing mumbo-jumbo.

March 17, 2010

saul 2009 three bearsThe fingerspelling play continues as Saul expresses himself.

So far this week, we have no crying tantrums – he is learning routines as well as learning to sign what is on his mind.

He is retelling stories like The Three Bears and Goldilocks and communicating more of the story line. We had done that story early in the school year and Saul was an unreliable participant.

He still refuses to use the washroom at times, assigns sign names for new people who are important to him GREG and CAMERON for example.

This morning, Saúl prayed, “Dear good God beach good, Amen.” We were on our way to the beach in the afternoon and he wanted to make sure God knew it! How wonderful!

April 5, 2010

After 10 days away for Easter Week, Saúl came back to school full of stories. He used huge signs and gestures and jibberish to explain his grandmother’s illness, something that happened with his mother and his brother’s feelings. This little boy has come a long way from Day One when the only word he knew was PLEASE. He is now able to communicate so many things.

Today he showed us that he has mastered a bicycle without training wheels. He and Mizael (7 years old) are now biking buddies. Saúl has not been a very huggy or demonstrative child but today as Mizael was getting ready to leave, Saúl hugged him and planted a big kiss on his cheek. Mizael is enjoying his role as “older brother” and playfully taunted Saúl at lunch – “I only have one piece of meat left and you have 5, haha!” There were no tears, only a little boy hurrying to eat his meat!

April 13, 2010

Today Saúl took a stuffed monkey from some place in the classroom and sat it on his lap. He put the monkey’s hands together (just like his teachers do with Saúl in chapel at times) then he made the monkey pray, “FOOD ENJOY AMEN!” This little skit was performed repeatedly and his teacher, Stef, reports that ENJOY is a new sign for Saúl. This is the first she has seen him use this sign.

We continue to expose Saúl (and all of the students) to as many new words as possible. It is so great to see him picking up words from the older students and then using them appropriately!

In this photo, Saúl is checking out the keys to Doug’s rental car. Saúl wanted to drive his class to their surfing lesson of course but since his feet don’t reach the foot pedals, we prevented that! Saúl participated in surfing lessons and while we don’t think he stood up, he liked the idea of using the surf board as a sliding board into the water!

Saúl still does not think TELLing a person about something is enough. He insists in taking a person to the thing he wants to tell them about. He saw 7 ceiling fans in their shiny new boxes neatly stacked in the office. When he had dragged someone to the boxes, he would sign FANS NEW MANY LOOK! but he does not yet TELL before SHOWing. He SHOWS then TELLS. We are looking forward to his next step in communicating things he cannot SHOW.

April 27, 2010

Saúl had a birthday this week. He is now 5 years old. He is playing with sign language and using the handshapes of one sign to make other words. This week, he used the 5 handshape and moved it to his chin to show MOTHER and then GRANDMOTHER.

Last week, Saúl made a sign language joke. It’s a little inappropriate… but here it is:

One of the students was showing that the middle finger sign is bad. We don’t use this they were saying – after an older student, Kevin, had ‘slipped’ and used the middle finger in another sign. Saúl then signed Kevin’s name using the K on his temple but rather than the middle finger touching his temple, Saúl used his index finger to touch his temple. That left the middle finger sticking prominently in the air – very inappropriate in ASL standards. Saúl was showing, “We will change your name sign to THIS ONE because you used your middle finger that way!”

Clever little boy! Pray with us that his intelligence will continue to grow and will be blessing to all around him.

Day 170
May 25, 2010

saul 2010 04Saul has gained so much this year. He has learned to spell T-E-A and to drink it hot as well. He spells E-G-G while he and Stef boil them for snack. He fought Stef, his personal aide, almost every day of the school year. But on our last day, he explained to us how he was planning to fly home with her. Oh the miles he has come!

Saul also learned how carrots grow – he enjoyed pulling them out of the ground and often ate them dirt fresh. We did stop him and show him to wash his vegetables before ingesting but sometimes little boy desires took over and he ate them with earth and all!

Saul participated appropriately in our school closing program. We signed the songs HE KNOWS MY NAME, and WORTHY IS YOUR NAME. After which the principal told the story of how Saul began school and did not know his name. Saul was in the front row and she asked him, “YOUR NAME, WHAT?” He signed his name on his shoulder. PLEASE SPELL she then asked him. S-A-U-L his tiny fingers pronounced carefully. Even his teacher thinks that was a first! The room burst into applause!

We look forward to having him in school again in August – with two other little boys we are praying for – Giovanni and Juan Jose. Pray along with us for them, their families, transportation and their teacher Jen as she prepares to work with these little boys.

Come back in August for the next installation of language learning in our beginner class.