BY LAUREN ENEY : The Herald-Sun
Apr 6, 2007 : 7:42 pm ET
CHAPEL HILL -- At first glance, it appears as if Amy Williford is animatedly using her hands to emphasize what she is saying. But after a closer look, it is clear that she is signing as she talks.
Williford, a Chapel Hill speech pathologist, believes that children -- not necessarily just those with hearing impairments -- should be taught sign language at a young age, and she has created a company called SignTeacher SignWare to reach that goal.
With the help of a doll named Signing Sam who appears in classrooms, books and videos, Williford has brought sign language to children around the world.
Williford, 40, who earned her master's of science in speech language pathology at the UNC School of Medicine, has worked as a speech pathologist and volunteered as a teacher in classrooms for more than 10 years. During her time in the School of Medicine, Williford conducted research on children with various hearing and speech problems and learned sign language.
Williford said that research from the 1990s showed the benefits of teaching sign language to typically developing children, and she was intrigued. Williford decided that the best way to evaluate the research was by experimenting on her own kids: Odom, 10, Jane, 9, and Noah, 7.
Williford used signs for words such as "more," "finished," "happy" and "eat" as she spoke to her infants, and she was impressed by the results. All of her children began speaking single words at only 9 months, whereas most children do not start speaking until they are a year old.
"This is not a pie-in-the-sky kind of fad," she said. "It's really effective."
Betsy Crais, a professor of speech-language pathology in the School of Medicine, said that sign language is a way for infants to communicate immediately because children gesture before they speak. Sign language is a successful way for infants to get their needs met, and this calms irritation and anxiety.
Crais also pointed out that some people fear that sign language will limit typically developing children's speaking skills because they will rely on their hands to communicate. "But it doesn't limit kids," she said. "It's a stepping stone that will boost them on their way."
Based on Williford's experience with her children, she decided to volunteer to teach sign language to her son's class at Project Enlightenment, a preschool in Raleigh.
She knew she would have to find a gimmick if she wanted to make progress with the children. "If you get their attention, you can teach them anything," she said. "But if you can't get their attention, forget it."
And so a doll named Signing Sophie was born.
Sophie was from Williford's childhood -- a doll that was given a makeover for sign-language class. She became more of a puppet, and Williford was able to pretend that her arms were Sophie's arms by cutting holes in the doll's sweater.
Based on the success of Signing Sophie in the classroom, Williford decided to create a doll that boys could relate to. She named him Signing Sam and based the design on a sketch of a Lumbee Indian. Sam, who wears a yellow sweater and overalls and has brown hair and a skin color that could really be any race, is something that all kids can relate to. "The kids see themselves in Sam," she says.
By 2001, Signing Sophie was put away in a box, and an order of 1,000 Signing Sams arrived. SignTeacher SignWare became incorporated, and Williford and Sam starred in a sing-and-sign video together. The video is sold with the doll and is used in classrooms and private homes as a teaching aid.
Williford used a grassroots marketing effort and relied on trade shows and word of mouth to sell her product, which as a package costs $179.95. Now, six years later, 700 Sam dolls have been sold, and he has traveled to places as far away as the United Kingdom and Africa.
In North Carolina, Signing Sam has become an important part of Gov. Easley's More at Four program for preschool-aged children. Nine classrooms in Sampson County use Signing Sam as an integral part of their curriculum.
Tracey Odom, the quality enhancement specialist for More at Four of Sampson County, said that Sam has done wonders for children in the nine classrooms. Recalling a workshop Williford held, she repeated a slogan that the speech pathologist often uses, "Sign language is fertilizer for the brain."
Odom added that sign language benefits children with behavior problems because it provides them with a way to express themselves and how they are feeling.
She also said that sign language and Signing Sam are equalizers in the classroom, which often contain many Latino students who are not fluent in English. "Because it's new to everyone, it is common ground," Odom said.
Williford created Signing Sam to benefit both special needs and typically developing children, and has seen results for both types. For typically developing children, she says it is imperative to use a combination of auditory, visual, kinetic and tactile teaching styles, so children have a multi-sensory experience.
Crais, the UNC professor, said teaching sign language to infants and toddlers helps them develop larger vocabularies and learn words faster. Williford said this is because gross motor skills, such as signs, are less challenging than fine motor skills, such as speaking, and sign language provides infants and toddlers with a way to communicate.
"At around 18 months, children have an explosion of language development in the brain, Williford said. "They have loads of things that they want to say, and so you get the terrific twos. This stems from a frustration of having things that they want to express but can't."
Williford also said higher scores on intelligence tests, more sophisticated play and an understanding of more words are benefits of teaching sign language to children.
Williford said she hopes to order more dolls and develop another sing-and-sign video this year.
"When something works, it's sort of driven to success," she said.
For more information, visit www.signteacher.com.