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When Sam Found Language

by Kimberly Sanzo
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Young boy signing the word "baseball" in American Sign Language

I will never forget the day that I met Sam. He came into my room cautiously and sat quietly. I greeted him and he smiled tentatively in return.

Sam came to me like most of my other students—severely language deprived. He was 8 years old, with bilateral cochlear implants, unable to speak, sign, read or write. Although he was a typical child developmentally and cognitively, he used tantrums to communicate.

I asked him how he was doing. He smiled again. I pointed to myself and signed my sign name. “Kim.” Then I pointed to him and gestured for him to introduce himself.

“Eh,” he said.

“How old are you?” I signed. He stared at me. I signed, “You. Age?” Another blank stare. I tried again: “Seven? Eight? Nine?” Sam squinted, confused. I wrote the numbers down, gesturing for him to point to one. He shrugged.

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I needed to connect with him. When Sam looked away, I noticed that his cochlear implants had New York Yankees stickers on them.

“Do you like baseball?” Again, a blank stare. I grabbed my iPad and Google-image searched pictures of the New York Yankees. When he saw them, his eyes lit up. He grinned and jumped out of his chair. He pointed furiously at the pictures and then perfectly mimicked a pitcher’s throw.

“Yeah! Baseball!” I signed.

He copied my sign: “Baseball.”

After that first session, Sam quickly started picking up more words and phrases through American Sign Language. We started with the finger alphabet. We practiced forming letters with our hands, matching them to written letters, spelling our names and items in the room.

“What are your sisters’ names?” Sam shrugged. After an email to his mother and some practice, Sam could tell me: C-A-S-E-Y and H-A-N-N-A-H.

We learned colors and numbers. We worked on answering questions.

“Are the Yankees going to lose tonight?” I signed.

No!” He signed sharply, giggling.

In the early sessions, we used a lot of gesturing. A lot of manipulatives. A lot of real-life examples. We tasted honey to learn sticky. We left a teddy bear sleeping in the corner of my room to learn hibernate. We got into boxes to learn prepositions. We stepped on leaves to learn crunchy. With his newfound language, Sam’s previous use of tantrums to communicate came to a halt. A playful personality began to shine through.

Sam proved himself a quick learner. We used sign language to build his literacy skills. Soon, he could read and write simple sentences. He began learning more complex language concepts.

“Why did the Titanic sink?” I signed.

“Because too many compartments filled with water,” he responded.

In addition to hearing loss, Sam was diagnosed with apraxia of speech. When he would search for a word, his mouth unsure how to produce the phonemes, I would show him the sign. This visual helped him produce the word verbally.

Once we built a strong foundation for language, we began to target speech production in consonant-vowel (CV) and CVC words. We built up to CVCVC words with carrier phrases, so Sam could eventually make functional statements and requests in spoken English.

When I look at him now, four years later, sitting among his peers during my in-class sessions, I’m overwhelmed by how far he’s progressed.

His dark hair is still tousled. His cochlear implants still decorated by Yankees stickers. But now, when I ask him a question, instead of a blank stare or a shrug, his long arm shoots into the air, bouncing with impatience to respond.

I call on him.

“White light is a division of seven colors,” he signs.

“That’s right. That’s how we see a rainbow.” I smiled.

When provided with a visual language his brain so desperately craved, Sam was finally able to blossom into the curious, goofy and capable child he is today.

Kimberly Sanzo, MS, CCC-SLP, works at a school for the deaf. She is fluent in American Sign Language and trained in PROMPT and Visual Phonics. kasanzo@gmail.com

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Shannon October 24, 2018 - 9:03 pm

This is exactly why some students need more than just a cochlear implant. It’s okay to teach them sign language along with verbal communication!

Kimberly Sanzo November 6, 2018 - 7:56 pm


Jill October 26, 2018 - 8:35 am

Thank you for sharing this!

Maria November 7, 2018 - 11:21 am

What a wonderful story!!

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