Sign Language BabyCan babies learn to communicate from videos? Past research has suggested that video instruction is not effective for infants, but a new study from Emory University finds that educational videos can be effective for some types of learning. The study shows that infants under age two can learn to recognize and produce signs for everyday objects from watching commercially available educational videos. The research suggests that these types of videos can play a role in teaching communication skills to infants.

The researchers structured their study to isolate the effects of video instruction on infants, selecting sign language as the target skill. Ninety-two 15-month-old infants from the Atlanta metro area, divided into four groups, participated in the study. Two of the groups watched an infant signing instructional video, composed of clips from multiple commercially available videos, for 15 minutes four times each week for three weeks. The groups included infants who:

  • Watched the video with a parent
  • Watched the video without a parent
  • Received instruction from a parent, but did not watch the video
  • Received no instruction (control group)

A week after the instruction period, all of the infants participated in a test. Infants saw a group of photos of common objects for which they had learned signs, like fish, cookie, or shoe. The researcher made one of the signs and the infants selected the corresponding photo.

The infants, with the exception of those in the control group, were consistently able to correctly identify the photos of objects corresponding to the signs they learned. Infants who watched the video performed as well on the test as infants who learned signs from their parents. Similarly, infants who had parents present while they watched the video did as well as infants who watched the video alone.

Additionally, infants in all three experimental groups were able to produce the signs they learned. Infants in the control group were not able to produce or recognize signs.

One of the lead researchers, Shoshana Dayanim, post-doctoral researcher in psychology, explains what comes next for researching video instruction. “The key takeaway is that babies can learn from commercial videos—at least signs. The majority of parents continue to expose their babies to video. It will be important to determine the conditions under which videos do and do not support infant learning.”

This research is published in the journal Child Development.

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