Many words do not have a specific handsign in ASL. Words such as names of places, people’s names, titles, and medical terminology for example do not have specific signs and must be fingerspelling. Even some common words don’t have specific signs.
Fingerspelling is simply in concept, but difficult in practice. It requires that the word be spelled out using the ASL alphabet. Take the word KIWI by example which does not have a specific handsign. It is signed by spelling out the letters K-I-W-I in order with each letter corresponding to an ASL handshape. When fingerspelling, always use your dominant hand.
Above: Mom and baby working on the alphabet using ASL signs. The signs are a great visual cue to the letters of the alphabet. When necessary Mom steps in and helps.
Children younger than 3 will only attempt to finger spell words and they will only appear as general imitations so don’t get too hung up on this particular sign skill. The best way to introduce fingerspelling is to start with signing the ASL alphabet because it’s also a great way to teach the sounds the letters make. While you teach the fingerspelled letters always be sure to say them out loud – even better if you sign it! You’ve probably never thought about this, but the letters L, M, N,O, P tend to be strung together in the alphabet song tend to run in each other seemingly becoming one extended letter. That’s how using the signs along with the song can help you baby visualize each letter as separate. Having to sign the alphabet while saying the letters out loud forces Mom and Dad to do it much slower, so this helps baby learn the different letters. If nothing else, fingerspelling the alphabet can be entertaining for your baby if nothing else!
To start signing words, it’s best if your baby knows the entire dictionary first, however it’s totally possible to teach your toddler simple words with fewer letters to keep them motivated. For most signing parents with hearing babies, the extent of fingerspelling will be to play around with the ASL alphabet and learn the handshapes, and this will be a fine start. Learning the hanshapes is great fine motor practice and helps with signing more complex words. It also helps refine signs your baby already knows and builds additional neural connections by cuing in an entirely different method of communication.
Fingerspelling can also teach your baby the background meaning to some of the signs to build on his understanding of ASL. For example, the sign for CHRISTMAS is done with the “C” handshape which is moved around the body in an arc, as if tracing an imaginary wreath. With your help, your toddler will recognize that the letter “C” is used to represent the first letter in the word. Next, you can teach your baby useful tools for remembering the motion. You can explain what a wreath is, especially if you have one in the house, and how the “C” handshape traces its path. Each layer adds more background to your baby’s knowledge. In short, it makes your baby smarter.
Above: Make the ASL sign for CHRISTMAS with the hand in “C” shape and moving it in an arc around the body as if tracing a wreath.
To summarize, fingerspelling is very advanced and most signing parents will not pursue it much further than learning the ALS alphabet. When toddlers are tough fingerspelling for simple words, they often appear as pail imitations of the correct versions. Don’t expect your baby to copy you exactly until they reach around 3 years of age. If you really want to fingerspell, best to wait until your toddler reaches at least 2 years of age, where their long term memory is much more developed.