Visual Communication

Sign language is accessible to all deaf and hard of hearing children regardless of any assistive listening devices they may or may not use.  In fact, all children can benefit from learning NZSL. Becoming more sensitive to visual aspects of our world enables you to support your child’s language development. There are some things you can do to make your communication more visual.  This lays the foundation for developing New Zealand Sign Language.

What is visual communication?

  • Visual communication is the use of hands, facial expressions, and gestures to communicate. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is a natural visual language.
  • Using meaningful gestures as early as possible helps to build a foundation for children to develop NZSL.  Progressing to a combination of signs and gestures will provide the child with vital language.
  • For many hearing family members, visual communication is about learning to ‘listen with your eyes’. Seeing the world through your deaf child’s eyes will enable you to engage with them more visually.
  • Being aware of what your child is looking at or is focussed on can be a good place to start to introduce new vocabulary and concepts.
  • Let your hands move, exercise those wonderful facial muscles and use your expressions and gestures as much as possible when communicating with deaf and hard of hearing children.

Tips and Tricks: Visual Communication


  • Keep your eyes on your child as you communicate
  • Smile and nod
  • Copy the expressions and feelings your baby is showing
  • Make your communication as expressive and visually interesting as possible
  • Use body language, gestures, mime and any signs you know
  • Use positive and accepting facial expressions
  • Follow the child’s lead and talk about what they are looking at
  • Wait expectantly for more communication from your baby
  • Pointing is an important part of communication and can develop very early as part of a  child’s receptive communication skills.

Getting attention and eye contact

Before you can communicate visually with your deaf child, you need to gain their attention.  Eye gaze and joint attention are critical to sharing and communicating in a visual language.

“Deaf children who are exposed to sign language from birth develop the ability to shift their eye gaze between objects and people in a frequent and meaningful way from an early age.” (Visual Language and Visual Learning)

 There are many ways to get the attention of your child.

Try the suggestions below.  Continue using whichever strategy is appropriate at the time, and whichever works well for you and your child.  Some strategies may be more suited to babies and younger children, and some more suited to toddlers.

Tips and Tricks: Getting Attention

  • If you are close to your child, tap their arm, shoulders, or leg

  • If your child is looking away from you, place your hand under your child’s chin and gently turn their head to look at you

  • Move yourself into their line of sight
  • Use interesting toys or objects to get their attention
  • At a distance, wave your hand or arm to get their attention

  • Tapping or stamping your feet on the floor (particularly wooden floors) will gain their attention, as they will feel the vibrations

  • At a table, tap your hand on the table

  • Sometimes, if you start to gesture/sign, your child will see this out of the corner of their eye, and turn to look at you
  • Be patient.  If the child is absorbed in play and if it’s not an urgent communication, wait a moment to see if your child will look at you in their own time

Joint Attention

Attending to the same thing is an opportunity to support your child’s communication and language development.


Tips and Tricks: Joint Attention

  • Sit in a way that allows the child to see both you and the object

  • Give the child time to look and explore the object, then wait for the child to look back at you before you begin to sign

  • Use the sign ‘LOOK’ to help the child know when to look at the object and then back to you for information
  • Direct your child’s attention to the object you are going to sign about
  • Point to the object

  • Give the child time to look back at you

  • Make the sign about the object

  • Repeat many times and use objects and play that your child is interested in.  

  • Repetition helps develop your child’s communication and language skills.