ASL and Hearing Students

My youngest daughter was in no hurry to begin talking. Maybe it was because she had an older sister who did the talking for her. (and occasionally still does much to her sister’s annoyance) It was probably developmental. My youngest brother had a similar delay. When she did begin to talk, many of her words sounded alike. “Kata” could mean cottage, hot chocolate if “hot kata,” or The Great Mouse Detective, her favorite Disney movie at the time. When she took up karate as a teenager and had to learn her kata, karate’s movement patterns, we all had a good laugh. Context often made her meaning clear, but not always. Her older sister had to translate other words and phrases for us. “Tat” was tail; we had cats. “Haga” was hotdog. “Mi hermana” meant The Little Mermaid, not my sister. Certain letters were impossible for her to pronounce. “L” became “y,” as is “yeyyow” boots. Consonant blends were difficult. I remember her standing on her toes to peer out a window and point at the falling snow. “S-now,” she said, a separation of sounds I find difficult to imitate.

Though she found pronouncing word difficult, she understood them perfectly. When I told her she couldn’t leave the table with food in her hands, she scowled and stuffed a handful of cheese in her mouth and ran off to resume playing. Between defending her fierce independence and failing to make us nincompoops understand what she was trying to say, her eyes often blazed during her first years. She became so frustrated and angry she trembled. At the time, I was a graduate student, and a poet friend showed me a W.S. Merwin translation of a Korean figure:

Ugly baby
The one to love
Angry one
The one to hug

(from Asian Figures)

She got a lot of hugs.

Some of her language problems followed her to school. She had trouble with “r” and “l” sounds until first or second grade. In first grade, she was paired with a mainstreamed student with severe disabilities. I don’t know if she volunteered or if her teachers recognized her patience and empathy. She spent the next years learning and using American Sign Language (ASL) so she could help him. J had a tracheostomy tube and couldn’t speak. She was a kinesthetic learner and quickly became so proficient that she was accepted in adult night classes. She often read to J. She had her favorite books, like Hide and Seek in the Yellow (yayyow?) House (Agatha Rose and Kate Spohn), and she read her favorites to J over and over. When he died, my daughter was devastated.

The other day, my daughter told me that for a long time the association of ASL and J was so close she found it hard to sign. She stopped attending classes. I would see her fingerspell difficult words as she wrote and if she encountered a signing person, she signed to them. She was dismayed to learn that ASL was not considered a second language at the university she attends. That has since changed. In retrospect, using ASL when she was young might have eased some of her frustration.

As it turns out, there is evidence that learning and using sign language can be useful for hearing as well as hearing-impaired children. One study (Daniels) confirmed earlier research that enriching kindergarten instruction with sign language significantly increased student receptive English vocabulary, that students used visual-gestural language while maintaining their expressive English vocabulary, and that ASL may raise student emergent reading levels. Daniels has written a book, Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy that serves as a guide for teachers and parents who want to introduce signing in hearing children’s language development.

An article on PBS Teachers, Using Sign Language And Fingerspelling To Facilitate Early Literacy discusses how teachers use sign language and fingerspelling to engage children with different learning styles. I don’t use fingerspelling, but ever since I was young, I’ve “written” with a finger in the air as I sound out difficult words when I didn’t have a pencil and paper handy. I was never very successful in spelling bees.

Two other papers suggest possible academic gains from teaching ASL to all students. Teaching Sign Language To Hearing Children As A Possible Factor In Cognitive Enhancement reports that hearing children in their early school years who learn sign language as a second language improve more rapidly on tests of visual-spatial cognition and spatial memory than schoolmates who do not. The author of Hearing Students, Sign Language, And Music: A Valuable Combination suggests that because students benefit from being encouraged to move to music, using ASL might be a beneficial form of such movement. As an example of what young students can do, here’s ASL Music Video “We’re Going To Be Friends” by the White Stripes. Older students might like some of the other music videos and art on D-PAN.

ASL like martial arts, dance and other physical activities is probably best learned with an instructor, but there are a number of online resources for ASL that try to approximate by including video.  Here are two free websites. American Sign Language Browser provides an dictionary of signs. The videos are small. Projecting them on a whiteboard might help. ASL Online presents signs in thematic units. This University of Texas site has larger videos.

And of course, Gallaudet University highlights Sign Language Resources.

Comments (1)

  1. I use sign language in my classroom to aid in learning sight words as well as helping students learn to spell. I was introduced to the many benefits of American Sign Language by Rachel Coleman with her daughter Leah and nephew Alex through Signing Time ( . All of my grandchildren have learned some sign language and it continues to be a part of our lives.

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