Learning Sign Language to Teach Reading

submitted by Timothy E. Galpin, K-3 Special Education Teacher

Throughout my 13 years of teaching Special Education, I have had a few students with hearing impairments. Even though each of them happened to use verbal skills as their primary mode of communication, I did take some sign language classes and tried to use signs in my lessons. All the children had previously learned some sign language and due to their age, we were still exploring the benefits of using sign language with them. However, my signing vocabulary never got above about one hundred words, and I had no long-term success in learning the language. When I was not using sign language, I would quickly forget what I had learned.

Last school year, Larry, a deaf child who wore a bone conduction hearing aid, started in my classroom. He had used verbal skills since age three as his primary mode of communication, and resisted using sign language because he did not see a need for it. As he progressed through the Kindergarten curriculum, it became obvious to me that I was going to have a hard time teaching him how to read in 1st grade. He was struggling to pick up certain sounds of letters and was saying the same sound for multiple letters. Even with the help of his hearing aid, he could not hear the difference between certain sounds. There also appeared to be gaps in what he picked up from verbal communication. I quickly concluded that sign language might be the tool I could use to overcome these obstacles.

I had a collection of videos, DVDs, and books I had used in the past, but with these, I had not really learned sign language. I really needed something better. My search led me to Signing Time. I could tell Signing Time had the potential of teaching my students and me how to use sign language to communicate. During that kindergarten year, I started showing the first few Signing Time DVDs to Larry and a couple of my other students. Although Larry had been watching the public television versions of Signing Time for quite a while, he really did not have an interest in watching the DVDs at school. This was not going to be easy for me.

When Larry entered 1st grade, I had to take a new approach, especially when he started to struggle with reading exactly as I predicted. Even though I started showing the Signing Time DVDs to the students in my special education classroom, I knew this was not going to be enough to convince this now 6-year-old to take an interest in sign language again. I needed something more. Also, if I hoped to make sign language another mode of communication for Larry, I needed more than just the kids in my special education classroom knowing sign language.

Larry was in one of three multi-age classrooms within the school. These classrooms had 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade children in one room. The multi-age teachers and I agreed that one of the best ways to help Larry would be to teach sign language to not only all the students in his class, but to all the students in the multi-age classrooms. The regular education teachers and I view this as a three-year plan for teaching the students sign language. If we use the Signing Time DVDs each year, the current group of first graders should have mastered most of the signs on the DVDs by the third year in the multi-age program. So now, all the multi-age teachers are showing the Signing Time DVDs to their students. The students in my special education classroom are several DVDs ahead of the others; this way the children with disabilities instantly become the “experts”, showing the “typical” students how to do the signs.

We now use sign language in my special education class every day, and a lesson in sign language almost every day of the week. Here are some ideas that have worked for us that you can use in your classroom:

* Have a set time each day for sign language lessons, if you are not showing a DVD, take opportunities to practice signs you have learned up to that point.

* Show one volume of Signing Time per week. (However, some volumes teach so many signs that we have to split it into two weeks or over several days in one week.)

* Watch one of the Signing Time DVDs one day and the “Sign Review” section of the same DVD on another day.

* Sign the words you know! Every time you say the words you know the sign for, sign them!

* Once they know the manual alphabet well enough, start signing letters as they sound out words. (As the teacher, you can start signing the letters as the kids are sounding out words even before they have learned the manual alphabet, but you really need to know the alphabet signs to do this. If you spend any time thinking about how to make the sign for a letter, the kids will be onto the next letter.)

* As they read sight words, encourage them to sign the words they know.

* When reading in groups, encourage the children who are not reading to follow along by signing the words they know.

* Create lessons that focus on finger spelling, or putting simple words together to make sentences.

* To help the students learn the signs and provide added reinforcement, we make up study sheets for each volume that show most of the signs taught. (This also gives the kids something to take home and share with their parents.)

* Our music teacher is also helping out by teaching the signs for some of the words in the songs they sing. Although she is choosing to use her own songs, the Signing Time music CDs have sing-along tracks (without Rachel singing) that the kids can perform along with. All the Signing Time songs are great for learning and reinforcing the signs they know.

* The children love exploring sign language books. During free choice reading time, they will often choose a sign language book. Have a collection of different books throughout your classroom that teach different signs. My primary kids even enjoy the sign language books designed for babies. (They are learning signs from these books that I have not yet learned, but I am not complaining!)

I have faced a few struggles myself through this process. Here are a few things for teachers to remember:

* Unless you already know American Sign Language (ASL), you will most likely be learning the signs at the same time (or just before) the students do. Sometimes you will feel like you should be further ahead than you are. Do not get discouraged, and do not pretend you know more than you do! It puts you on the same level as the kids when you are learning along with them. They can help teach you, too.

* Keep in mind that Signing Time was created to teach ASL to children who can hear. While I have found Signing Time to be a very successful tool for teaching ASL to a large variety of children of different ages and ability levels, I noticed it was not as easy for Larry to learn from them which I believe was due to his being deaf and not being old enough to read the captions. Be prepared to provide additional repetition and reinforcement when using it to teach ASL to children who are deaf or hard of hearing. To help with this, Larry has started borrowing the DVDs so he can have more chances to watch them at home.

* Another obstacle I have faced is managing to have my hands empty so I can sign. I usually have something in my hands while I am teaching. Many signs can be done with one hand only – just keep practicing and try to keep your hands free when you can.

* The biggest challenge however, has been my limited vocabulary. I do not yet know enough signs to communicate everything I want to say in sign, but I am learning. The more you use the signs you know, the more you remember what you learned.

I started this all for one student in my classroom. So far it is working – he now has an interest in learning sign language that he has not shown for years. He is occasionally signing something in response to a question instead of using words. He has picked up fingerspelling faster than the other students and has been using it when sounding out simple three-letter words. We have only learned the Manual Alphabet within the last month, but it does appear to be helping him with sounding out words. We have finally reached a stage where I can use sign language to help him learn to read. Plus, other students in the school have now taken an interest in learning sign language, which is helping everyone to connect to other students and learn a new language. At times, it seems like a long journey to travel just to help one student more easily learn to read, but so far it has been worth it!

Timothy Galpin
K-3 Special Education Teacher