It seems logical that sign language—language that conveys meaning visually instead of acoustically—is the natural language of people who are deaf. But what does sign language have to do with your hearing students? Although they might not have a unique need for sign language like deaf children do, your hearing students can certainly still benefit from learning signs.
Learning how to speak, to read, and to write are all very demanding and difficult tasks, but they can be fun and rewarding tasks, too. Teaching with sign language and finger spelling is an excellent way to make language learning enjoyable, and it can also help your students in these three areas:
1. Phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness can be one of the most challenging parts of language proficiency, especially for very young children and students with disabilities. Sign language and finger spelling help kids recognize that a specific sign represents a specific sound or word. This idea transfers easily to a spoken/written language like English, so the concept of phonemic awareness becomes easier to grasp when sign language is involved. Additionally, finger spelling helps kids distinguish easily confused written letters (such as “b” and “d”) by providing them with separate hand shapes for each letter.
2. Oral language skills. Students who don’t have the best oral language skills, like many English learners, benefit greatly from the visual aspect of sign language. An article by PBS Teachers says, "Sign language is often iconic. The sign draws a picture in the air illustrating the meaning of a word. For example, signs for prepositional concepts such as 'above,' 'through,' and 'between' and adjectives such as 'fat,' 'heavy,' and 'tired' provide strong visual clues to their contextual meanings. Concepts are often acquired quickly when paired with iconic signs."
In short, sign language can help English learners learn more quickly and efficiently by presenting information in a way they can understand. English learners can also benefit from the physical aspect of sign language. When students are taught a sign, they hear the word being spoken, see the sign being made, and then make the sign with their own hands, thus experiencing the new concept in three modalities. This combination of visual, auditory, and physical information helps students learn language skills more effectively.
3. Academic confidence. Speaking and reading out loud can be particularly scary for English learners and students with disabilities because of the embarrassment factor that is inevitably present in the classroom. Learning new signs can be a great way for these students to experience success in a non-threatening environment. Sometimes a small personal success, like learning how to finger spell or mastering a tricky sign, is all a student needs in order to be confident in other areas as well. Additionally, an article published by Penn State says this about American Sign Language: “Knowing a second language, such as ASL, also boosts self-esteem of the children and their confidence in learning, as well as their awareness of the Deaf culture.” Teaching your struggling students sign language can bolster their self-confidence and help them succeed in school!
So what do you think—could sign language be helpful to your hearing kids? If you already use sign language as a teaching tool, what benefits have you seen? And be sure to check out our awesome resources for helping your kids succeed. Please share your comments and suggestions below—we’d love to hear from you!