All Students Can Benefit from Learning and Using Sign Language
By Phil Nast
My youngest daughter wasn’t in a hurry to start talking. Maybe it was because her older sister did the talking for her—and occasionally still does, much to her sister’s annoyance.
When she began speaking, 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. We all had a good laugh when she took up karate as a teenager, and had to learn kata, the martial art’s movement patterns. Context often helped to clarify her meaning. But that wasn’t always the case. Her older sister had to translate other words and phrases for us. “Tat” was tail; we had cats. “Haga” was hotdog. “Mi hermana” was a reference to The Little Mermaid, not her sister. Certain letters were impossible for her to pronounce. “l” became “y,” as is “yey-yow” boots. Consonant blends were difficult.
Once, she stood on her toes to point at the falling snow. “S-now,” she said. It’s a separation of sounds I find difficult to imitate.
But her understanding of words was flawless. After being told not to leave the table with food in her hands, she scowled, stuffed a handful of cheese into her mouth, and ran off to resume playing.
Language problems followed my daughter to school, giving her trouble with “r” and “l” sounds. In first grade, she was paired with a mainstreamed student who had a tracheostomy tube and couldn’t speak. My daughter learned American Sign Language (ASL) so she could help him, and quickly became proficient.
Hide and Seek in the Yellow House was among her favorite books and she read them to him over and over again.
My daughter’s story bolsters evidence that learning and using sign language can be useful for hearing and hearing-impaired children. A 2004 study confirmed previous research indicating that the students who receive sign language instruction during kindergarten have better vocabularies, improved visual-gestural language, and may even have higher reading levels.
Others agree. PBS has reported that some 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 to sound out difficult words when I didn’t have a pencil and paper handy.
Dr. Marilyn Daniels, the prolific ASL researcher, has created another great resource—Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy. The book serves as a guide for teachers and parents who want to introduce signing in hearing children’s language development.
And two papers—Teaching Sign Language To Hearing Children as a Possible Factor in Cognitive Enhancement and Hearing Students, Sign Language, and Music: A Valuable Combination—suggest possible academic gains from teaching ASL to all students.
To me, personal experience and education literature make it clear that teaching ASL can benefit all students.