Education reforms in the 21st century, along with changing needs and diversity in the classroom, require varied and effective teaching methods to provide meaningful learning experiences for children. A comprehensive, inclusive setting emphasizes more than just teaching the entire class.
In an article from 2012 published in the Electronic Journal of Inclusive Education, authors Virginia Heslinga and Erica Nevenglosky detail the challenges that schools are facing to make learning environments more inclusive by meeting the diverse needs of students. Educators and administrators acknowledge the reality of different learning styles and recognize the need for interactive learning that engages visual, auditory, spatial, linear, tactile, and kinetic styles of learning.
Thus, adding sign language as an additional language can promote a positive learning attitude to a classroom because it fulfills students’ various needs and styles. Learning sign language is a social-emotional learning experience that introduces students to a new perspective through a new language and culture. It also helps students improve their skills in writing, reading, and spelling or vocabulary.
What is Sign Language?
Sign language is any form of bodily communication, particularly using the hands, gestures, arms, and facial expressions. At times, when it is difficult to communicate through words, teachers prefer using sign language. Simple smirks, nods, or indications can be used to express sign language in a basic manner. Pressing the index finger against the lips to hush noisy children, raising hands to speak, and shaking hands to say hello are a few basic forms of sign language. Apart from facilitating communication with people from other regions, sign language also aids children and adults in a variety of areas.
There is no single cross-cultural sign language and according to an article from the AI-Media, the number of official sign languages used around the world today ranges from 138 to 300. The most common forms of sign language are American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), and Australian Sign Language (Auslan).
Sign language can be utilized to bridge the gap when vocal communication is not possible, such as between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages or when one or more potential communicators have hearing difficulties.
How Does American Sign Language (ASL) help in Fulfilling the Needs of a Diversified Classroom?
American Sign Language has a long-term positive effect on a child’s confidence and self-esteem by improving their communication skills. Exposing children to this form of language may enhance their vocabulary and reading skills, which in turn may lead to better achievement academically. It benefits not only children with hearing disabilities, but also other children to communicate in a more effective way.
Benefits of American Sign Language
In early childhood education, introducing sign language has numerous benefits. Introducing American Sign language (ASL) in a diversified classroom helps in the following ways:
- Gestures and signs usually make things easier for children to understand. As their vocabulary expands, both their receptive and expressive abilities improve. They learn that speech can be represented with expressions and visual representations. Gestures and communicative expressions encourage the children to connect with advanced and varied cultures. They tend to build rapport with peers and understand nonverbal clues as an essential life skill for success. Students get to learn that all children do not speak the same language as theirs. To communicate with them, ASL plays an important role and with this, children of different cultures (e.g., hearing and deaf) can communicate more effectively.
- It encourages shy and reluctant children to participate in activities and they may become more comfortable communicating using sign language.
- ASL can be used to communicate with children during class. Along with the presentation, an educator can utilize signs to explain an activity to the kids. Children can also communicate with the teacher or their peers, using sign language while upholding classroom decorum and not disturbing the other children.
- It incorporates kinaesthetic and visual learning that makes the language more perceptible. Students who learn in a classroom environment with multiple language expressions will have a better understanding of communication than students who only use one language expression.
- Simultaneously, with the use of sign language, the development of motor skills also takes place concurrently with the language. As the children move their fingers to represent the signs, their gross motor skills are developed with the various folds of fingers.
- ASL is a visual language, so it is easier for pre-verbal children to use to express their needs. The ability to sign can help a child express their fundamental needs, such as hunger or pain, or even when they are upset, which typically prevents tantrums and frustration. Sign language creates a bond between parent-child and educator-child as this language requires eye-to-eye and tactile contact.
- When sign language is introduced in the curriculum, the understanding is done by each and every child as a child grasps visual expressions quickly. Various sorts of charts, graphic organizers, word lists, pictures, and alphabet cards are used for creating the right understanding of the daily curriculum. The children are encouraged to integrate through facial expressions and a peer-correct response could be created.
- Sign language is not only for the development of languages but also is a “brain booster.” The right hemisphere of the brain is more dominant for visual aspects and when it receives visual cues or signs it perceives them. Once received by the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere processes it. This way, when both sides of the brain work to decode the signs, synaptic connections are formed within the brain and across hemispheres. Hence, ASL is a brain booster as both hemispheres interact, which creates a second source of language for children to access. It also engages them in multisensory learning.
- Understanding that speech has visual symbols makes the development of reading skills come along easier as children enter school. After the integration of varied visual aspects, children can decode writing and reading quicker as compared to those who learn through other modes of the same lesson.
- Another important and interesting part of the usage of sign language in the classroom is that it increases the ability in our reaction time and peripheral vision. Reaction time refers to the amount of time that passes between the moment we perceive something and the moment we respond to it. Peripheral vision is what we can see around us without having to turn our heads.
How to Inculcate American Sign Language (ASL) in the Primary-Level Curriculum?
ASL can be used when teaching new concepts or when reinforcing previously introduced materials, such as
- Greetings: The first signs we can introduce to a child are hello, goodbye, good morning, namaste, etc., which are used every day. Teaching how to sign commonly used greetings helps the child communicate more effectively.
- Alphabets: teaching how to sign letters or characters of an alphabet (a to z) helps children to build reading skills more easily as they can learn to form letters and words using their faces and fingers.
- Numbers-teaching how to sign numbers helps children to learn about quantity and counting.
- Days of the week: teaching how to sign days of the week in sign language helps children to learn about various events and their occurrences.
- Colors: teaching how to sign colors helps children to learn about the colors present in their surroundings and how to differentiate them.
- Feelings: communicating feelings through sign language, such as sad, happy, hungry, etc., can help a reluctant child become more confident while communicating.
- Sight Words: It is the most common word that is used in our daily life. Teaching how to sign sight words helps a child in effective language development.
When teachers and educators use sign language along with language lessons, they can support the learning of all children with diverse needs and help them learn the concepts in a meaningful context.
Sign Language adds one more way of communication to the child’s belt. In early childhood, it is easier to adapt to a new language easily and children grasp the knowledge quickly. It will also help to communicate where words could not play a role.
Children who learn sign language gain social acceptance, confidence, comprehension, and communication by learning through scaffolding, layering language, and promoting active and interactive learning.
- Cook, R.E., Tessier, A., & Klein, M.D. (2000). Adapting early childhood curricula for children in inclusive settings (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill Publishing.
- Doidge, S. (2021, November 17). 5 Ways to Bring Sign Language Into Your Classroom. Kami. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.kamiapp.com/blog/sign-language-in-the-classroom/
- Hubler, M., & Hubler, L. (1999). Time to Sign with Children Learning Guide. Palm Bay, FL: Time to Sign.
- Schneden, Angela M., “Sign to learn : sign language as a teaching tool in hearing classrooms” (2006). Graduate Research Papers. 1475. https://scholarworks.uni.edu/grp/1475
- Sign Language and Its Importance As you Teach | Education World. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.educationworld.com/blog/sign-language-and-its-importance-you-teach.State, Houston & Simpson, Cynthia & Lynch, Sharon. (2007). Sign Language: Meeting Diverse Needs in the Classroom. Exchange-Exchange Press. 176.