One of the things I can be really passionate about is sign language: It’s so amazing how adding this additional ‘movement layer’ to language classrooms boosts students’ learning success. Especially ESL and ADD children as well as dyslexic students benefit greatly. Join me on the fascinating journey of hands in motion with this FREE and easy-to-use Finger Alphabet Cheat Sheet.
I have always been interested in ADD, its origins and if or how school can accommodate these children’s needs. Luckily enough I was able to study Social Work at the Magdeburg University of Applied Sciences – an institution that is also home to sign language studies. Every day I would see deaf people and sign interpreters vividly signing at one another and finally came up with this ‘crazy’ idea: If sign language is used with people that cannot understand spoken words out of their physical inability why wouldn’t it also be beneficial to present ADD children (that can hear but oftentimes not process auditory information adequately) with sign language in order to minimize their difficulties.
I did plenty of research on that over the next few years and finally came up with this 300 page publication ‘Und was heißt Nervensäge auf Gebärdisch?’ (‘And What’s ‘You’re Getting on my Nerves’ in Sign?’) in which I combine all kinds of theoretical explanations and research and develop my own theory of Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder – and describe multiple approaches as to why sign language makes teaching ADD students and children that struggle learning to read a lot easier.
Sign and ADD, Dyslexia and General Reading Difficulties
There’s one resource I recommend to everyone asking me about reading difficulties and sign: ‘Dancing with Words. Signing for Hearing Children’ Literacy’ by Marilyn Daniels. It shares plenty of ideas and techniques as well as research findings, personal experiences and professional educators’ quotes on the benefits of a sign centered classroom (and especially the finger alphabet):
‘In kindergarten classes in which sign has been a part of the traditional curriculum since the first day of school, using sign is for reading instruction is an easy transition for both the teacher and the students, though previous experience with sign is not necessary. (…) Connecting the letter with a word picture illustrative of its sound will later provoke students’ memory when they begin to learn to read. Teachers who use this technique report that when students are having difficulty sounding out a word, they merely form the manual letter and hold up their hand. Seeing the manual letter sparks a response that enables them to recall the sound from the sentence they learned earlier…’
Later Marilyn Daniels goes on describing how teachers report having used sign to teach silent e’s and other ‘reading secrets’ (as I call them in my Annadan reading primer) with outstanding results.
According to my own research the benefits of using sign in the classroom can be traced on many (at least 10) levels:
- Sign allows students to rely on visual input in addition to aural language
Aural language (especially in a classroom) is hard to understand. Research shows that – even in a reasonably quiet classroom – a teacher’s voice can be heard clearly only within a radius of about 3 feet. Beyond that point any kind of background noise will overpower the teacher’s voice. Students in the back of the room will therefore have to concentrate hard on even hearing the teachers words, oftentimes not leaving enough brainpower for processing and understanding what is being said. Using makes things easier for these past-3-feet students.
- Sign is easily understood
Other than some fancy English words that students can sometimes struggle to extract meaning from, sign as a form of language can be highly iconic. Supporting oral language with sign can therefore boost vocabulary. ‘…The students did not know what the term ‘indentured servant’ meant. The teacher led them to the meaning by taking them from a known sign to an unknown sign. First, she asked them to make the sign for work. They all knew this sign and formed it … Then she taught them the sign for indentured servant. The teacher pointed this out to the students by explaining how this sign showed that you could not get away from the work; Your arms were locked in this crossed position and just went around in a circular motion’ (Daniels)
- Sign is more ‘economic’ than oral language
If children have difficulties processing auditory information it’s oftentimes because of short working memory spans: These students seem to forget the first half of the sentence while concentrating on listening to the second half. Sign language can be the more economical choice for these children because it combines entire phrases into a single motion (‘writing on a sheet of paper with a pen held in one’s hand stiffly’ is just one motion!). This leads to sign sentences usually only combining 2 or 3 different signs while spoken sentences usually need 4 or 5 words.
- Sign is entirely visible
With some children showing difficulties processing auditory information many teachers use ‘big lip movements’ when speaking or spelling. Their aim is for students to not only hear but also see which letter or word is being said. Unfortunately the majority of English words and letters aren’t easily recognized visually. All sounds that are solely produced inside one’s mouth (g, k, h, j, r, s) and ones that look similar to one another (n, t, d; m, p, b…) cannot be easily distinguished. The finger alphabet however is entirely visible and can make spelling so much easier.
- Sign boosts empathy
For many children learning to see how others might feel is a challenge. In sign, however, showing empathy is an inherent part of language skills due to the unique construction of reported speech sentences: Instead of signing ‘he said…’ and then repeating the other person’s words, a child fluent in sign would literally turn around on his feet, take the position of the other character and speak as if it was his own point of view, including gestures and feelings. Then he would turn around to his normal position and continue his own speech. In sign empathy becomes much more than a social skill: It’s a storytelling device very vividly used.
- Sign is physical communication
Sometimes children struggle communicating their wants, needs or point of view in oral language. This is especially true for young ones because their language (according to Piaget) consists of words as well as movements and gestures. (And I take the view that many children diagnosed with ADD are simply one step behind in their development according to Piaget, compared to their classmates). Sign can bridge this gap and make communication between all-oral and oral-movement-gesture children easier, thus reducing the ‘special needs’ character of their disability.
- Sign supports ‘good input’
I believe that in teaching ADD children it’s very much all about ‘good input’ versus ‘bad input’ and making the good input stand out as much as possible. This means that the information source (i.e. teacher, textbook, picture…) should always speak ‘louder’ than the combined distractors. If sign is used it adds another ‘layer’ to the otherwise just oral teacher’ explanation and therefore increases good input tremendously, providing not only auditory but visual information, too. This means in turn that not only the area of the brain necessary for auditory processing but also the one busy with visual representations work on the same thing – and a much larger area of the brain is busy learning compared to oral-only. (Some research also suggests that using sign in classrooms helps reduce noise levels altogether, thus reducing ‘bad input’ tremendously.)
- Sign is a slow language
If children with auditory processing issues in classrooms with overpowering background noise have difficulties hearing the teacher speak it might take a while before they realize their teacher has even started speaking. And then oral language is so fast (4 to 5 words per second) that even then retaining all this information in a continuous stream of sounds can be quite a challenge. Sign language on the other hand is much slower: Even skilled signers produce only 2 to 3 signs per second (and one can guess that in a classroom with no sign native this ratio will be even less). Children do therefore have much more time (about twice as much) processing and retaining the information given.
- Sign is movement
Many ADD children crave movement – and when let loose outrun all others with sheer endless energy. Sign provides a bit of movement even within otherwise sit-still classes. It is therefore very attractive to ADD children and can prevent them from developing ticks like foot tapping or constant finger wiggling in order to get their much needed physical input.
- Sign promotes fine motor skills
Fine motor skills (that is: the skills necessary to move fingers and hands with accuracy and precision) are very important in any language classroom – for two reasons: First of all writing requires a good hand-eye coordination and children with little-trained fingers won’t be able to produce more than hardly identifiable squiggles. Secondly research suggests that good fine motor skills and language skills are connected (and yes, finger movements and language are processed in neighboring areas of the brain). Research (Fomina, 1975) shows that only 20 minutes of fine motor training per day significantly boosts language development. A sign integrated classroom is able to do this even without spending extra time.
Sign and ESL Children
After my studies I started working as ESL kindergarten teacher – and within only a day was so glad I had learned the basics of sign during my time at university. My life was just so much easier being able to show what I meant, not only using strange words no child had ever heard before and couldn’t make the slightest sense of. Within just a few weeks children would start signing back to me (waaayyyy before speaking a single word in English), indicating they did actually understand what I meant. And even when they started actually using English words my students would oftentimes form the sign, look at it and only then remember the word.
This – in my opinion – is again because of the unique nature of sign language – and how it resonates with children:
- Children are naturally drawn to sign as form of expression – and when presented with totally strange words try to derivate meaning from all kinds of surrounding clues. Because sign language is so iconic (especially in words used with young children) they will quickly find a connection between spoken words, sign and meaning.
- Finger movement and language are processed in neighboring areas of the brain – and research suggests fine motor exercises do boost language development. So what better do in an ESL classroom than integrated language and fine motor exercises?
- Children use signs and gestures as part of their own, natural language. They don’t feel awkward showing what they did (just ask a child to describe a physical motion – he will very likely show rather than tell how it works). So learning sign is not an added barrier between meaning and word, but actually aids in moving from one to the other.
Finger Alphabet Cheat Sheet
The finger alphabet is an easy way to start using sign (and as Marilyn Daniels reports, even using only the finger alphabet, no other sign is proven to be a beneficial and highly effective teaching tool).
So here’s your Finger Alphabet Cheat Sheet – FREE to download and use.
For your FREE high resolution download click HERE.
For a head start in using the finger alphabet I’d recommend watching this video and co-signing a few times along the way
Hint: the letters in the video are formed from viewer’s perspective – the way your audience will see them. Practicing in front of a mirror is highly recommended.
Then print out your Cheat Sheet and use in the classroom for reference.
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