Tips for Sign Communication in the Classroom
tips below include many examples from science and mathematics,
same principles apply to any content areas.
The sign videos on this web site are best viewed with Internet Explorer for PC users and Firefox for Mac users
do we know from research about signing in the classroom?
Teachers who strive for excellence
in the education of deaf students will recognize the heterogeneity that
is often found in the classroom and will be prepared to adjust their instruction
accordingly. This is especially true with regard to the use of sign
language. Currently, there is little research (but many opinions) on the
best way to sign in science or math classes. What works with one group of
students may not work with another. We also know little about how deaf
students construct knowledge as they learn through signs. We do not know
whether using a combination of conceptual signing and fingerspelling may
be more effective than extensive use of "technical"or "field-specific"
signs. Nor do we know how well deaf students can use long-term memory to
make associations between signs teachers use and the concepts the signs
represent. These questions and answers will thus be modified as we learn
more from research studies.
1) A Synergistic Effect
Good signing, along with the use of
graphics, text, and adjunct questions to promote active involvement of
students, appears to have a combined and powerful effect on learning.
Studies of interaction of deaf
learners with computerized instructional materials have shown promising
results. In a multimedia research study with 144 deaf students, Dowaliby
and Lang (1999) examined the influence of four types of adjunct
instructional aids on immediate factual recall of science content in a series
of 11 lessons about the human eye. Students were grouped by standardized
test scores as low, middle, and high ability readers and were assigned to
condition which included:
- text plus viewing "content
- text plus sign language translations of
- text plus answering adjunct questions
about the text, and
- all conditions together (text, sign
language translations, animations, and adjunct questions).
Low reading ability students learning through
text with adjunct questions performed on a test of immediate factual
recall as well as high-reading-ability students learning through text
only. Dowaliby and Lang (1999) attributed the improved recall to the
engaging nature of the adjunct questions. Moreover, the combined use of
signs, graphics, text, and adjunct questions also resulted in
statistically significant gains as compared to the control group (text
While the sign language movies
resulted in increases in factual recall, among low-reading ability
students, the increases were not statistically significant in comparison
with the control group, which received only text. The conclusion may be
that adjunct sign language movies contributed to enhanced recall of
science facts, but it was the combined effect of adjunct questions, sign movies,
pictorial aids and English text that had a powerful synergistic effect.
Similarly, Donald Steely at the
Oregon Center for Applied Science(ORCAS) made extensive use of
carefully-sequenced lessons, "considerate text", graphic
organizers, animations, and a rigorous quiz and testing schedule to
facilitate student mastery of facts and knowledge needed to understand
the big ideas in science. To effectively present the material to deaf and
hard-of-hearing students, he developed the content of each lesson using a
series of "triads". Each triad contained a short text screen, a
corresponding animation explicating that passage of text, and an American
Sign Language (ASL) version of that text. Students typically first read
the text screen, then viewed the ASL movie, and then watched the
animations. The results of his three different studies with Earth
Science, Physical Science, and Chemistry, each 8 months long, indicated
that the interactive multimedia and web-based curriculum materials
yielded significantly greater knowledge gains for deaf students as
compared to traditional classroom experiences (Lang and Steely, 2003).
The results also supported the idea of a synergistic effect and provided
strong support for a multimedia instructional approach. Lang and Steely
(2003) write that well-designed, proven-efficacious science instructional
programs for hearing students can be successfully adapted for use with
deaf students by interspersing text and ASL explanations with content
animation and by providing additional practice on vocabulary and content
Further research may help us understand the relative contributions of
graphic organizers, adjunct questions, ASL explanations, and other forms
of visual support to text comprehension.
How should we sign in the classroom? While the growing body of
multimedia research supports the use of sign movies in combination with
other instructional components, there is little research on the
"best"way to sign. Until more research
is conducted, teachers will need to experiment with various combinations
of conceptual signing, fingerspelling, and technical signs, along with
the use of text, graphics, and adjunct questions to see what may be
mosteffective with a particular group of students.
Widely-Accepted Technical Signs
What to Do When a Sign Cannot Be Found
Using Abbreviations as Signs
Different Terms May Use the Same Sign
Using Symbols as Signs
A Sign May Vary According to Whether One is Using ASL or Simultaneous Communication
Conceptual Signing" vs. Use of Technical Signs
Examples: States of Matter
A Sign May Vary According to Context
Two-Dimensional vs. Three-Dimensional Handshapes
Examples From Mathematics
The Issue of Using Initialized Technical Signs
Introducing and Reviewing Technical Signs New to the Student
Example: EXPRESSION in Mathematics
General Signs Do Not Always Apply to Specific Cases
EXAMPLES: VOCALIZATION in Whales/EVALUATING an Algebraic Equation
Examples: PHYSICAL/PHYSICALLY; ALGEBRA/ALGEBRAIC
Different Meanings/Different Ways to Sign a Word
Examples: BALANCE, TABLE
Numbers and Fractions
Using Sign Language Research to Improve Our Teaching
Examples: Word-Sign Recall
can I find signs for math and science terms?
Many people have contacted us in
search of signs for specific terms in science or mathematics. We have
begun to identify terms from science and math curricula and textbooks and
we have compared this list with nine published sign language dictionaries
and other resources.
Important Note: An evaluation of most of
the signs in this Lexicon was conducted with 8 deaf native signers who have degrees/certification in science/mathematics, and two linguists who also participated in the discussions. If you are interested in participating in the ongoing
evaluation, please note that there is a rating form attached to each sign, which you may fill out and submit to us with comments. We are always in search of better signs.>
In this web-based lexicon, we are
listing the references where you can find signs for various math and
science terms. We recommend that you bookmark this web page and refer to
it as we update the lexicon.
In addition, we are conducting
several research studies on sign standardization and will keep you
informed as we progress. Teachers interested in participating in the Math
and Science sign research studies may contact
Classroom of the
Sea Marine Science Pictionary
A prototype of a
"Pictionary"has been developed as part of the National Science
Foundation grant project Classroom of the Sea. The Pictionary
includes photos, information, and sign movies for various marine science
terms used in this three-year project at the American School for the
Deaf, University of Connecticut, National Undersea Research Center, and the
National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of
The Pictionary was developed to
study the standardization of signs within one school program. An
evaluation study is underway and plans are in progress to study
standardization in other schools. Interested teachers should contact
Once this marine science prototype
is developed and evaluated, similar pictionaries may be developed for
astronomy, geometry, environmental science, and other typical content
areas in math and science.
should I do if I have looked and cannot find a sign for a particular
A sign is not needed for every science/mathematics
technical term. Concepts can be taught clearly with a combination of
conceptual signing (ASL), some technical signs, and fingerspelling.
should I use technical signs in my classroom?
Use of "technical"
(field-specific) signs in science and mathematics with American Sign
Language (ASL) is a complex process. Without a good understanding of the
pedagogical principles, a teacher runs the risk of making learning more
challenging than necessary for deaf students. The principles described
below were derived from discussion with experienced teachers.
In general, the more technical signs are used, the greater will be the
demand placed on deaf students to decode the communication into
meaningful learning. Thus, these principles and suggestions are meant to
encourage use of technical signs while optimizing the pedagogical
- Care should be taken not to introduce
too many new signs at once.
- The teacher should know and fully
understand the subject matter or concept being taught. Knowledge of
content will influence sign selection. Knowledge of principles of
sign language grammar and rules will influence sign production.
- Both sign selection and production may
influence student learning.
Example: When the same word is used for
different concepts, the teacher should choose the most accurate sign to
reflect the concept (i.e. like)
I like to study
Again, attempt to reach consensus
with your students and encourage teachers in your school to use the same
sign. Through discussion, try to reach consensus on the best sign to use.
Over time, this web site is summarizing research and evaluation studies
on this topic. Book mark this page and please volunteer to participate in
the online studies.
is fingerspelling appropriate in the classroom?
Finger spelling can be used in a
variety of ways to aid comprehension. There is nothing wrong with
fingerspelling a term.
Operated Vehicle - ROV
Depth Equipment - CTD
Oxygen - O
Water - H2O
Fingerspelling creatively to teach a
Fingerspelling to clarify when multiple
terms have similar signs
If possible, reach
a consensus on an in-class sign for long fingerspelled words that are
frequently used. Check with an experienced signer before you use this
If there are multiple signs for one term how do I
choose the appropriate sign?
There may be
several signs for the same word. Choose the sign that best represents the
concept. Sometimes multiple signs are acceptable.
Signs do vary (for
the same term) depending on what is being discussed.
Discuss the sign
with your colleagues and students and choose one that is favored.
When you do not
know the sign for a word, spell it out and be patient. Try to identify
the sign before or after the class by talking with experienced teachers.
While occasionally discussing a sign with students is ok, the goal of the
class experience is to have the students learn the concepts, not to teach
you signs. Asking, "what is the sign for
____________ ?" too often can distract the
students' thinking about the subject being discussed.
What helpful hints can you give me for teaching technical signs?
When introducing a technical term:
- Fingerspell the term
- Spell the term out on a
blackboard, overhead or smart board
- Introduce the sign for
- Explain the term
living on the bottom of the ocean
warm blooded animal with a backbone females produce milk
to feed their young
When possible, it is
also helpful to give examples of the term. When this is done, it is again
important that students be familiar with the signs used in the examples.
Fingerspelling, text and graphics should be used often with the new signs
so that students develop associations.
winter spring summer fall
H, O, He
periodic rising and falling of sea surface.
- Discuss sign: water
hand coming up over land hand like for high and low tide.
- AQUARIUM: a
building open to the public which contains many fish and marine
Letter "A" in shape of a building
In (ASL) a noun is distinguished from a verb by the number of movements.
A verb is represented by a single movement. A noun is represented by a
Use technical signs with common sense
A common problem with beginning signers is that they cannot distinguish
common ASL signs and field-specific signs. This comes with experience.
Until a teacher is comfortable in knowing which signs are not in the
students' regular vocabulary, it is better to assume that primary
technical terms (e.g., FORCE, PHOTOSYNTHESIS, EQUILIBRIUM, etc) are new
to the students. Even common terms such as ENERGY and TEMPERATURE that
are used in everyday conversations may not have signs the student knows.
Check with the students throughout the teaching-learning process to make
sure that everyone understands signs being used.
Always Go Back to the Familiar
- Use examples that are
part of the students’ knowledge base to explain new signs when there
are appropriate conceptual representations.
- Make analogies with a
- Example: DIFFUSION.
When someone makes brownies, you can smell them throughout the
use of Technical Signs
List words from previous day’s lesson on the board and quickly review
signs for those terms before you begin to teach the lesson for the day
Before the lesson, list all new vocabulary for that lesson on the board.
Give students a handout of the vocabulary words.
Give a daily or (weekly) "review" of frequently used and/or new
terms and their signs. For example, the teacher may make the signs and
the students write the terms. Or, the teacher writes the terms and students
show the signs. Gaming strategies can be used, by dividing the class into
At the end of a lesson, review new signs introduced.
The use of technical signs in assessment situations must also be
approached very carefully. As a first step toward developing some general guidelines for teachers and
interpreters to follow, we are including, with permission, some
suggestions provided by Dawn Hoyt Kidd from the Texas School for the
What are the benefits of using standardized signs
within a school?
Language, like any spoken language, evolves over time. Signs for such
terms as COMPUTER change with the technology. Variations of signs exist
in different locales. New signs are invented and sometimes come into
Many teachers wish
there were more standardization of signs. Others wish there were more
careful thought going into the invention of signs to assure that the
signs accurately represent the concepts and follow ASL principles (proper
use of sign space, classifiers, etc.).
circumstances, science signs have been invented through careful
discussion between content experts and linguists, including native deaf
signers (add reference).
Technical Signs Project
In 1975, a project
was initiated at NTID to help facilitate effective and precise
communication in academic and career environments through the
establishment of a nationally based system for collecting, evaluating,
selecting, recording, and sharing signs used by skilled signers in these
environments. This project, the Technical Signs Project (TSP), which was
conducted from 1975 through 1992, resulted in the production of 59
videotapes in 26 areas, including Anthropology, Computer Terminology,
Engineering, Human Sexuality, Mathematics, and Science.
In addition to
Videotapes, the TSP resulted in the development and publication of 11
books. These books included 9 of the 26 areas for Videotapes, with signs
in these books being depicted in the same order as presented on the
Videotapes for each technical area.
Since the end of
the Technical Signs Project in 1992, work has continued at NTID on a
project-by-project basis to update and expand the materials produced. The
first of the new books developed, Signs for Science and Mathematics: A
Resource Book for Teachers and Students (Caccamise & Lang, 1996),
includes signs from TSP Manual 3: Mathematics and Manual 10: Science,
with updating as appropriate. This book also includes a selected reading
list on science and mathematics education and D/deaf students. More
information about this national project is available to interested
readers. The current website is further updating this work in science and
Standardization Within a School (Classroom of the Sea)
science/mathematics teachers use different signs for the same term within
a school, valuable learning time is wasted on the part of deaf students
in adjusting to each teacher's preferred signs. As much as possible,
teachers within a school should discuss and agree upon a common sign for
The Classroom of
the Sea was a National Science Foundation-funded project that had as one
of its components a careful study of sign communication in Science. On a
small scale, standardization was studied within one language community,
the American School for the Deaf. Teachers were asked to evaluate the
usefulness of the Marine Science Pictionary and their willingness to
adapt and regularly use the same signs for a listed terms (more to come
What other resources are available?
A Resource Book For Teachers and Students:
Signs for Science and Mathematics
Information about NTID produced sign language materials for technical
Language Dictionary - An online ASL Dictionary. This website includes
some science signs in a list developed for Business aviation. Avatars are
used to produce the signs.
Space Science and Astronomy
for Use of Signs and Fingerspelling in Academic Settings for Technical/
Specialized Vocabulary (Frank Caccamise) [Acrobat Reader is needed to
read this file]
Communication: Resources and Strategies for the ASL Interpreter (David
Bar-Tzur) [Acrobat Reader needed to read this file]