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Tips for Sign Communication in the Classroom

Note:  The tips below include many examples from science and mathematics,
but the 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

What 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:

  1. text plus viewing "content movies" (animation),
  2. text plus sign language translations of the text,
  3. text plus answering adjunct questions about the text, and
  4. 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 only).

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 graphic organizers.

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   

Example: DENSITY

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   


Morphological Variants   


Different Meanings/Different Ways to Sign a Word   


Numbers and Fractions   


Using Sign Language Research to Improve Our Teaching   

Examples: Word-Sign Recall

How 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.>

Science/Math Sign Lexicon

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 Technology.

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.

What should I do if I have looked and cannot find a sign for a particular term?

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.

How 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 process.

  • 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)

o      Like charges repel.

o      I like to study science.

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.

When 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.

Fingerspelling abbreviations


·       Remotely Operated Vehicle - ROV

·       Conductivity Temperature Depth Equipment - CTD

Fingerspelling symbols


·       Oxygen - O

·       Water - H2O

Fingerspelling creatively to teach a concept



Fingerspelling to clarify when multiple terms have similar signs


·       Salt and salinity

·       Clam and scallop

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 sign.

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?

Introducing technical vocabulary

When introducing a technical term:

  1. Fingerspell the term
  2. Spell the term out on a blackboard, overhead or smart board
  3. Introduce the sign for this term
  4. Explain the term conceptually


  • BENTHIC:   living on the bottom of the ocean
  • MAMMAL:   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.


  • SEASON:   winter spring summer fall
  • CETACEAN:   whale, dolphin
  • ELEMENTS:   H, O, He


  1. TIDE:   periodic rising and falling of sea surface.
  2. Discuss sign: water hand coming up over land hand like for high and low tide.
  1. AQUARIUM:   a building open to the public which contains many fish and marine mammals
  2. Sign:   Letter "A" in shape of a building

Noun/verb differentiations

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 double movement.



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 familiar topic
  • Example: DIFFUSION. When someone makes brownies, you can smell them throughout the house.

Continued 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

Instructional Techniques

Before the lesson, list all new vocabulary for that lesson on the board. Give students a handout of the vocabulary words.

Daily Review

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 teams.


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 Deaf.

What are the benefits of using standardized signs within a school?

American Sign 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 widespread use.

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.).

In some 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 mathematics.

Standardization Within a School (Classroom of the Sea)

If 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 a term/concept.

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 later).

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 communication.

K8AIT Sign 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.

Marine Science Pictionary

Environmental Science Pictionary

Space Science and Astronomy

Bioterrorism Pictionary (Coming Soon)

Science/Math Signs Lexicon

Additional Readings

Suggestions for Use of Signs and Fingerspelling in Academic Settings for Technical/ Specialized Vocabulary (Frank Caccamise) [Acrobat Reader is needed to read this file]

Technical/Specialized Communication: Resources and Strategies for the ASL Interpreter (David Bar-Tzur) [Acrobat Reader needed to read this file]