Signing Helps Hearing Children Learn to Read
signs were originally developed to help the hearing-impaired
communicate, it turns out they can also help hearing children
learn to read. This report will summarize various research
findings that have demonstrated how hearing children
successfully learned to read or improve their reading skills
with the use of signing and fingerspelling. The term
"signing" also known as "sign language"
refers to hand positions that represent entire words or
phrases. The term "fingerspelling" refers to
separate hand positions for each letter of the alphabet. Sign
language is usually used to help teach sight words whereas
fingerspelling is usually used to teach spelling and phonics.
The use of
signs to help hearing children learn dates back to the 19'th
century when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who pioneered education
for the deaf in the United States, advocated using sign
language and fingerspelling to help increase vocabulary and
language development in hearing children (Daniels, 1996 Child
Study Journal). In 1852 David Bartlett taught deaf children
and their hearing siblings in a family school. He discovered
that signing and fingerspelling not only helped the deaf
children learn but it also helped their hearing siblings as
well (Blackburn et. al. 1984). Other educators of the hearing
impaired during the 19'th century made similar observations
and also recommended that signing be used to help teach
reading, spelling and writing to hearing children (Hafer and
Wilson, 1989). However, during the early part of the 20th
century signing fell in disfavor and was not encouraged for
use with the hearing impaired or, as it turns out, with
hearing children. Not until the late 20'th century was signing
once again fully accepted and recognized as an independent
language (Daniels, 1996 Child Study Journal).
The use of
signing in the teaching of reading to hearing children began
to appear once again in the literature in the mid 1970's and
1980's. Dr. Mckay Vernon and others (1983) discovered that all
normally hearing children with average or above intelligence
who have non-speaking deaf parents (parents who expose their
children to signing and fingerspelling) actually learn to read
before they begin school. Many learn to read as a result of
making the connection between manual letters and printed
letters. "Not only do these children read but they also
write; i.e., they use fingerspelling expressively"
(P.173). Vernon felt that the implications of these
observations "have tremendous generality for the teaching
of reading to all children" (ibid.).
Vernon and Joan D. Coley (1978) cited programs that use
signing and fingerspelling to teach regular hearing children
(who do not necessarily have deaf parents) how to read. These
highly effective programs have been taking place in Maryland
(Mrs. Peggy Denton, Waverly Elementary School) and West
Virginia (Mrs. Jan Dubois, Rosemont Elementary School). Early
unpublished appraisals of these programs show success. Vernon
and Coley also stated that "Because signs are so vivid,
dramatic and fascinating they may serve as a powerful
motivating force in helping youngsters want to learn to read.
For example, Sesame Street is capitalizing on the motivating
nature of communicating through signs by having a deaf person,
Linda Bove, added to the regular cast to teach children to
'read' and 'write' signs and to fingerspell" (p.300).
Walker emphasized fingerspelling to teach reading to thirteen
"incorrigible" junior high school boys whose reading
ability ranged from the second to the fourth grade level. The
boys achieved success and actually enjoyed their reading
lessons (Blackburn et. al., 1984).
(1979) used the manual alphabet and signs from American sign
language to help three primary school age children who had
difficulty reading. She taught them how to fingerspell
phonetic words and sign non phonetic sight words and
inflections while saying the words aloud. McKnight taught the
manual letters by sound rather than by name. She taught the
children how to sign each letter sound or phoneme including
digraphs. The children were eventually able to figure out
unknown words without outside help because of their ability to
cue themselves with signs. McKnight reported, "It was
easier to connect the visual letter to a manual sign, and then
to a verbal sound, than it was to go directly to the verbal
sound"(p.583). As time went on, the use of signing fell
away as the children became more and more familiar with the
and signing have also been used to help students with spelling
words. An experimental project was set up that used the manual
alphabet to help learning-disabled elementary school children
improve their spelling words by fingerspelling each word while
saying it aloud. The children learned to read and fingerspell
most of their spelling words after only three "ten"
minute instructional periods (Vernon et. al. 1980). Teague (
Wilson, Teague, and Teague 1985) conducted a study with seven
regular first grade students who were having difficulty
learning to spell. At the time the students were selected,
they spelled only 25% to 46% of their words correctly on
spelling tests. When the students used both fingerspelling and
sign language to learn their spelling words, their spelling
test scores improved to a range of 56% to 90% words spelled
correctly. The student's retention of the spelling words at
the end of the study ranged from 60% to 90% words spelled
used manual communication to teach reading to visually
impaired learning-disabled students. All students easily
learned the vocabulary words they were given by fingerspelling
or signing them. The students were able to figure out unknown
words by fingerspelling them and reversals in reading Braille
were reduced significantly (Blackburn, 1984).
Blackburn and others (1984) conducted a case study of two
learning-disabled fourteen year old boys. For the first
several weeks the boys were taught the manual alphabet and a
sign language vocabulary. Once the subjects were comfortable
with signing, signs were introduced to reinforce the phonetic
decoding of words using key word analysis. During the five
month project both subjects made a great deal of progress in
reading comprehension and vocabulary. "The boys regular
reading teachers reported that signing was an extremely
motivating form of reading instruction for both subjects and
strongly recommended continuing the project "(P.27).
others (1985) described a successful lesson sequence that uses
manual signs (American sign language) to teach sight words to
reading disabled children. The lesson sequence was recommended
for use with mildly handicapped children when conventional
methods fail. Compared to other VAKT
(visual-auditory-kinesthetic-tactile) approaches to reading,
Carney and others felt that signing and saying words
simultaneously increased the "imageability" of
words. One child was quoted as saying "Now I can feel the
words when I read them" (P.217).
and others (1989) conducted a research study to find out if
sign language (signing exact English) can help hearing
trainable mentally handicapped students identify and retain
sight words. The subjects were 8 males and 7 females, 15 to 19
years of age with IQ's that ranged from 30 to 50. The results
of the study revealed "that subjects learning to read
words with an accompanying sign identified and retained
significantly more vocabulary than did students learning to
read in a traditional manner" (P.121).
and Lloyd (1986) published a comprehensive report that
reviewed many studies that showed the effectiveness of using
fingerspelling and signs to teach reading. They cited studies
conducted in Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, the United Kingdom and
the United States. These studies showed how fingerspelling can
help dyslexic children and illiterate adults in non-English
speaking countries as well as English speaking countries. They
also cited studies that showed how deficiencies in phonemic
segmentation skills (isolating speech sounds) is a primary
problem for children and adults experiencing reading and
spelling difficulties. Of all approaches tried in teaching
this skill, fingerspelling appears to be the most effective
method. Fingerspelling can also help with writing problems
such as "b" and "d" reversals.
"Teachers remind students to look at their hand. The
right-hand "b" sign laid on the paper shows the line
and circle relationship" (p.5).
and Lloyd (1986) also cited a body of research on mnemonic
instruction which supports the use of signs as an effective
technique to teach sight words. "Gierut noted superior
word retention for both learning disabled and regular students
when signs were presented with printed words" (P.11).
Good and others (1993/1994) have also reported that using
signs is an effective way to teach reading including phonics
to hearing children who have normal abilities but were unable
to learn to read with the usual methods. Marilyn Daniels
(1996, Sign Language Studies) reported how signs helped
Kindergarten children increase their speaking vocabulary in
addition to learning sight words, letters of the alphabet and
phonetic sounds. One Kindergarten teacher found that
"children having problems remembering letters/words or
beginning sounds were often able to recall needed information
once they saw the sign" (P.33).
article (Felzer, 1998) I describe how I began using signing,
games and physical objects about fifteen years ago to teach
reading to special education students - most of whom had down
syndrome. At first I just used signing for the nonverbal
students but my other students also wanted to participate so
we all ended up signing together. I was amazed at how well the
illustrative quality of signing helped all the students
remember words. They did so well that I thought it would be a
great idea to try the same techniques with general educations
students. So in the Fall of 1995 I teamed up with Ruth Nishida
at Brooklyn Avenue School in East Los Angeles to use these
techniques with her Kindergarten students - most of whom were
English Language Learners. At the end of the school year Ruth
evaluated her students with the Oral Gray reading Test and
found that most of her students were reading at or above the
beginning of first grade level. Ruth's students not only
learned how to read simple sentences and stories with good
comprehension but they were also very enthusiastic and proud
of what they accomplished.
Spring of 2000 I took a leave of absence from my special
education class in LA City Schools and tried the techniques
with a Kindergarten class on the Cal Poly Pomona University
campus. However this time I limited the number of sight words
I taught to allow more time to teach the finger alphabet and
finger spelling as a way to strengthen phonics skills. The Cal
Poly Kindergarten students were soon reading simple sentences
and stories as well as using finger spelling to help them
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
studies reviewed in this report discuss how students of all
ages including those with disabilities can benefit from
signing and fingerspelling when learning to read. Signs can be
used as a highly effective teaching tool for students who do
not respond to traditional instructional methods as well as be
part of a regular reading program for an entire class. A
reading program that includes the use of signs has the added
advantage of bringing a kinesthetic dimension to learning as
well as making learning fun. Students enjoy the physical
involvement that signing brings.
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