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Hearing Students, Sign Language and Music:
A Valuable Combination

1995 Steve Kokette

(I was surprised this periodical asked me to write for them. Sign Songs wasn't made just for music classes, my work isn't religious, I'm not Catholic, and I can hardly carry a tune. This appeared in the Catholic Music Educator November, 1995. Since then it has appeared in at least eight state periodicals for public school music teachers.)

For many years now it has been widely recognized that students benefit from being encouraged to move to music. In this brief essay I wish to propose that the use of American Sign Language (ASL) with hearing children may be a beneficial form of such movement. My reasons for making this suggestion stem from the proven value of using bodily movement in teaching music, especially applications of the "Dalcroze Method," and the proven effectiveness of signing in teaching language arts to children who have no hearing impairments.

As early as the 1800's, some educators working with children who had hearing impairments advocated that Sign language be taught to children without such an impairment, because they noticed that the hearing siblings of deaf children often developed better skills in reading, spelling, and writing if they were exposed to Sign language at home. Teachers who knew Sign language and used it while teaching in the classroom observed that children paid greater attention to the lesson. Music teachers noticed that children paid greater attention and learned lyrics better, if the teacher were signing while singing the text. They further observed that children seemed able to recall lyrics more readily, even weeks or months later, if the music educator used Sign while teaching.

Few educators today will raise an objection to the introduction of "Sign" or "signing," the nearly universal terms for skill in the use of American Sign, for use by children who do not have a hearing impairment. In addition to the advantages noted above, additional benefits to using Sign language with hearing children include the fact that even the most rudimentary knowledge of Sign allows some level of communication with the hearing impaired community, and many hearing impaired students are being "mainstreamed" into regular classrooms. Next, a knowledge of Sign allows the hearing student to develop a beginning awareness of the linguistic richness of Sign language and, thus, of language in general. Indeed, some have argued that American Sign Language is not merely English conveyed by signs, but something more: a unique cultural heritage and a fully developed language having its own syntax and rules. While some educators presume, because of the reasons just given, that the use of Sign language is useful in teaching vocabulary, phonics, and language arts, as well as in classroom management.

Similar arguements are made for the use of bodily movement and dance in educational programs, especially but not solely in the process of teaching music. The combination of music and movement, some educators noted at the end of the nineteenth century, seems to lead to an improved understanding of other subjects. For instance, in the early 1900's Emile Jacques- Dalcroze, the leading theoretician of this approach, wrote:

"Twently years ago I wrote some little songs, and set children to punctuate them with bodily move ments. I frequently noticed that children who did not care for music, and detested singing, came to love the songs through their love of the movements."

Dalcrose theorized that lessons in rhythmic gymnastics helped children in their other lessons, for they seemed to develop keener powers of observation and analysis, greater understanding and more acute memory. Teachers of subjects other than music, according to Dalcroze, often found that rhythmic training to music made students more responsive, more elastic, not only in movement but in personality.

More recently, Phyllis Weikart, another theoritician and practitioner, has written that movement in music helps young children succeed in school because it can aid in providing basic coordination skills for the young child who is still mastering the coordination of physical movement; it can aid in developing the child's awareness of the body as a unique physical object occupying time and space; it can strengthen aural comprehension and visual perception skills; it creates an awareness of "basic timing" as the child learns to move to the beat; and, it aids in the development of a positive self-concept.

Movement, Music, Sign:

Given the proven advantages of learning and using Sign, it is possible that music instruction may be one of the best methods to introduce students to Sign, because it is an educational form that involves the body more than most and, given the proven advantages of bodily movement to music education, it is quite likely that skill in signing what they sing will enrich students' appreciation of music and may well enhance their performance in other courses. Young people have an abundance of energy and most of them love to mimic physical movements. These natural levels of energy and talent allow students to learn quickly the relationship of signs to words.

I am not suggesting that the music teacher has to become proficient in ASL. There are some simple songs that might well be learned partially in Sign. In teaching songs having repeated key words, as do many folk songs and songs for children, or a refrain, it is possible to have the students learn to sign only the key word or possibly the entire refrain. The booklet Signing for Reading Success shows teachers how easy it is to learn some Sign language without ever taking a course. In many communities it is also possible to identify a practitioner of American Sign to function as a resource person.

The music teacher who is willing to explore the use of Sign in music may well be in for some surprising dividends. Barb Rogers, a teacher at Kinzie School in Chicago, asserts that her students learned music better because of Sign. She states that her classes watched the video Sign Songs twice and knew the songs thereafter. However, her students came with some familiarity with Sign, for Kinzie School mainstreams more than one hundred hearing impaired students.

Students who are learning songs together are often partici- pating in a relatively new experience of working cooperatively. Learning signs with words and music enhances the beauty of the song's performance. Sign can improve the motor skills of young people, and indeed it is good exercise for people of all ages. In his classic statement of the theory of eurythmics, Rhythm Music & Education, Jacques-Dalcroze suggests that movement with music might be beneficial in preparing students to play instruments with greater dexterity.

Preparing for the Future:

Lastly, I wish to suggest another but perhaps more somber benefit of introducing general music students to sign at an early age. We are now very much aware of hearing loss among the general population owing to exposure to blaring rock music, to say nothing of the damage to hearing from the general noise pollution existing in our cities and industrial areas. An introduction to Sign may very well enable students, should they suffer severe hearing loss, to pick this language up again without difficulty later in life.

Music classes are a part of general education for life, and they have always concentrated on the joy of hearing. It is possible that music combined with Sign may make a contribution beyond the joy of hearing and keep communication skills alive, even when hearing is no longer possible.


 


 
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