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Redleaf Press: Enhancing Early Literacy with American Sign Language by Kirsten Dennis

Enhancing Early Literacy with American Sign Language

by Kirsten Dennis, author of Sign to Learn

Signing a SongAmerican Sign Language (ASL) is the most commonly used language in the United States for people who are Deaf. ASL was created by Deaf people and is a unique and beautiful language that uses hand shapes, motions, and facial expressions to communicate visual concepts. Today the use of ASL by hearing people is increasing, and this wonderful language has found its way into many classrooms across the country. Early childhood teachers in particular are discovering that including ASL in their teaching practices enhances learning for their young students.


Sign Language is very interesting to young children and is a highly motivating form of instruction. ASL allows a teacher to present information visually through hand and body movements and gives children additional ways to understand what they are being taught. For very young children, this ability to use movement and multiple senses to learn is so important. It is no surprise, then, that sign language can greatly enhance learning in one of the most important areas of an early childhood curriculum early literacy.


Research shows that using sign language in an early childhood literacy program increases vocabulary, improves letter and word recognition, helps young children focus on learning, and enhances communication between students and teachers. In addition, sign language instruction greatly improves communication and literacy skills for children who have special language needs associated with autism, Down syndrome, developmental delays, or learning English as a second language.


Signing with young hearing children works to enhance early literacy skills because:

• signing engages children in literacy activities;
• signing allows children to use multiple senses to learn new information;
• the signs children learn look like the letters and words you want to teach them;
• creating signs helps children connect concrete objects to abstract concepts; and
• signing increases young children's confidence to learn new skills.


Engage Children
Using sign language during reading and writing activities helps hook children into your instruction. Whether you are singing the ABC song and signing the letters or you are signing various words from a children's book, your students will be watching you intently, focusing on your every move. This intense engagement and focus helps young children learn new skills and information.


Provide a Multisensory Approach
Teaching early literacy skills in different ways benefits young hearing children. Including American Sign Language when you teach letters of the alphabet, sounds, and words gives children another way to understand these concepts. They not only see the letters with their eyes and hear the sounds with their ears, they also physically create the letters and words with their bodies.


Create Pictures of Letters and Words
Many ASL signs, including the sign language alphabet, look like the word they mean. For example, the letter "y" is formed by holding up the thumb and pinky of one hand; the sign for "car" is two hands grasping an imaginary steering wheel; and the sign for "milk" is made by pretending to milk a cow! This iconicity really helps children understand and remember letters and words. The signs provide both a visual and a physical memory.


Bridge Concrete to Abstract
Additional cues can help children understand the alphabet and words. Signing creates a bridge between concrete objects and the abstract symbols (letters and words) that represent the objects. For example, the children see a cat, then they hear you say the word "cat," you show them how to stroke an imaginary pair of whiskers on their face (the sign for cat), and finally they see the word CAT on paper. The addition of sign language provides another meaningful step between the object and the word that represents the object.


Build Confidence
When you add ASL to literacy activities, the children in your classroom will often learn the alphabet names and sounds earlier and will often understand and recognize more vocabulary words. While these early literacy skills are important steps in creating successful readers and writers, signing provides another valuable benefit. Including ASL in your program increases students' enjoyment of reading and writing activities. They feel confident in their new skills, are excited about learning language, and are enthusiastic to confront new academic challenges.


As you start signing during language activities, you will soon see the advantages to this kind of instruction. Your students' enthusiasm for learning language often increases along with their understanding of letters and sounds, their desire to explore writing, and their enjoyment of books.


Kirsten DennisKirsten Dennis has fifteen years of experience working with young children and has successfully integrated American Sign Language into her curriculum for hearing students for the last ten years.

For more information about teaching and learning American Sign Language with young children and a complete ASL early childhood curriculum, read
Sign to Learn: American Sign Language in the Early Childhood Classroom (2005), written by Kirsten Dennis and Tressa Azpiri and published by Redleaf Press.