Language Development: Using Asl In Hearing Classes

A common topic of discussion in the education profession is how to cater to deaf children in hearing classes, and if using sign language (ASL in particular) is beneficial to their language development or not. There is a recent article written by Daniels that takes on the opposite question: how does ASL affect hearing children's language development?

The article takes a detailed look at a study that took place in a rural, public elementary school in Vermont. There were two kindergarten classes, each with teachers equal in experience and ability. The two teachers used the same reading curriculum to teach language development. The experiment began with one teacher using only English, and the other using both ASL and English on the very first day of class. Gradually throughout the year, the second teacher eliminated Englishand increased her use of ASL signs. By mid-year, all classroom management (discipline, reinforcement, etc.) was signed only. To teach phonemic awareness, the teacher would finger-spell words; for example, she might say the letter name or sound and sign it at the same time until she had spelled out a word. This aided the hearing students in visual and auditory memory, and also caused an increase in their muscle memory. To teach reading, the teacher used both English and ASL together in every instance; for example, each vocabulary word was signed, then shown in English text on an index card, then repeated by the students. Somewhat surprisingly, the students responded quickly and easily with signs in return. They knew simple signs (such as Yes, No, Please, Bye, See you later, Hello, and Tomorrow) very well by the end of the year.

The article discusses the purpose of such an experiment: to determine what effect teaching hearing children ASL has on their language development and literacy. It was found that there are many effects, including an increase in receptive and expressive English vocabularies, ASL abilities, English emergent reading level, as well as language development. More specifically, Daniels says that both classes of students' receptive English increased by two full years of vocabulary growth in the nine months they were in school—an incredible success. Their expressive English vocabularies, ASL phonology, and ASL morphology were fully maintained. The only things that did not develop as hoped were facial expressions (that come naturally with trained ASL students or with Deaf people), syntax, or concepts about print.

Daniels concludes that teaching ASL to hearing students, or at least using it in conjunction with English speech and text, has excellent academic advantages in the future. Students' literacy scores increased versus the control class, showing that ASL can only be construed as an advantage for hearing students, and has even been shown to raise their emergent reading level as language develops even faster. Also, the ASL learned will most likely be retained with no additional training in sign language.

Daniels, M. (2004). Happy hands: The effect of ASL on hearing children's literacy.
Reading Research and Instruction. 44. 86-100.