Teachers do a fantastic job at motivating children to learn. We use creativity in a variety of mediums to captivate children’s interest and let’s face it, if it’s fun, they’re motivated. I think we all agree that when children are involved in the learning process they are more likely to enjoy and remember what they are learning. I found this especially so when I incorporated sign language with my teaching.
The hearing children I taught loved using sign language. They were not just listening but they were seeing and doing, using more components and senses with their learning. My Grade one students enjoyed signing songs and were using ‘finger-spelling’ (Auslan alphabet) to learn their spelling words and my Grade four students did the same. It was also very satisfying seeing children in the playground communicating to each other, using ‘finger-spelling.’ They had their own code, they were motivated. Then for a school assembly one year, my Grade three class presented a song in sign language, they all wore white gloves and it looked fantastic.
After reading some research on the benefits of teaching sign language to infants and children, I was also convinced by the educational advantages that hearing children had, when exposed to speech and sign language. Dr. Daniels, a professor of Speech Communication and author of ‘Dancing with words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy, states that using sign language from infancy to the sixth grade results in improved literacy. She worked with children who demonstrated ‘…better recognition of letters and sounds, better spelling and larger English – language vocabularies than children who were not taught Signs.’ After reading this, I thought what a wonderful tool sign language could also be for children whose English is a second language.
In 1985 a study was conducted in the United States by Robert Wilson, Gerald Teague and Marianne Teague. It involved seven first grade students who were struggling with their learning to spell. Prior to the experiment they could only spell 25% to 46% of their words correctly. In the experiment, the students were taught the spelling using finger-spelling and sign language to learn their words. Consequently the students could spell 56%-90% of their words correctly. At the end of the study the students proved they were able to retain their spelling.
Dr. Daniels also claims that signing while speaking can encourage whole brain development and memory skills. ‘… when information is taken in with the eyes, the right brain is being used. All languages are stored in the left brain, so when (young children) are exposed to signs and speech, both the right and left brain are being used.’ She says ‘….this is a wonderful advantage because you are using both hemispheres of the brain, building more synapses in the brain.’
In addition, studies demonstrate the positive effects sign language can have on learning math. Steve Kokette in his paper, ‘Sign Language: The Best Second Language?,’ writes, ‘In Middlesborough, England, one study illustrated how sign language improved students’ math skills. The students in this study were taught BSL (British Sign Language) and then taught math entirely through sign. These students scored significantly higher on their test scores compared to their peers who were not exposed to signs. The possible reason for this is that sign language, being so visual, fascinates children and causes increased curiosity, attentiveness and concentrationtherefore causing greater mental retention and in this case, higher test scores.’
Using sign language, while teaching, is easy as it is only grasping some Auslan vocabulary. It can be used whenever you are speaking, as little or as much as you like. There is no need to pull children out of their natural environment to ‘teach’ them signs. Signing is fascinating to watch and do, children are curious, they concentrate and are motivated, therefore learning becomes memorable and fun. Additionally, exposing children to a second language such as Auslan touches on topics likecultural diversity, bilingualism and inclusion. When a child is exposed to a second language, they receive exposure to different ways of experiencing life through the eyes of another culture. Sign language is inviting and accessible, and it provides an opportunity for children to experience success in learning another language. This early success can build the enthusiasm a child needs to enjoy a lifetime of learning other languages and cultures. Subsequently, children who are deaf or hearing impaired would also feel included in a mainstream school environment.