Sign Language and Phonics-A Winning Combination

When I was getting my degree in Liberal Studies from San Diego State University, I knew choosing a foreign language would be an easy decision.  I had tried French and Spanish previously and knew that I was NOT an auditory learner.  Therefore, I chose a minor in Communicative Disorders with my foreign language being American Sign Language (ASL).  Little did I know that this choice would work wonders for me in my career years later!

Flash forward (well, I won't say how many years), and I have used sign language to teach students with severe reading problems how to read.  The key was adding a kinesthetic approach to a skill that is visual!  Teaching reading has always consisted of a teacher who teaches a skill to a student (with a visual guide and an auditory example), and the student applying this skill through the same modalities. 

I decided to experiment with adding ASL in the classroom and see how it would work.  I began with my pre-readers and taught them the letter-sound correspondence with an ASL sign for each.  You could use the letter hand sign for each letter of the alphabet, or you could use the sign for the picture that corresponds to the letter card.  For example, we use the Houghton Mifflin Language Arts program in our school and I use ASL signs that correspond to the pictures.
There were 2 reasons I choose this approach over hand signs for the letters.
  1. My kindergarten students had a very difficult time with the fine motor skills it takes to form the hand signs for each of the letters.  It was much easier to sign the picture words (ex. apple, cat, fish), which tend to use larger motions of the hands and arms.
  2. It connected their signs (kinesthetic) with the pictures (visual) and therefore helped them remember the sound (ex. if they remembered cat they could hear the initial sound in the word).  If I just taught the hand sign for the letter they would remember the visual letter, but NOT necessarily the sound that it makes.
I really suggest that anyone who is teaching a child their letter sounds that they incorporate ASL.  I use it with my own kids (ages 4 and 3), and they just love it! 

Keep following for more tips and ideas on how to use ASL to teach reading.