Using Sign Language and Fingerspelling to Facilitate Early Literacy
Article by Marilyn Edmunds and Debra Krupinski
The use of sign language and fingerspelling offers a "hands on" beginning to literacy! Early childhood educators are embracing the challenge of providing the fundamental skills necessary for successful reading. Research has heightened awareness of the developmental continuum of skills necessary to produce good readers. Backed by this research, most reading readiness programs incorporate the basic components of oral language development, phonemic awareness and print knowledge. Many teachers are discovering that sign language and fingerspelling are fun and productive ways to actively engage young children in the process.
What Are Sign Language and Fingerspelling?
Sign language and fingerspelling are terms that are typically associated with the Deaf. Sign language is the use of a hand shape, movement and placement to represent a word or concept. Fingerspelling is the use of hand positions to represent letters of the alphabet.
Why Are They Effective Tools in Teaching Reading?
They benefit children.
There is growing interest in the use of sign language with normal hearing children. Howard Gardner's research on multiple intelligences has helped teachers identify the myriad of learning styles present in any classroom. The teacher will find that the use of signs and fingerspelling will accommodate a wide range of learning styles. A "verbal linguistic" child loves the process of learning another language. The "kinesthetic" child is motivated naturally by movement. The "interpersonal" child loves being involved in a group activity. The benefit of using this system is the representation of information through seeing, hearing, and movement. The more pathways created in the brain, the stronger the memory. Not only that, teachers are observing that children are interested in sign language and tend to acquire it easily.
They integrate easily into most reading programs.
Sign language and fingerspelling deliver additional clues for learning to read. Reading is an acquired skill that requires a planned sequence of skill development. A variety of reading programs, based on excellent research models, lays the foundation in the early childhood years. The use of sign language and fingerspelling is a strategy that can be integrated into almost any existing reading program.
What Key Elements Are Addressed?
Sign language supports oral language development.
A child's level of oral language competency reveals information about his ability to comprehend the meaning of the spoken or printed word. Children with weak oral language skills struggle with the reading process. The young child who has fewer opportunities for oral language development, for example an English Language Learner, benefits from the visual images sign language provides. Sign language is often iconic. The sign draws a picture in the air illustrating the meaning of a word. For example, signs for prepositional concepts such as "above," "through," and "between" and adjectives such as "fat," "heavy," and "tired" provide strong visual clues to their contextual meanings. Concepts are often acquired quickly when paired with iconic signs.
Furthermore, sign language supports oral language development through repetitions of words or concepts using multiple modalities. When a teacher says and signs a words, the child hears and sees the word. The child is actually receiving two repetitions of the word through two modalities. When a child says and signs a word, he is imprinting the word or concept through auditory and kinesthetic means. Multi-modality repetitions strengthen a child's recall and enhance the development of oral language for reading comprehension.
Fingerspelling supports development of phonemic awareness and print knowledge.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. Print knowledge involves the ability to recognize and name letters and relate letters to sounds. When combining these two skills, children start the process of sounding out words to build the foundation for spelling. Print knowledge and phonemic awareness are most effective when introduced early. They help children "crack the code" necessary to read well.
Successful readers have strong phonemic awareness skills. They identify, blend, and segment sounds in words in the early years. Visual Phonics, while not fingerspelling, is similar in that it borrows hand shapes from fingerspelling to represent long vowel sounds and some consonants. Other consonant sounds and diphthongs mimic the articulatory movements of speech sounds. These 46 hand shapes are based on sounds, regardless of the spelling of a word. Preschool and kindergarten teachers have reported improved results when using Visual Phonics with non-readers and English Language Learners. First grade teachers have reported the positive results of seeing children apply these skills in their daily reading and writing activities.
Print knowledge begins with the learning of the alphabet. The way they generally learn this is through singing the alphabet song. When fingerspelling is paired with the letter name, many confusing issues are avoided. Who knew that "duh-bul-you" is only one letter? For children who have not acquired all their speech sounds, the motor skill to imitate fingerspelled letter names can be easier than the articulatory movements of speech. Fingerspelling also provides discrete hand shapes for easily confused letter names such as c and z and clarifies the confusion for the common letter reversal, b and d. Children naturally enjoy fingerspelling in the air as they encounter printed words in their environment.
The use of sign language and fingerspelling is one of the many strategies that can be used to engage the young reader in developing early literacy skills. It is successful with learners of all types and levels. Patrice Wolf, author of Brain Matters, states, "The most powerful strategies increase retention, understanding and students' abilities to apply the concepts they are learning." The use of sign language and fingerspelling puts reading "in the hands" of children.
- Felzer, L. (2000). Research On How Signing Helps Hearing Children Learn To Read. MBR Beginning Reading Program, CA State University, Pomona.
- Luetke-Stahlman, B., Nielsen, D. (2002). Phonological Awareness: One Key To The Reading Proficiency of Deaf Children. American Annals of the Deaf, 147,11-17.
- National Institute for Literacy. (2001). Put Reading First. Jessup, MD: ED Pubs.
- Moats, L. (1999). Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.
- Roskos, K., Christie, J., Richgels, D., (2003). The Essentials of Early Literacy Instruction. Young Children, March, 52-60.
- Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
About the Authors
Marilyn Edmunds and Debra Krupinski work together at Taft Regionalized Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program in Southern California. Marilyn has worked in the field of Deaf Education and Speech Pathology for thirty years. She has worked with multiple grade levels, both hearing and deaf students, and is currently an early childhood teacher, parent educator and inclusion specialist. She has been a state trainer for the SKI*HI Family Centered Home Based Program for Deaf Children. Debra is a Speech and Language Pathologist. She has worked for twenty-three years with deaf and hearing children. Marilyn and Debra are involved with a non-profit agency, the S.E.E. Center for the Advancement of Deaf Children, which provides information and support services for families and teachers. Debra is a sign language instructor for the S.E.E. Center. Along with a team of teachers, she teaches Signing Exact English skillshops across the United States.
Published: February 2004