A Historical and Educational Perspective on American Sign Language

Using Sign Language to Communicate with Your Special-Needs Students in the Classroom

By Ann Whittemore

American Sign Language alphabet

History of Sign Language in Education

ASL, or American Sign Language, has a long and wonderfully-rich history based on the premise that all individuals have the right and capability to learn equitably. In 1620, Juan Pablo de Bonet published the first book on educating deaf individuals. This book contained a manual alphabet which represented sounds, not letters. In 1778, the first public school for the deaf was founded in Paris. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1817, the first school for the deaf in America was born, as well as the communication system that developed into modern ASL. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet not only fathered what was to become ASL, he also founded the first and only Liberal Arts College for the deaf.

 What is American Sign Language?

ASL is a series of alphabet (finger spelling) and symbol or phrase driven gestures that can be taught to children as early as infancy. The origins of sign language probably date back as far as man himself. However, the system we use in the United State derived in part from the French, and from a collection of signs brought home by the students who attended the first American Schools for the deaf. It must be noted that different regions and cultures all have various sign languages of their own. One can assume this to mean that, like spoken language, gestural communication is natural and may be said to be innate.

ASL in the Special Ed Classroom

ASL is not just for deaf or hearing-impaired students. It can also benefit children with Downs Syndrome, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Sign language is very easy to learn and teach. It makes sense on kinesthetic, spatial, and linguistic levels because it feels natural. I have used ASL to communicate with my hearing-impaired students, but I also found it highly beneficial as a reciprocal communication device with my non-verbal or Autistic students. Many of the behaviors special-needs students exhibit are derived from frustration or the need to communicate a want or desire. ASL provides an immediate, comprehensible form of communication for those who have limited language or depressed social skills. Teaching sign to severely handicapped students can be done several ways. The following are basic and intended for children with a low baseline:

  1. I typically construct a print/image-rich environment where many of the most desired objects have a representative icon (with text) and the associated sign posted on or near them. Because of this, students are exposed to high-frequency words via text, image, and sign. This reinforces the connection between the abstract and concrete representation for an object or idea. I regularly sign high-frequency words as I speak; this reinforces the sign to verbal relationship.
  2. I conduct training trials where I encourage students to use the signs as a means to get a desired object. For example, if a child wants a toy, then they sign toy. If they grab or yell, they get a gentle reminder to use their words (signs). I then show them the object with the associated sign. Hand-over-hand modeling may be required. This may seem obvious, but teaching sign to a severely-handicapped or behaviorally-challenged child is not always easy. However, in many cases, it is more effective than spoken language. Developmentally, children understand three times as many words as they actually use in reciprocal language. Signing with DD, PDD, DS, or Autistic students provides a functional way to use and build vocabulary until they are ready to engage in verbal communication.

Overall, ASL here in America, and Sign Language as it is spoken all over the world, is a functional, engaging, and organic form of communication. Its rich history has been woven together by the deaf community and educators alike.

ASL Resources:

Signing Time

Signing Time is a fantastic show that uses developmentally sound practices to teach your children functional sign language. This is a You Tube sample to be used by educators, special or general ed students, and the hearing impaired. 


This article focuses on common misconceptions related to ASL and its far reaching benefits in relation to language development, communication, and metal processing. 

Introductory Lesson on ASL

This introductory lesson on ASL is intended for younger students and requires some foot work on the part of the teacher. However, I’d like to suggest this lesson as a place to begin when you, the educator, are considering teaching or learning ASL.