Benefits of ASL in the General Education Classroom

There are many great ways to incorporate American Sign Language into your lessons.

By Ann Whittemore

Stamp of hand signing I Love You

Benefits of ASL for Young Children

Traditionally, ASL (American Sign Language) is used as a mode of communication; it is also a beneficial teaching tool that promotes cognitive functioning. For very young children and infants, ASL promotes speech development, provides a mode of communication, and stimulates muscle memory. Young children engaging in ASL are better equipped in learning secondary languages and may have a more developed linguistic aptitude. Through ASL, infants as young as six months can engage in effective reciprocal communication, which puts them at an advantage linguistically, emotionally, and socially. These advantages can positively impact their entire school experience.

ASL as a Classroom Communication Tool

A typical classroom lesson is oftentimes full of questions, comments, and interruptions. ASL can act as an effective systematic communication tool between you and your class. Have students sign the letter i as they raise their hands to indicate they have a question, letter a for an answer to that or other questions, and if they’d like to share a comment. This eliminates hesitation on the part of the pupil when they’d like to ask a question. It also lets you know who may be able to help answer that question, and allows you to choose to provide space for a comment. As the teacher, use the wait sign to indicate that you are aware somebody wants to contribute a comment, and that you will address them at a more appropriate time. This allows them to know you acknowledge them, but that they should hold their comment for later. Adopting signs for quiet, line up, lights on/off, and leave the room can also benefit the overall flow of a lesson. If your class knows your signs, then you can continue speaking while addressing other issues; this detracts from the overall distraction and not your lesson.

ASL and Muscle Memory

Some people (myself included) have a difficult time remembering facts, formulas, dates, and specific information, but may have good athletic or kinesthetic abilities. Children such as these, may benefit from the physical movement involved in ASL. For example, have them use ASL to remember a mathematical procedure or historical event. They could learn the sign for theorem to help remember the Pythagorean Theorem or the sign for beard to aid in remembering an event involving Abe Lincoln. Associating movement with a concept or idea can help kinesthetic learners build memory skills through activating their muscle memory.

Exposing your Students to ASL

One of the easiest ways to incorporate ASL is through story telling. Story telling is a very natural way to transmit culture and concepts to children; as it has been used for thousands of years as a primary teaching device. ASL allows you to tell a story using both audio and visual modes of communication. Your class will enjoy seeing the physical act of the story unfold as you speak. The audience is involved in a variety of ways, activating several parts of the brain at once, and provided the opportunity for kinesthetic movement. ASL can also engage learners in problem solving skills and creative thinking. Like a character driven language, such as Chinese, much of ASL is understood in context and from inference. Try making a sign and ask your class what they think it means. They will need to use what they know and the context clues to figure it out.

Teaching Signs

There are numerous websites, such as YouTube, and countless books that teach simple ASL signs. Choose a few signs that correspond with a lesson and teach them alongside core curriculum. Pick one sign a week and share it during morning meeting. Have your class research sign language at the computer lab and have each pupil choose one sign they’d like to teach the class; have them share a new sign every day. Sign language is easy to learn, it’s beneficial on several educational and linguistic levels, and it is fun.

Other Helpful ASL Lessons:

American Sign Language Storytelling Contest

This video clip showcased both vocabulary words (in ASL) and the key to good ASL storytelling. Intended for an ASL storytelling contest but very effective and clear at providing a context for the impact ASL could have in the classroom. To be viewed by the teacher or instructor.

ASL 1: Lesson 1

To use in the classroom or for your own interest, this page contains a series of links and lessons perfect for teaching ASL. 

Using American Sign Language Signs

This article suggests several ways to incorporate ASL in the general ed classroom to enhance comprehension in the areas of Social Studies and Science. It is short and similar to this article but contains additional links to other articles you may find interesting.