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Helping Struggling Learners in Your Social Studies and Science Units: Using American Sign Language Signs

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 9/11/2012

Your struggling learners are often your visual and kinesthetic learners. Learning Social Studies and Science content can often be difficult for these students in particular. Since many American Sign Language signs look like the meaning of new content area vocabulary, you can make learning easier.

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    American Sign Language in Science and Social Studies

    Learning the new vocabulary words in your Science and Social Studies units is instrumental to the student understanding what they are being taught. If they can’t understand the sentences because of the new words in them, they won’t understand anything else about the topic at hand. Therefore, understanding the vocabulary is the first step to unlocking the key to the rest of the information. Most of your struggling students are most likely visual or kinesthetic learners. You can help these students in addition to your higher-able students to understand and recall key Social Studies and Science vocabulary easier, by teaching them the American Sign Language signs that match those key words.

    American Sign Language signs are iconic in nature, meaning that most often the signs actually look like the object. Let’s look at the word "Independence" often taught in Social Studies/History units. In American Sign Language, you would use the sign for "free." To create the sign, you begin with both hands in fists facing toward you, crossed, and locked at the wrists. To show the sign for "free," you will unlock your wrists, turn your fists around so they are out to the open and continue to open your arms so that your arms are no longer touching and are now apart from each other. Visually you begin with hands locked (appearing tied or bound) and then when you open your arms it shows how you become "independent or free" as you are no longer tied or bound as before. For your visual learners, this representation lets them see the meaning of the word. For your kinesthetic learners, they get to use their bodies to demonstrate the meaning of the new vocabulary word. Therefore, for your visual and kinesthetic learners in particular, this new vocabulary word will now make a lot of sense. Much more so than if you were to just say the new word and tell them the meaning of the word or have them match definitions to words. The strategy of using American Sign Language signs along with new content area vocabulary will help all of your learners, but will have a lot of impact on those that are your struggling learners.

    As you can tell from this one example; as the teacher you can greatly encourage better recall of new content area vocabulary, especially among your visual and kinesthetic learners. Just by incorporating a few American Sign Language signs into your school day, you can help your struggling learners to become confident and knowledgeable.

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