Using American Sign Language to Help Struggling Readers

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Signing for Sight Word Memorization

No matter what we do as teachers, it seems there are always those students who struggle with learning to read. We read stories we think they’ll enjoy, have them trace or write new words, sound out familiar parts, review sight words and word families, and yet they continue to struggle with reading and lose confidence. Sometimes repetition through these methods just isn’t enough. However, a visual and kinesthetic representation of new words through an American Sign Language (ASL) sign can help.

Case Studies

Jan C. Hafer and Robert M. Wilson present an example in their booklet called Signing for Reading Success where a 14 week study took place on ten 1st grade children who were struggling readers. The children were purposefully chosen for this study because of their difficulty in retaining new sight words. During regular instruction, these ten students averaged sight word retention of 69%. However, when a sign language sign was used in conjunction with the sight word, the students averaged 93% retention. (p. 12)

In the book Dancing With Words by Dr. Marilyn Daniels, she shares a story from Dr. Robert M. Wilson about a boy named Oscar who was in 2nd grade. He had no sight word vocabulary, and was sitting away from the other children in class because he was “too disruptive”. Dr. Wilson began sight word lessons with Oscar without using sign. He showed him 10 words per lesson, and after the first lesson, Oscar could only remember one. After the fifth lesson, Oscar was extremely disinterested. Then Dr. Wilson started showing Oscar the sign for each word in the lesson. After the first lesson with the addition of signs, Oscar remembered ALL TEN sight words! After the second day he remembered 19 of the 20 words, and after the third day Oscar was seated back with the class. He was motivated, excited, became a teacher for the rest of the class (by teaching them the signs), and the students in his class stopped teasing him.

How to Use ASL to Teach New Words

Incorporating sign language into your reading program is very easy to do. Just look up the ASL signs for the sight words that you want your students to learn in an American Sign Language Dictionary (you can also use an on-line dictionary that shows a video of how to do the sign). Show your students the sight word and the sign. Say it and sign it. Ask the students to look at the word, and say it and sign it with you. Repeat this a few times. Every time you are discussing, practicing, or reading this new sight word, you and your students will sign it when it is read.

Using an American Sign Language sign provides a visual representation of the sight word (especially since many signs look like the actual object), a kinesthetic way to represent the word (involving a multi-sensory approach), and provides motivation and excitement to learning new sight words. This motivation and excitement leads to success, which helps students to gain a new confidence in themselves and their reading abilities. Within a short amount of time after incorporating signs into your reading program, you’ll find many of your students turning from struggling readers into successful readers.