Spelling Strategies Using Sign Language: Tips for Teaching Struggling Spellers in Elementary School

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Spelling is one of those subjects that seems to either come exceptionally easy for students, or prove exceptionally hard. We teach our students to practice by spelling the words out loud over and over again, writing them out over and over again, unscrambling the letters to create their spelling word, or by using any number of other techniques to try to help our students remember their words. Despite continued repetition and practice, we still have those struggling spellers. A visual and kinesthetic representation of the spelling word and its letters through an American Sign Language (ASL) sign and the American Sign Language Manual Alphabet can help.

Case Study

Jan C. Hafer and Robert M. Wilson present a study in their booklet called Signing for Reading Success in which they present seven 1st graders who had a spelling accuracy between only 25% and 46%. For the study, the 1st graders were taught their spelling words along with the ASL sign for each word and how to finger spell each word (using the ASL Manual Alphabet). At the end of the study, the children improved to correctly spelling between 56% and 90% of their spelling words. Teague (the person who conducted the study) also decided to check for retention to see how many spelling words the children could remember, and the children were able to spell between 60% and 90% of their words correctly. For some of these students, incorporating signs and the manual alphabet changed them from struggling spellers to successful spellers.

Hot to Use ASL to Improve Spelling

So how can you easily incorporate sign language signs into your spelling program? Just look up the signs for the spelling words that you want your students to learn in an American Sign Language Dictionary (you can also use an on-line dictionary that shows the video of how to do the sign.) Show your students the spelling word and the sign. Say it and sign it and ask the students say it and sign it with you. Repeat this a few times. Now, use the American Sign Language Manual Alphabet to finger spell each letter of the word. Do this a few times. If you don’t have a manual alphabet, you can view one at Wikipedia.

Every time you are discussing, practicing, or reading the new spelling words, you and your students will read and sign the word, and say and finger spell each letter of the word. Students can practice spelling their words silently to each other (this makes for a great center or is something the children can do if they finish their work early), you can practice finger spelling as a whole class, you can hold silent spelling bees, and more. You may want to encourage your student’s parents to practice with them at home by signing the words and finger spelling them as well.

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