Standards for Teaching American Sign Language Released

By Brenda Iasevoli — May 10, 2018 3 min read
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New standards for teaching American Sign Language in kindergarten through 12th grade have been released by Gallaudet University’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center.

The standards act as a guide to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing children study signing as a first language in the same way that hearing children in the United States study English throughout their schooling.

Debbie Trapani, the director of bilingual education at the Clerc Center, underlined the need for “realistic benchmarks” and grade-level indicators of student progress in sign language. “This is important because without the standards, each educator has a different evaluation tool,” she told Education Week.

The Clerc Center developed the standards over 10 years, from 2014 to 2017, with input from the California School for the Deaf at Fremont and ASL researchers and educators from across the country. For two weeks in September 2017, the center opened up the standards to public review before releasing the final version this year.

Setting High Expectations

According to the National Institutes of Health, 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears, making it the most common congenital sensory problem in the country.

The ASL standards are in place to make sure these kids are tackling increasingly complex competencies in school in the same way the Common Core State Standards are designed to keep students on track in reading, speaking, and writing in standard English. The goal is for all deaf and hard-of-hearing students to become fluent in sign language and use it for critical thinking and problem solving.

The standards address five areas: viewing, published signing, discourse and presentation, language, fingerspelling and fingerreading. Much like students learning according to the common core standards, deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn to draw inferences from fingerreading, identify central ideas, and cite claims and evidence. The common core requires students to write opinion, informational, and narrative pieces; deaf and hard-of-hearing students are required to be taught to sign each type of essay.

While the ASL standards define what students should know at each grade level, they do not tell teachers how to teach. Karlin Hummel, the principal at the Texas School for the Deaf, said ASL teachers at his school work with a curriculum specialist and administrators to figure out how best to incorporate the standards into their program. “For us, these standards function much like a beacon lighting the way forward to ensure that we move in the right direction in concert with other deaf schools or programs which should help with the exchange of ideas and resources,” Hummel said.

Visual vs. Spoken Languages

New studies suggest that visual and spoken languages are biologically equal in the brain, and that they support one another when students, whether deaf or hearing, are exposed to them early on.

To this end, Gallaudet researchers are developing ways to help students see the relation between visual and spoken language. The university’s Motion Light Lab has created a series of storybook apps that enable children to click on individual words to learn sign, written, and spoken vocabulary.

ASL’s Importance for Early Literacy

Some children who are born deaf face a disadvantage in language acquisition. More than 90 percent of them are born to hearing parents who could take months or even years to learn to sign to their toddler, if they learn at all. It has been shown that deaf children of parents who signed to them from birth were significantly better at reading and paying attention than deaf children whose parents did not sign.

A few states have started to take visual languages into account when measuring early literacy. California in 2015 and Kansas in 2016 passed laws to require districts to include visual language ability when assessing their deaf students’ literacy.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that it took the Clerc Center three years to develop the standards. It took 10 years. The post has been corrected.

Image: daveynin. Licensed under Flickr/Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.