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  • Destiny Yarbro

3 Reform Recommendations for ASL Curricula

A common concern among American Sign Language (ASL) teachers in the United States is that students are reluctant to interact and use what they have learned in class with the Deaf community. This section addresses limitations in the current curriculum, the exploratory research conducted, and reform recommendations specific to the ASL curriculum.

Exploratory Research Steps

To better understand the limitations of current ASL curricula, the following exploratory research steps are recommended.

1. Observe students from 20 classes nationwide (rural and urban) interacting with Deaf people.

  1. What skills did they rely on to communicate?

  2. What stop guards limited their ability to converse?

  3. Were they able to have meaningful conversation?

  4. Reflecting on the conversation, what did they wish they knew going into that scenario?

2. A comparative study of two types of classes: (1) teaches fingerspelling in the first week and (2) teaches fingerspelling in the last two weeks of classes.

  1. Rate the students’ confidence in communicating.

  2. When they do not know a term, do they default to fingerspelling English or acting ideas?

3. Meet with the administrators and teachers of other languages in these rural and urban school systems to discuss the overarching priorities of language learning for their students.

  1. How and where will students use the language they are learning?

  2. What are the students’ goals for taking the class?

  3. Do the curricular priorities match these?

4. Observe these 20 sign language classes and take note of the following:

  1. Is a formal ASL curriculum utilized? If so, which?

  2. What percentage of class time are students actually signing or gesturing during class?

  3. Does the teacher rely on English to teach or visual gestural communication (VGC)?

  4. When a concept is unclear, how does the teacher respond? How about the student?

  5. Is the classroom ‘safe’ for students to make and push through their linguistic mistakes?

  6. Place the following according to priority of the class observed: (1) Correct Grammar, (2) Test Preparation, (3) Communication, (4) Conjugating Verbs, (5) Interaction with Deaf

Curriculum and Literature Review

The only readily available curricula available to teachers are the Signing Naturally curriculum (Smith, Lentz, & Mikos, 1988) and A Basic Course in American Sign Language (Humphries, Padden, and O’Rourke, 1994). While Signing Naturally focuses more on conversation than previous curricula, grammar, conjugations, predetermined vocabulary, and other easy-to-test elements are covered largely to the exclusion of day-to-day communication and connection with the Deaf community. Both of these curricula on the whole teach ASL as if it were a spoken/written language instead of utilizing approaches unique to visual/gestural languages.

Issues Specific to American Sign Language Studies

Despite being the third most studied language in American schools (Looney & Lusin, 2018, p. 2), ASL instruction is not regulated in the United States. While this allows expert teachers the flexibility they need to teach to the needs of their students, it also permits under-skilled teachers into the field. On many campuses, ASL is “often taught in departments other than traditional language departments, such as programs in special education, communication sciences, speech pathology, and social work” (Looney & Lusin, 2018, p. 8) which further complicates teacher training, curriculum development, and financial support for ASL programs. Another issue is that while interest in ASL in the hearing community is growing, Deaf children are largely inhibited from learning ASL (Marschark, 2015; Kasulis, 2017) leading to a complex relationship between Deaf users and hearing users of ASL.

Findings and Recommendations

1. Current curriculum, specifically Signing Naturally, is readily-utilized but not readily-trusted. Bernardino, Pereira, & Passos (2019) point out in The Routledge Handbook of Sign Language Pedagogy that “dissatisfaction with the current approaches and methods may have led to teachers to rely more on their personal experiences and skills” (Chapter 12).

2. Available curriculum directs educators to teach sign language as if it were a spoken / written language with undue focus on fingerspelling English terms. Reformed curriculum should build upon a foundation of Visual Gestural Communication (VGC) with emphasis on visual elements such as handshape, orientation, location, movement, and non-manual expression.

3. Like many language courses in the United States, ASL curriculum overly emphasizes easy-to-test concepts such as grammar and conjugations. This results in students avoiding interacting with a minority language community and inexperienced at communicating in a variety of day-to-day scenarios.

My most recent post addresses six language curricula reforms to

better align with UNESCO's 2030 Framework for Action objectives.


Bernardino, E. L. A., Pereira, M. C., & Passos, R. (2019). L2/Ln sign language teaching approaches and strategies. In R. S. Rosen (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Sign Language Pedagogy. Routledge.

Hoffman-Kipp, P., Artiles, A. J., & López-Torres, L. (2003). Beyond Reflection: Teacher Learning as Praxis. Theory Into Practice, 42(3), 248–254.

Kasulis, K. (2017, October 27). The strange reason deaf children aren’t taught sign language. Mic.

Looney, D. and Lusin, N. (2018, February). Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Preliminary Report. MLA.

Marschark, M. (2015). Educating Deaf Children. RIT National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Smith, C., Lentz, E. L., and Mikos, K. (1988). Signing Naturally. Dawn Sign Press.

UNESCO. (n.d.) Institute for Lifelong Learning Technical Note. UNESCO.

UNESCO. (2015). Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action. UNESCO.


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