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  • Destiny Yarbro

Is There a Quality Curriculum for American Sign Language Instruction?

This is a reflection of my relationship with language curriculum within my milieu of teaching American Sign Language (ASL) and other minority languages.

My Teaching Narrative

I am largely self-taught (or perhaps, more accurately, “community-taught”). There were no Deaf in my tiny home town. At around 12 years old, I began learning sign language with a printed sign language dictionary. I signed all four gospels in the Bible by signing every word I read - if I did not know a word, I looked it up (thus, at the start, I was looking up every single word) - and I learned quite a bit by the end of the gospels and by praying in sign language. I prayed nightly that a Deaf person would move into our area. When I was about 15 years old, I began interpreting in church for a young Deaf girl who had been adopted by a family in a neighboring town. I later took a couple of ASL courses but I was far ahead of the content so my “schooling” largely began when I fully immersed myself in the Deaf community. During this time, I began traveling and living abroad, so I began to pick up sign languages from other countries as I interacted with international Deaf communities. With these experiences came a greater understanding that language learning focused on connection with others is the missing element of most language courses in the United States.

As a teacher of American Sign Language and other sign languages, I have identified my own curricular priorities. In language classrooms where too often grammar and testing take precedence of communication, I have seen how we have removed the soul of language by teaching it in these stagnant, sterile environments without interaction with the community that birthed this language. In the years leading up to studying with University of the People, I felt more and more strongly that minority languages can be learned in meaningful and effective ways when connection with those in the minority language community is prioritized once more.

My Relationship with American Sign Language Curriculum

For better or for worse, American Sign Language instruction is not heavily regulated. There is only one commonly used standardized curricula entitled Signing Naturally that is utilized by most ASL teachers across the country. With an antiquated curricula and little regulation, there is a wide range of ASL teachers from skilled to terribly under-skilled teachers.

However, for me, this lack of regulation has allowed me to play a very active role in the curriculum I teach. Yes, I have to still adhere to some of the content in Signing Naturally since collegiate level courses require some kind of standardized curriculum, but the courses are not so regulated that I cannot emphasize higher linguistic priorities such as a focus on connection and communication rather than solely grammar and standardized testing. Overall, assignments and assessments are largely up to me as the teacher which is extremely liberating compared to other language courses in the United States.

The Signing Naturally curriculum is in dire need of an update (or, in my perspective, retirement) as it largely teaches sign language in the antiquated, spoken language method (i.e. undue emphasis on grammar, conjugations, predetermined vocabulary lists, and other easy-to-test principles). I am afraid that I do not put much stock in their curriculum and do all I can to spend time outside of its lesson plans. The main reason for this is that standardized curriculum is just that: standardized. It is content without context, stagnant not moldable, sterile not relatable. For my students to find meaning in what they are learning, my responsibility is to provide opportunities for “active learning” (Meier, 2018, para. 2).

Applying the Elements of Quality Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) pointed out that quality curriculum should be the following:

• be informed by political, social, economic and historical analysis;

• involve explicit identification and evaluation of the values and beliefs on which it is based;

• involve critical reflection;

• acknowledge that individuals will experience the same learning activity in different ways;

• strive to expose and eliminate inequality experienced by individuals or groups;

• promote quality at the individual, school, community, system, national and global level; and

• be a collaborative experience, resourced to ensure active participation by teachers, other education professionals, students and parents. (2009).

When considering these elements, one of my lesson plans came to mind. I asked students to imagine themselves at one of the most ground-breaking events in Deaf history: the 1988 Deaf President Now rally in Washington, D.C. I would help them understand that instead of choosing one of the two highly qualified Deaf candidates as president of Gallaudet University (the only Deaf university in the world), they would have seen yet another under-qualified hearing person selected by the hearing board of directors. Asking the students to place themselves in the shoes of their Deaf historical peers, I would ask them to consider how they would feel and think about the university’s decision. Then in the role of hearing advocates, I would have them write down four phrases they would want to be able to communicate to the Deaf community protestors and rally leaders. After writing these phrases on the board, we would remove duplicates and learn how to sign them together as a group.

An activity like this is meaningful and effective because it fulfills ACSA’s elements of quality curriculum. The activity is informed by Deaf history, inspires connection in language, requires critical reflection, allows students to explore their own responses to this situation, exposes inequality between Deaf and hearing, promotes national quality, and is a collaborative experience between students, teacher, historical figures, and the Deaf community. This activity gives students context; that sign language can be used as a tool for social change. It nurtures “an engaged relationship” with the content and the community (Meier, 2018, para. 2). As I write this, I realize that an improvement to the activity above could be to incorporate student choice (also recommended by Meier) so that my students and I have more than one way to assess understanding of the Deaf President Now movement. Student choice is something that I incorporate when I ask students to write up their own vocabulary lists of terms they want to learn to “make sense of [their] world” (Ewing, 2013, p. 2) rather than a predetermined, standardized list that has little application to their interactions with the Deaf community.

A Challenge in Teaching Sign Language

I mentioned in last week’s forum discussion that one of the greatest challenges for teaching sign language is, ironically, one of the basic tenants that most ASL students learn in the first week or two of an ASL class: fingerspelling. Students who learn fingerspelling early on use it as a crutch (a crutch that, sadly, many never let go). This practice leads to students defaulting to fingerspelling whenever they do not know a sign rather than acting out a concept. Students also find that their minds seem to stick to a written / spoken language mindset rather than fully immersing themselves in a visual / gestural mindset. Rather than using what signs they do know to communicate, they revert to focusing on what they don’t know; using fingerspelling as their backup plan.


I feel that my additions to the Signing Naturally curriculum (perhaps “substitutions” is a better term) like student-written vocab lists, promoting sign language as a social-change tool, postponing learning fingerspelling to the end of a course, etc. are extremely effective. I am, no doubt, biased in this belief but I see that my students leave class with (1) an enthusiasm and excitement to learn more, (2) an ‘arsenal’ of language tools they need to immediately communicate, (3) a growing ability and confidence to interact with Deaf, and (4) a determination to be a hearing advocate in the Deaf community. These results give me encouragement that my methods and priorities in ASL curriculum are effective.



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