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  • Destiny Yarbro

Social Cognitive Theory in American Sign Language Instruction

Social cognitive theory posits that behavior change and learning occurs through the vicarious observation of others and the development of thought (Schunk, 2012, p.454). It explores “the influence of individual experiences, the actions of others, and environmental factors” on an individual’s actions and beliefs (RHIhub, n-d). While social cognitive theory has six main constructs namely reciprocal determinism, behavioral capability, observational learning, reinforcements, expectations, and self-efficacy, I will focus mainly on observational learning in the context of sign language learning and Albert Bandura’s emphasis on modeling (Boston University School of Public Health, 2019).

When viewing the principles of social cognitive theory through the lens of one of my American Sign Language lesson plans, I identified ways I can better incorporate social cognitive theory, specifically more authentic modeling and imitation practices in the classroom.

Example Lesson Plan

Goal: Students leave class more confident that they can communicate any idea through gestures even if they do not know the specific signs.

Hook: Give five students a card with the word “scissors.” On the count of three they all act out the concept of “scissors” to the class without seeing how the others will mime this word. As a class we note the similarities and differences between how the five students gestured the term.

Opener: Remember, our aim is to be able to communicate. Like charades, there is no right or wrong way to communicate an idea; just differing approaches. Visual Gestural Communication (VGC) is a bag of tools that will help you communicate an idea without formalized signs. These tools help you (a) gesture an idea if you don’t know the sign for it, (b) connect with a student who has no language (i.e. has been raised without sign language support), or (c) someone you meet abroad who uses a different sign language than you do. VGC is based on what are called “classifiers:” handshapes that describe movement, appearance, texture, etc.

Lesson: First 5 Classifiers and Visual Examples

  1. G Handshape: Shows the thinness of the object. (With “ooo” mouth formation.)

  2. BB Handshape: Shows two feet walking, running, standing, kicking, tiptoeing, etc.

  3. S Handshape: Shows the head looking around, nodding, head-slamming, etc.

  4. Claw Handshape: Shows nonspecific number; like bumpy texture, a crowd of people, etc.

  5. V (upside down) Handshape: Shows legs dancing, skipping, kneeling, running, etc.

Activity / Assessment: Using VGC, describe the random assortment of items I have placed at the front of the class: teapot, toilet lid, soccer cleat, guitar, phone stand, sunglasses, etc.

Closing: The main difference between a good ASL interpreter and the best interpreter is that the latter can communicate ideas even if they don’t know a specific sign. For now, your goal is not error-free, grammar-precise language, it’s about communicating ideas in whatever way you can. With these tools, you can now have a conversation about anything, anywhere, and with anyone!

Improvements to My Lesson Plan Using Social Learning Theory

As sign language is a visual language, modeling is an especially effective teaching tool. There is ample research spanning more than a century showing that humans are better able to retain information visually or tactically as compared to audially (Kirkpatrick, 1894; Bigelow & Paremba, 2014). Thus, I adhere to the idea that sign language should be taught visually and tactically, not with a hearing teacher speaking about visual concepts. (An all too common practice, unfortunately.)

Hand-in-hand with modeling is imitation and the enactment of linguistic concepts. In a study of students who use Swedish Sign Language conducted by Holmer, Heimann, and Rudner (2016), they explored the strong relationship between imitation and language learning, building on the work of Farrant, Maybery, and Fletcher (2011) who studied the relationship of gestures in language comprehension. As “the act of imitation” helps “establish representations” of linguistic concepts, a teacher modeling and students copying the gestures strengthen retention.

Unfortunately, it is common for teachers to use repetition and abstract scenarios in the name of “modeling” language. They focus on “linguistic knowledge as a goal in itself, leaving it up to the learner” to make the language functional and useful (Van Gorp and Bogaert, 2006). “Many formal education systems [orient] towards abstract and decontextualized forms of teaching” rather than authentic learning scenarios in which the learners converse with native language users and practice their responses in specific situations (Herrington, Reeves, & Oliver, 2010; Ozverir & Herrington, 2011). Furthermore, it seems as if the majority of language teaching resources promote (or at least condone) this short-cited and sterile modeling practice.

By using authentic modeling, my students see sign language as useful and applicable to real life as “they might face the same situation themselves and...want to learn the necessary actions to succeed” (Schunk, 2012, p.134). In the past, I would have brought in random items from home for students to describe in VGC after we had learned the classifiers in class. While, yes, practicing the concepts behind VGC in this humorous way could be helpful, I see more clearly how ineffective this modeling activity is. Describing objects like a toilet lid or cleat will feel inauthentic unless the students are able to actively (not passively) apply “this coded information” to serve “as a guide for action” (Bandura, 1977, p. 22). To improve this particular assessment activity, I would have the students play the game “I spy with my little eye” as we wandered the campus and use VGC to describe and identify objects, people, activities, etc. As a typical conversation with a Deaf person would happen outside of a classroom, this activity would better prepare them for communicating an idea organically and improving comprehension of ideas gestured to them in VGC.

Another idea to provide more authentic modeling and imitation in my curriculum would be to have students write down the words they are most likely to use in a specific situation, such as at their favorite restaurant, work, or a club. (Terms they do not know yet in formalized sign language.) A form of in-class apprenticeship would be achieved as students applied these new VGC tools to convey these words to their Deaf partners in class (Schunk, 2012, p. 246). We are infinitely better able to retain information when the knowledge is immediately applied to a situation we find ourselves in regularly so the communication of words most used by a particular student would be much more ingrained (Saaris, 2017).


Learning in social environments through observation is key to social cognitive theory and absolutely vital to language learning. Language is inseparably connected to people, ergo a visual language is best learned through visual and tactile modeling and imitation practices.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. General Learning Press.

Bigelow, J. and Poremba, A. (2014, February 26). Achilles’ Ear? Inferior Human Short-Term and Recognition Memory in the Auditory Modality. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89914.

Boston University School of Public Health. (2019). The Social Cognitive Theory.

Holmer, E., Heimann, M., and Rudner, M. (2016, February 2016). Imitation, Sign Language Skill and the Developmental Ease of Language Understanding (D-ELU) Model. Frontiers Psychology.

Kirkpatrick EA (1894) An experimental study of memory. Psychological Review 1: 602–609.

Farrant, B. M., Maybery, M. T., and Fletcher, J. (2011). Socio-emotional engagement, joint attention, imitation, and conversation skill: analysis in typical development and specific language impairment. First Language. 31, 23–46.

Ozverir, I. & Herrington, J. (2011, June). Authentic activities in language learning: Bringing real world relevance to classroom activities.

Saaris, N. (2017, June 30). The Benefits of Deeper Learning: Retention, Transfer, and Motivation. Actively Learn.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: an educational perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.


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