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Are you interested in using sign language with your students that have special needs? This lesson includes information on American Sign Language (ASL), simple sign language, and gestural sign language.

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is a complex system for using hand signs, body movements, and facial expressions to communicate. ASL contains the same features of language such as pronunciation, the order of words, and grammar. For example, instead of changing the tone in their voice to ask a question, ASL will tilt their bodies forward and raise their eyebrows.

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It is a great system for high-functioning nonverbal students or hearing-impaired students, but often it is much too difficult for students with intellectual disabilities.

Simple Sign Language?

Simple sign language, sometimes referred to as baby sign language, uses universal hand motions for communicating basic wants and needs. You can teach yourself, your staff, and your students some basic words for communicating. These types of signs are good to use for students who are nonverbal, as well as those with cognitive disabilities. Start with words such as:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Eat
  • Drink
  • More
  • Bathroom
  • All done

Signing the Words

Yes: With one hand, make a fist with your thumb out and knuckles facing frontwards; move it up and down. The motion is similar to moving your head up and down.

No: On one otherwise fisted hand, extend your middle and index fingers together; touch your thumb to your extended fingers.Eat: With one hand, touch the tips of your fingers to the tip of your thumb; tap all fingers on your mouth.Drink: With one hand, make a semicircle as if you were holding a cup; touch your thumb to your bottom lip like you’re taking a drink from the cup.More: Make the ‘eat’ symbol with both hands; touch the tips of one hand to the tips of the other hand.Bathroom: On one hand, make a fist; tuck your thumb between your index and middle fingers.

Then face your fist outwards and slightly shake it around.All done: With both hands open and extended, flip hands down and up a few times.You can incorporate more words as you see fit, but these will cover your students’ most basic communication needs.

Modeling the Words

You can teach these signs by modeling them while you say the words. For example, if you are teaching the word ‘drink,’ do so at breakfast, lunch, and/or snack time, saying the word ‘drink’ as you touch your thumb to your lip. Follow the sign with immediately and actually drinking .

If you are teaching signs that represent locations such as the bathroom, teach them in or next to the room.You can also record yourself modeling the signs and allow students to watch the videos. Seeing the sign and what it represents will help students make the connection between the two.

Gestural Communication

For nonverbal students who are severely impaired or for those students who struggle to make hand signs, a gestural communication system may be appropriate. This kind of system allows students to simply communicate through gestures such as pointing to or looking at what is wanted by the student.You can make a board with different pictures on each corner.

The student can communicate by looking in the direction of the picture. Boards in your classroom may show images of different locations, different kinds of food, activities, etc.Gestural communication also requires a student to shake his/her head up and down to indicate ‘Yes’ and/or turn it from to side to side to indicate ‘No.’ Other gestures include waving ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ and pushing or looking away from objects that are not wanted. Again, you will need to model gestures in advance so students understand what they mean.

Lesson Summary

American Sign Language (ASL) and simple sign language can both be used in classrooms that serve the needs of special education students . Sign languages, including gestural communication, can be a great communication tool for students with varying disabilities who struggle to use spoken language or who have limited mobility. The type of sign language you use will depend on the needs of the student.


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