A New Way of Experiencing American Sign Language and English
                ASL Tales
Sign Language and Text Comprehension Drs. Rebecca Kennedy and Kathleen Ryan                   Unpublished Article May 2012 During the past few decades, research on the nature of sign languages has revealed that the auditory-vocal channel is not the exclusive channel for natural human language.  The innate capacity for language does not depend, in humans, on speech and hearing for its realization; sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) have, as do spoken languages, distinctive parameters that combine to create the natural units (signs).  The manual-visual channel that is utilized in sign language, however, invites the production of units formed and perceived simultaneously, whereas the minimal units of speech are segmented in time and are produced and perceived as sequences.  This difference has no impact on learnability or efficacy; young deaf language learners learn sign language in a signing context in the same stages, and with the same efficiency and effortless acquisition, as young speakers who are learning a spoken language.  The status of sign languages as full, formal language systems has taught us much about the universality of the human language capacity and about the human compulsion to communicate through language. Sign language has offered much more, however, than an illumination of the formal and universal nature of human language.  The manual-visual channel offers the full range of human language to those in whom the auditory- vocal channel is compromised:  to deaf language users.  In addition, the special physiological accessibility of a manual-vocal language renders its vocabulary – its individual signs – available to those who are not deaf but do not yet speak or will not speak.   This use of individual signs to permit communication where it would not otherwise occur represents a benefit of sign language that extends beyond the Deaf community.  This limited application of sign language, however, represents only one of the potential benefits of sign language to the speaking community.  Another important application of sign language is in the area of text comprehension.  Reading comprehension, as the retrieval and construction of meaning from spoken and (especially) written texts, stands as one of the most pressing issues facing today’s educators.  Reading development begins as children learn to decode print, and the investigation of successful and challenged decoding, accompanied by the development of best practices in teaching decoding and encoding (spelling) to children at all positions in the skill spectrum, represents the culmination of one of the most successful research programs of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.   Research and instruction design in reading comprehension, however, are in a very different place.  The need for successful comprehension of complex texts is growing, yet comprehension outcomes are unacceptably low.  As text demands increase, students at all levels struggle to derive full meaning.  Here, the formal medium of sign language can make a significant and interesting contribution. Two aspects of text comprehension that challenge readers are the achievement of a text gestalt, and the derivation of implicit as well as explicit text meaning.  The challenge of developing a gestalt, or big-picture, understanding of a text leaves some readers with a grasp only of disparate facts or details, rather than a full conceptual understanding.  A young reader will read and reread a text without a cohesive image of the whole.  Remedial programs designed to address this issue often turn to visualization techniques:  the visualization approach in the Wilson reading program, for instance, or the Visualizing and Verbalizing for Language Comprehension and Thinking approach of the Lindamood-Bell program.  Here, sign language has a significant asset.  Capirci, Cattani, Rossini, and Volterra (1998) have demonstrated that sign language training can enhance visual-spatial learning in young hearing children.  This type of finding, paired with the insight that sign language, with its visual-manual processing, is uniquely suited to a visualization approach to text comprehension, suggests that sign language might support and enrich training in visualization for comprehension.  The challenge of implicit text meaning involves the frequently observed difficulty of inferring content that is not represented literally or explicitly:  of going beyond what is directly represented in order to construct full and deep content.  The ensuing gaps in comprehension lead to incomplete meaning representations.  Here, again, the visual and simultaneous nature of sign language permits the linguistic encoding, in sign, of information that might remain unspecified in spoken or written language.  How might we take advantage of these assets of sign language in an instructional context?  Consider ASL Tales, a reading series for young children that pairs an engaging English-text picture book with an ASL rendition of the story on DVD.  The book-DVD pair provides an unusual opportunity for the training of visualization strategies for gestalt comprehension.  In addition, the simultaneous encoding characteristic of sign language permits details that are implicit in the English text to be explicit in the ASL presentation, so that the reader receives natural instruction in comprehension of text-implicit material.  Another special advantage lies in the encoding of text prosody and tone as vivid visual facial and body gestures.  These encodings are particularly transparent for children who struggle to interpret affect in spoken and (especially) written text. Sign language, even when used minimally, offers a communication modality for certain individuals; when used as a full and formal language system, it represents the gift of human language for those who cannot access auditory-vocal linguistic systems.  The insight that sign language can also be used in literacy contexts to address one of the most serious challenges to literacy development, that of text comprehension, is an exciting one that merits the immediate attention of all those who examine, plan, and measure comprehension outcomes in our children.
© ASL Tales:2015
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