Let's All Sign! Enhancing Language Development in an Inclusive Preschool

By Heller, Irma; Manning, Diane et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 1998 | Go to article overview

Let's All Sign! Enhancing Language Development in an Inclusive Preschool


Heller, Irma, Manning, Diane, Pavur, Debbie, Wagner, Karen, Teaching Exceptional Children


When co-teachers Irma Heller and Debbie Pavur learned that two children with hearing impairments would be included in their afternoon class for 3-year-olds, they decided almost immediately that they would teach the entire class sign language. Neither teacher knew anything about signing, but what they knew about young children convinced them that this was the best course for everyone. Not only would the two children who were hearing impaired be provided with the least restrictive social environment, but the children with normal hearing might also gain unexpected benefits. Their classroom would be bilingual, where signing would be employed simultaneously with spoken English.

Newcomb College Nursery School (NCNS), a preschool on the campus of Tulane University, has a 70-year history of developmentally appropriate curriculum and is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Whereas several children with exceptionalities such as Down syndrome had been included previously, these two youngsters were the first children with hearing impairments at NCNS. In the mornings, the children would attend Bright School, a school for children with hearing impairments, where they would be instructed in sign language. These children learned English Sign Language (ESL), one of the two major sign languages for English-speaking countries; the other is American Sign Language (ASL). The children's afternoons would be spent at NCNS where they would be fully included in all activities.

Understanding Signing as a Language

The two teachers began taking classes in ESL over the summer to be ready by fall. As they became more proficient, their appreciation for the language deepened. Heller recalled:

Previously I had considered signing as the use of hands to represent words, which deaf people never heard. It looked pictorial or, better yet, like "picture writing in the air." Very soon it became apparent that signs were not pictures; they were complex, abstract symbols with complex inner structures.

As the teachers' proficiency grew, so did their appreciation of the fact that signing is an actual language. They understood that their class would be truly bilingual. They began to think about what effect this would have on the children who were not hearing impaired. They asked themselves questions other preschool teachers have wondered about bilingual instruction and signing. Would the second language interfere with the learning of the first? Since young children are kinesthetic learners, wouldn't signing augment the other senses in the child's quest to mastering spoken and written English?

The teachers decided to do a little investigation into what other teachers had learned. They located a number of recent articles that advocated the use of signing for children whose hearing is normal (Good, Feekes, & Shawd, 1993-94; Zeece & Wolda, 1995). A few had discovered some benefits of signing for young children with normal hearing (Brown, 1990; DeViveriros & McLaughlin, 1982; Ellison, Baker, & Baker, 1982; Wilson & Hoyer, 1985), but their reports tended to be limited to particular skills or based on very small numbers of children. An exception was Daniels (1994), who found that African-American children in pre-K classes in Chapter I schools had superior receptive language scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) after 1 year of instruction in signing compared to children not taught signing.

Although the NCNS teachers could not find answers to all their questions, they knew from experience that the 3-yearolds in their class would be slowly moving from the concrete to the world of the abstract (Vygotsky, 1987). Heller and Pavur concluded that the concrete, physical expression of signing should enhance and hasten the children's movement from simple to complex, from concrete to abstract (Solit, Taylor, & Bednarczyk, 1992).

Integrating Sign Language into ite Who Cuniculum

Consistent with their philosophy of full integration, the teachers decided early that signing would be a part of the whole curriculum. …

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