A Call for Improvement: The Need for Research-Based Materials in American Sign Language Education

By Thoryk, Robertta | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

A Call for Improvement: The Need for Research-Based Materials in American Sign Language Education


Thoryk, Robertta, Sign Language Studies


ENROLLMENT IN American Sign Language (ASL) classes has increased exponentially in recent years (Redden 2007), expanding not only within K-1 2 settings but also into infancy and postsecondary levels. The commercial market for materials related to ASL pedagogy has shown parallel growth. Those involved with ASL material design, however, have not addressed accountability and efficacy, two issues that assumed primary importance with the authorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB): "Specifically, student learning, teaching and school management strategies must have evidence of their effectiveness, the pinnacle of which is scientifically based research" (Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement 2008).

Instead of addressing efficacy, current ASL materials predominantly rely on generalized, short-phrase references to "natural settings" or amorphous "standards;" inclusion of anecdotal claims and testimonies; and vague references to "field testing" without providing access to any real data. This is of little help to program coordinators who are coping with diminished program budgets and need to justify curricular decisions (including material selection) based on student success rate and adequate yearly progress. Little useful information is available to help these administrators make informed, defensible decisions when choosing materials.

To initiate and encourage discussion within the field regarding material development and marketing, one pair of authors volunteered their commercially available teacher text and accompanying DVDs for use in a comparative study. The text and DVDs focused on developing fingerspelling skills, an important component in ASL (Padden 1998) and a difficult skill for students to learn (Wilcox 1992). This investigation was then designed to determine whether using the volunteered commercial fingerspelling material improved students' receptive skills more than providing no specific sequenced instruction other than an introduction to the fingerspelled alphabet, coupled with exposure to fingerspelling as it naturally occurs within an immersion classroom.

Methodology

To make this determination, a study involving the manipulation of three factors (materials, subjects, and procedures) was designed.

Materials

The fingerspelling teacher text and two DVDs came in a commercially available package as one combined item. The package that was tested was part one of a two-part sequence that was available for purchase ($40-$5o) by individuals. The product's website explained that the materials were based on the "18 years of teaching off and on at community colleges and workshops" of one of the authors and on her participation in another commercially available ASL product. The authors also reported that the packaged materials had been purchased by "nearly 40" postsecondary institutions. A list of the institutions' names was available.

The teacher's guide (print text) began with a contents page, which listed sixteen lessons organized around specific topics related to fingerspelling. Six lessons focused on types of words that are commonly fingerspelled (acronyms, famous names, personal names, categories, short words, nomenclature), while five lessons dealt with specific skills related to fingerspelling (hand location, eye contact, double letters, rhythm, misspelled words). One lesson involved teaching numbers, and four of the lessons related to preparing for and taking the provided test and final exam. Pages within the teacher's guide were not numbered; some pages had the related lesson number in the header. All of the pages contained the company logo and website.

Each lesson utilized the same structure:

1. Review (For the first lesson, the review provided a set of "not allinclusive" rules such as "The deaf also make mistakes in fingerspelling" and "Breathe deeply if you start to feel tense or get tired." Subsequent lessons began with a review of the previous lesson. …

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A Call for Improvement: The Need for Research-Based Materials in American Sign Language Education
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