An Effective Vocabulary Intervention

A Vocabulary Intervention Strategy: Finger Spelling and Sign LanguageResearch has shown sign language to be an effective vocabulary intervention. It is novel and will be a new concept for almost everyone reading this blog. Does one have to know ASL in order to use this strategy? No. Might the reader have students learn to fingerspell? Yes. This is an option that most intervention specialists never consider using at any level, much less the secondary level. Yet, research backs up its significant potential to support reading, literacy, and spelling.

Sign Language is a Natural Kinesthetic Learning Strategy

My first experience with using sign was when I was asked to teach my strategy seminar at a school for the deaf. I hired a Deaf Education teacher as a consultant to not only attend my seminar and give me critical feedback as to what applied, but also to help me understand the culture and learning methodology of the deaf community. She taught me the seven continents in ASL. We discussed the value of using sign with hearing children who are also kinesthetic learners. It simply made sense to me and it worked. Yet, I had no research to back up use of the strategy in the classroom.

Teacher Used Finger Spelling and Spelling Improved!

Shortly thereafter, a middle school Language Arts teacher shared with me how she used finger spelling to help students learn their vocabulary words. She found that not only did they learn the vocabulary, they spelled the words correctly. She and her team were highly enthusiastic about signing vocabulary because it had been such a success.

Research Base for Using Sign Language to Teach Vocabulary

Researching whether there was data supporting the use of sign language and finger spelling, I came across the work of Dr. Phillip Prinz and Dr. Marilyn Daniels. Dr. Daniels has used sign with older students. She had a chapter in her book devoted to that demographic.

Sign language helps students learn vocabulary and improve their spelling skills. Utilizing sign language in the classroom allows students to process spelling from their orthographic processor and their autonomous memory, creating more internal repetition to help them learn more. According to Dr. Daniels, incorporating sign language into a lesson will help students master vocabulary concepts faster, which ultimately improves overall literacy and comprehension.

In a recent study conducted by Dr. Philip M. Prinz, hearing children of deaf parents and hearing children of hearing parents were studied to assess literacy development during early childhood. This study determined that hearing children of deaf parents performed higher and were the better early readers than hearing children of hearing parents. Could incorporating a teaching model that utilizes sign language to enhance vocabulary instruction on a particular subject help students internalize more content?

Dr. Marilyn Daniels studies the connection between sign language and literacy. She states, “If sign language constitutes a portion of the reading instruction, the signs actually function as built in pictures for amplifying text.” She goes on the explain that, “ASL is able to aid children’s memory with its autonomous memory store by creating a built in redundancy that establishes two independent language sources for children to use for search and recall.”

Wow! Finger Spelling Improved Students’ Spelling

In addition to supporting literacy development, using sign language improves spelling. According to Dr. Daniels, “Studies show that a child’s memory of the spelling sequence of words is dramatically improved when he or she is taught spelling with this method

[finger spelling] this method.”

The reading success of a student relies heavily on spelling ability because learning about spelling:
• Elaborates and reinforces knowledge in the areas of the brain responsible for text comprehension
• Enhances reading proficiency
• Allows visual recognition of text to connect with knowledge in the areas of the brain responsible for auditory vocabulary recognition

Try using sign language in your classroom and see if this approach to teaching vocabulary and spelling words works for you and your students.

RTI Strategies for Secondary TeachersFor more information on differentiation and Response to Intervention, see Susan Fitzell’s book, RTI Strategies for Secondary Teachers.

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