An Interview with Alisha Bronk: American Sign Language: More than Just Words

Jul 4, 2011 by

An Interview with Laurie Meyer: Enhancing Education for All Students using American Sign Language

1. Laurie, tell us about yourself and this idea of using American Sign Language to enhance education?

What I bring to this project is over 30 years of loving being a sign language interpreter and learning from and valuing the American Deaf community. I was fortunate enough to team up with a group of amazingly gifted individuals, all of us volunteering, to create materials that have important implications for educators, special educators and language specialists.  The result was a discovery as unexpected as Velcro or the Post-it note.

This conversation could easily be about the Deaf community, their attempts to be understood, and learn what Deaf people know about creating educational programming that allows Deaf children to thrive.  We should, and I hope we will, have an opportunity for that dialogue on your website at a future date. It’s an important discussion.

In this interview, I’d like to focus on the potential of using visual language, in this case American Sign Language, rather than individual signs for English words.

2. You’re saying there is a difference between “individual signs” and ASL?

All languages, of course, are made up of vocabulary.  There is nothing wrong with learning individual sign words, in the same way that there is nothing wrong with learning the French words ‘hors d’oeuvre’ and ‘ala carte’. If you went to France, you could use that vocabulary and be understood.  But you could not ask who, where, what, when and why or say what you felt about it.  That after all is a major function of language…. to communicate thoughts and ideas beyond what we can point to.

One could argue that classroom teachers don’t have the time or goal of teaching ASL.  Given the mandates placed on teachers, that makes sense.  We just know this — any time spent teaching individual signs would be more productively spent giving students the ability to express ideas and experience the great gains of acquiring visual language. More importantly, our anecdotal experience shows that our ASL-English paired materials are so motivating for students that this all happens while both teacher and student are having fun.

3. Great gains?  Like what?

ASL Tales is a small group of committed volunteers, so we need to be careful about making claims.  Without research backing, we cannot yet prove what the prevailing anecdotal experience, and some plain old common sense, is telling us.  Students who are already benefiting from sign vocabulary will get radically more benefit from learning sign language.

What we do know is that ASL, as a language, is processed in the same areas of the brain as any other language.  At the same time, because it’s visual, it also stimulates parts of the brain that are NOT generally used by spoken language users.  We also know that children learn language by experiencing and interacting with it, not by learning individual words in isolation.  ASL Tales can capitalize on this natural ‘language building’ part of the brain and provide children with access to a very different way of communicating and visualizing the world around them.  We also have evidence that students build meta-language competence, improve their deductive/inductive reasoning, enhance visual-spatial competencies and so much more.  All learning styles are accommodated because the materials, along with pairing visual and auditory channels, also engage spatial, kinesthetic and tactile learners.

4. If learning the language is so much more beneficial, why are people teaching vocabulary?

In large part, because there have not been materials designed to help regular educators teach ASL to hearing children.  Generally, effective ASL teaching does require ASL fluency.  Teachers, except those trained in ASL, generally do not have those skills.

Bi-lingual ASL/English materials resolve that problem.   Learning language in context, made possible via storytelling, provides rich opportunities for language learning.  ASL Tales does not replace a competent ASL instructor, if the goal is ASL fluency.  Students who want to pursue ASL language learning will, however, get a good foundation, and students with a casual interest in ASL can use our materials to gain the skills described above.

5. You keep mentioning ASL Tales.  What is different about your products?

In the ASL Tales vision, all the children in the classroom — hearing, deaf, regular ed and special needs  — can learn language that has meaning and utility. Through interacting with the materials, students will be able to talk with each other.  Many special education teachers will tell you there is a phenomenon where special needs children primarily interact with their teachers.  There is some research that learning visual language is instinctive, and most children have the ability to learn at least the fundamentals.  With everyone having some shared language, classroom buildings can become places where everyone can interact and truly be ‘included’.

ASL Tales makes it possible for teachers to use tools to create ASL as a lingua franca for all kids. Everybody benefits.

6. Do teachers have to already know ASL to use these books with students?

Of course, having a fluent ASL signer is always better. When that’s not possible, our ASL-English paired books teach ASL fundamentals to teachers AND students at the same time.  We’re creating targeted curriculum with specific applications for mainstream classrooms and for children with special needs.

Laurie Meyer is a co-founder of ASL Tales.  Contact ASL Tales at  Several new books, and a comprehensive online learning center will be available Summer 2011.

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