American Sign Language Literacy
ASL literacy is about sociocultural and language relationships and practices in a variety of social and academic contexts. It is about knowledge and skill in ASL language and respect and appreciation of ASL culture, community, history, and contributions.
ASL literacy is defined as:
the ability to use the linguistic structure of ASL for [deciphering-deconstructing], organizing, and communicating information, ideas, and thoughts effectively and eloquently in a variety of contexts. It involves the ability to decode, cogitate, reason, assess, and evaluate ASL literary works [and ASL texts, including] ASL media [works] at the social and academic levels. An individual has the ability to construct and present ASL texts, ASL literary works, and ASL media imaginatively and eloquently. ASL literacy includes the ability to acquire extensive knowledge and experience associated with ASL culture, ASL history, ASL literature, ASL media, education, sign language cultures, and other relevant topics. It provides an individual with the ability to effectively lead one’s life, to actively contribute to the ASL community and communities at large, and to effectively navigate global society. Full ownership of ASL language, ASL cultural space, and ASL cultural identity is crucial for the development and application of ASL literacy skills.
Andrew P.J. Byrne, “American Sign Language (ASL) Literacy and ASL Literature: A Critical Appraisal” (PhD diss., York University, 2013), 26-27.
ASL literacy development lies at the heart of the ASL as a second language curriculum and is strongly connected with the language and cultural knowledge base of the ASL community. “The ability to understand and recognize the structure and the theme of … stories is part of ASL literacy knowledge”. ASL literacy learning is strongly linked to the interrelationships between the student, the home, the school, the ASL community, the community at large, and the global community. These links are shaped through interpersonal interactions, the use of technology, and ASL social media. Holding this interconnectedness at the centre of its vision, the ASL as a second language program ensures that students can continue on a developmental trajectory towards learning ASL as a second language and greater intercultural understanding.
ASL literacy development is central to students’ intellectual, cultural, social, mental, and emotional growth and is a key component of the ASL curriculum. When students learn to use ASL, they do more than develop proficiency in ASL skills; they develop an understanding of the power of ASL words and how they can be used for a variety of purposes in a variety of contexts and with different audiences – in other words, how language connects to culture. According to Gibson, “Literary works are intimately tied to the culture from which they spring and have their deepest meaning and strongest impact when the storyteller and audience share a common cultural ground.” Building skills in ASL literacy enables students to learn to convey their feelings, opinions, and perspectives and to support their opinions with arguments and, eventually, evidence from research.
Students develop skills in constructing ASL for conversations, dialogues, debates, presentations, and compositions. This range of activities encompasses the ASL narrative language of stories, the figurative language of ASL poetry, the technical language of instructions, and the factual language of ASL texts, and promotes literacy by developing an understanding of how language, in a variety of discourse forms, can be used in different situations and contexts. Students demonstrate this understanding when they actively monitor the development and process of constructing their own ASL literary work or ASL text, including ASL media work. This, in turn, enables students to develop their own style in ASL that is personal, metaphorical, and as complex as it would be in any other language.