Enduring Ideas in the American Sign Language as a Second Language Curriculum
In the ASL as a second language curriculum, certain “enduring ideas” represent the foundation of all student learning in the program. They encompass knowledge, competencies, and habits of mind that are developed in the process of language development and equip students with tools that will enable them to participate effectively in an ever-changing global society. As students learn to exchange information and ideas in another language, they also learn about other ways of thinking, other ways of doing things, and other ways of living. The curriculum strives to foster an interest in language learning that continues not only throughout a student’s time in school but also into later in life. Learning about the sociolinguistic and cultural aspects of language allows students to apply their language knowledge in a variety of real-world contexts. The enduring ideas focus on the development of knowledge and skills that are necessary as a basis for lifelong language learning. In the following graphic, the enduring ideas are shown surrounding the central notion of lifelong learning.
Lifelong Language Learning
Students in Ontario bring a rich variety of languages and cultures to the language classroom. This prior linguistic and cultural knowledge is part of who each student is. By acknowledging and validating the student’s proficiency in the language(s) that they already know, the classroom teacher reflects the belief that all language knowledge is important, and that language learning can be a lifelong endeavour.
Learning another language is an advantage for life. Students who learn a second or additional language develop the skills to learn yet another language in the future. They also develop an appreciation of the similarities and differences among languages and cultures. This awareness broadens as they learn more about other languages and cultures as well as their own, while making connections between their local community and global contexts. They can then seek out opportunities to immerse themselves in language and continue their learning beyond the classroom.
An Authentic Approach to ASL: Conversational Discourse, Comprehension, and Construction
One of the purposes of learning ASL is to interact with people whose native language is ASL (also called ASL people). Learning ASL involves developing conversational discourse skills to use in a variety of contexts, analysis and comprehension skills (making connections and understanding), and construction skills (synthesizing and creating). When using ASL, students focus closely on what it is they are trying to convey; what they need others to understand, and why; how their use of ASL is received and interpreted; and what others are trying to convey to them, and why. They take control of their learning through observing, analysing, reflecting, and rehearsing with others.
One of the key concepts in second-language learning is “comprehensible input” – that is, messages that students receive from the teacher and are able to understand. For input to be effective, it must be not only comprehensible but interesting, relevant, personalized, and meaningful. It must also be slightly challenging in order to provide the scaffolding that students need to be able to begin “producing” language – or constructing in ASL – in an authentic way. Equally important in the language classroom is “output”: students need multiple opportunities to engage in meaningful language production and interaction, using a variety of ASL discourse forms, through real-life tasks.
The study of language structures can be a very effective way of improving language skills. Another important aspect of ASL language learning is the study of authentic materials and videos such as ASL literary works and ASL texts, which can challenge students to apply their grammatical knowledge and make connections as they explore, internalize, deconstruct, and connect what they are learning to the broader world.
Research indicates that to be effective, language instruction in the use of ASL must provide meaningful feedback from the teacher and peers in ASL in order for students to develop language and cultural proficiency. It is therefore recommended that language educators and their students use ASL as extensively as possible at all levels of instruction during instructional time and, when feasible, beyond the classroom.
Most current second-language teaching philosophies underline the necessity of making language instruction meaningful for the learners. Teaching language as a system of disconnected and isolated components gives learners some knowledge of the language, but does not allow them to use the language effectively. In contrast, communicative and action-oriented approaches to teaching second languages put real communication at the centre of all learning activities. “One goal of language instruction is spontaneous [use of language] which is both fluent and accurate.” To attain this, instruction includes “teaching rules for developing spontaneous [use of language] and emphasizes the importance of language use in the classroom.” Students need multiple opportunities to use ASL in authentic and varied social contexts, including personal, academic, community, and workplace contexts, so that they can make real-life connections.
Development of Language Learning Strategies
Language learning strategies are important components of a second or additional language program. Research shows that developing proficiency in such strategies is an essential part of successful language learning. When students apply a range of strategies, they are better able to comprehend information, clarify and negotiate meaning, and use language to convey ideas and information effectively. They begin to see themselves as successful language learners, understand their own learning processes, and take responsibility for their learning. Students should be encouraged to develop and apply a repertoire of strategies as tools to support their use of ASL to convey ideas and information.
Language learning strategies are often categorized as cognitive, metacognitive, and social/affective. In this curriculum, cognitive strategies involve the direct manipulation of ASL itself, such as remembering information and understanding or creating messages in ASL. Metacognitive strategies involve planning, thinking about the learning process as it is taking place, and monitoring and evaluating one’s progress. Social and affective strategies enhance cooperation and help students regulate their emotions, motivations, and attitudes as they learn ASL through interacting with others.
Research also shows that effective language learners use some specific strategies to enhance their learning, retention, and application of the language. In the context of this curriculum, these strategies include focusing their attention on learning; planning in advance how they will approach an ASL literary work or an ASL text (e.g., previewing, skimming, scanning, deconstructing for main ideas); reflecting on and summarizing what they have just learned; using specific questioning techniques when explanation or clarification is needed; and making inferences from an ASL literary work or an ASL text. Particularly important in the early stages of language learning are comprehension strategies, which help students make sense of an ASL conversational discourse or other ASL work, and repair strategies, which are applied when students recognize that their understanding is breaking down.
Not all students acquire these strategies on their own. Most will benefit from explicit classroom instruction regarding the use of ASL learning strategies and their application before, during, and after a language task in authentic and relevant contexts. It is important for teachers to move gradually from more explicit to less explicit teaching (the “gradual release of responsibility” model). Once students are consciously aware of strategies, have practised using them, can select the most effective ones for a particular task, and can see the link between their own actions and their learning, they will be more able to monitor their use of the strategies, set goals for improvement, become more motivated and effective ASL learners, and continue to apply the strategies that work best for them even after they leave the classroom.
Development of Intercultural Understanding
Intercultural understanding is an essential element of any language learning process. Through the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in this area, students gain a vastly deeper understanding of the language they are studying. Students gradually develop an awareness of themselves in relation to others on different levels – first in terms of people and cultures they encounter and learn about locally, then on a national level, and finally, in terms of the world – as well as an understanding of the cultural contexts and ideas being studied, both contemporary and historical.
When language learners increase their intercultural understanding, they learn to apply it more broadly by developing respect for the rich diversity of cultures within Canada and around the world. Fostering this respect will encourage students to explore and appreciate the cultures of diverse groups of people in Canada, including people from the Maritime Sign Language (MSL) communities; people from the LSQ communities; and First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples with their various Indigenous Sign Languages. Ontario’s secondary schools are now home to students who use more than 100 different languages, including sign languages, several First Nation languages, many African, Asian, and European languages, and English-based creole languages. Ontario’s increasing linguistic and cultural diversity provides students with many opportunities for cultural enrichment, and underscores the importance of intercultural understanding.
Language and culture are intertwined. It is impossible to separate one from the other. Developing cultural knowledge and skills is a lifelong process. When cultural knowledge is incorporated in language learning and related to students’ own culture and language, students develop a heightened awareness and knowledge of both the new language and culture and their own. A student who has learned a language from an action-oriented and intercultural perspective is one who can effectively manage communication in both familiar and new contexts with sensitivity and openness. The portrait that emerges of these language learners depicts people who are sensitive to intercultural perspectives and open to the ongoing language and cultural changes that life and work require.
In the ASL curriculum, each of the four interconnected strands includes expectations that develop intercultural understanding. Students learn about and make connections between diverse communities that use ASL, and society as a whole. Intercultural awareness and understanding, from the level of the local school and community to the national level and beyond, are key aspects of becoming a member of the global community. Global citizenship is rooted in this kind of understanding. Studying ASL language in the context of the ASL community, culture, and history can deepen students’ understanding of everything from law to science to literature and beyond.
Critical Thinking Skills, Metacognition, and Metalinguistic Skills
To thrive in the knowledge era, people need higher-order thinking skills; the ability to critically analyse and solve problems; the ability to think logically, creatively, and critically; the ability to apply metacognition; and metalinguistic skills.
There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that learning a second or additional language not only improves grammatical skills in one’s first language but also enhances one’s overall thinking skills and abilities. Language learning increases the ability to conceptualize and think abstractly. It also improves mental flexibility, creativity, the ability to explore multiple solutions to a problem, and the ability to think about the use of language.
Critical and creative thinking skills and problem-solving skills are an integral part of learning and interacting in a second language. Students apply these skills constantly as they make sense of what they are deciphering-deconstructing and decoding and as they try to convey their messages clearly. Their critical thinking abilities develop as they compare their own linguistic and cultural systems with those of ASL. As they learn about the linguistic elements of the new language (e.g., cognates – the connection between ASL and French Sign Language [LSF]; ASL metaphorical expressions; formal and informal forms of language using a variety of registers), students develop hypotheses about the structure and use of languages. As they expand their knowledge of ASL culture, they engage in a reflective process about cultural systems, comparing, contrasting, analysing, and hypothesizing about types of interactions, patterns within ASL cultural protocols, cultural resources, and other relationships between ASL culture and their own.
Critical literacy, discussed in detail in “American Sign Language Literacy”, is another skill developed through the study of a second or additional language. The expectations in the ASL curriculum require students to critically analyse and evaluate the meaning of ASL literary works and ASL texts as they relate to “issues of equity, power, and social justice to inform a critical stance, response and/or action”.
Metacognition is commonly defined as thinking about thinking. The metacognitive process involves the ability to plan, monitor, and assess one’s use of thinking processes and learning strategies. Metacognition not only plays an important role in language acquisition and development but it can also increase student engagement, foster confidence, and empower students to be independent and responsible for their learning. As students develop the ability to understand how they learn, recognize areas that need improvement, set goals for improvement, monitor their own learning, and become independent learners, they are acquiring the basic habits and skills needed for lifelong learning.
It is important for ASL teachers to model comprehension and thinking strategies and explicitly demonstrate them by thinking aloud. Teachers can explicitly teach metacognitive strategies in ASL by naming the strategies, discussing their uses, and giving examples. By doing so, they provide students with a common understanding and terminology so they can develop their awareness of how and why they choose certain strategies to accomplish a task and eventually use ASL to convey meaning. It is also important to engage students in conversing about their own thinking and metacognitive strategies in order to increase their self-awareness, as well as to provide ample practice so that their use of these strategies becomes automatic. Students should be given many opportunities for regular self-assessment or peer-assessment of their work throughout the learning process, and opportunities to reflect on and monitor their learning.
Metalinguistic awareness is a type of metacognition used in language learning. It can be defined as bringing into explicit consciousness linguistic form and structure and how they relate to and construct the underlying meaning of productions in ASL. It includes the ability to discuss and think about language as an abstract process. It also includes the ability to analyse and deconstruct how language is used systematically to convey meaning. Metalinguistic awareness recognizes the complexities, dimensions, and forms of language. When students develop metalinguistic awareness, they are able to recognize significant details in other people’s use of language for specific purposes in various contexts and recognize the use of appropriate registers connected with discourses and language contexts.
Metalinguistic skills involve the awareness, use, and manipulation of linguistic components of language as well as the ability to go beyond basic ASL vocabulary, ASL word form, classifiers, and grammar skills – they are critical to academic and social success. Higher-level language skills include the use of complex vocabulary, identifying and analysing word relationships, paraphrasing, reasoning, and having the ability to perceive things from another individual’s or group’s perspective.
Students who use two distinct languages develop metalinguistic awareness and metalinguistic skills as they use two linguistic systems that include constructing meaning. They do so by making relevant cultural and linguistic connections with ASL or another language’s works and their own lived experiences. Metalinguistic awareness, as research has shown, is crucial in students because of its documented relationship and positive effects on language ability, symbolic development, and literacy skills.
ASL second language pedagogy encourages students to use the linguistic knowledge and skills they have acquired through interaction with ASL literary works, ASL texts, and real-life cultural experiences with people whose native language is ASL. Students learn to develop literacy skills in a variety of contexts, such as using metalinguistic skills to do comparative analysis of ASL and English grammatical structures using ASL graphemes and ASL gloss. By making cross-linguistic connections between ASL and English, students are able to connect the content and skills they have acquired in one language with knowledge of the other language and develop their ASL language and literacy skills.
Making Real-Life Connections
The learning across all strands of the ASL as a second language curriculum is highly connected and relevant to the lives of students, and helps them identify and articulate the immediate and long-term benefits of learning ASL. Students are more motivated to continue with the study of a second or additional language when they see immediate, real-life applications for the skills they learn. Trends in language learning have changed so that “the focus in language education in the twenty-first century is no longer on grammar, memorization and learning from rote, but rather using language and cultural knowledge as a means to [convey information and ideas to] connect to others around the globe.” For example, students can use ASL with a broader range of people and access more sources of entertainment, information, and education (e.g., ASL literature, films related to the ASL community, television programs, and a wide variety of online ASL resources). Learning a new language will also allow students to draw parallels with other languages, including sign languages (e.g., MSL, LSQ, ISL), and increase their own prospects for future education, career, and travel.
When learning another language, students’ learning experience can be expanded by making connections with other subject areas, whether formally or informally. The language skills and cultural knowledge that students gain in ASL build upon the knowledge that students acquire in other subject areas, and vice versa. Students also bring to the classroom a wealth of knowledge and experience from the world around them that supports and enriches their learning.
Students will be more successful if they have opportunities to use the language in a broad range of real-life contexts, as discussed in the section “An Authentic Approach to ASL”. Meaningful contact with individuals who use ASL in their community enables students to develop their language learning skills in real-life situations. When students are unable to interact with people who are proficient in ASL in their community, teachers can use authentic materials, electronic face-to-face communications, and multimedia resources to support students’ language learning. Teachers can also facilitate student participation in exchanges, ASL-language camps or immersion experiences, and field trips or longer excursions. In addition, schools or communities can be twinned, and visitors invited into the school.