Some Considerations for Program Planning in American Sign Language as a Second Language
The language and language learning skills laid out in the four strands overlap and strengthen one another. Effective instructional activities, including those that use ASL media works, often integrate expectations from two or more strands to provide students with the kinds of experiences that promote meaningful learning. This approach allows students to develop skills from several strands by engaging in rich, integrated tasks such as participating in a debate on a current issue, discussing strategies for organizing ideas using the constructing process in an assignment, or offering constructive and descriptive feedback about an ASL work created by their peers. A high-quality ASL course provides daily opportunities for students to engage in various language activities in connection with the expectations of all four strands. Teachers plan instructional activities that integrate expectations across the strands. They also continually highlight the interconnectedness of language and culture in the development of literacy skills. For this reason, language structures and conventions are taught along with cultural concepts so that students are exposed to the key elements of language through contextualized approaches. (See the section “The Program in American Sign Language as a Second Language” for a description of each strand.)
When planning what students will learn, it is important for teachers to support students in understanding how and why ASL media works are constructed and how they relate to the ASL community and culture. This knowledge equips them to respond to ASL media works coherently and critically. Students need to develop the skills to differentiate between fact and opinion; evaluate the credibility of sources; analyse, reflect upon, and respond to bias (e.g., audism, racism, sexism, classism); and recognize and develop sensitivity to discriminatory portrayals of individuals and groups. Therefore, students’ repertoire of language and digital literacy skills should include critically interpreting and reflecting upon the messages they receive from various ASL media works, and the ability to use media technology and strategies to convey their own ideas and information effectively. Skills related to the use of digital media such as the Internet, social media, film, and television are particularly important because of the power to persuade and the pervasive influence that media wields in our lives and in society at large.
To develop students’ media literacy skills, teachers need to ensure that students have opportunities to study ASL language and culture and their relationship to style, form, and meaning in ASL media works. Students can analyse media works to distinguish the different messages of each medium and how the choice of ASL language structures and illustrations can affect their audiences. Students can decipher-deconstruct, synthesize, reflect on, and discuss a wide variety of ASL media works and relate them to their own experiences. They can also benefit from opportunities to use various technologies to create media works of different types (e.g., cartoons, short ASL videos, web pages related to ASL language and culture) using a variety of graphic designs and layouts. As students explore the use of ASL conventions, language features, techniques, and forms in ASL media works, they analyse the roles of the producer and the intended audience when constructing meaning. They also apply the knowledge and skills gained through this analysis of ASL media works to create their own works.
To develop literacy in any language, it is critical for students to develop skills in using a variety of conversational discourse forms in that language. When given frequent opportunities to converse with their peers, students develop an overall sense of the language and its structure. Through conversation, students are able to convey their thinking and learning to others. Conversation skills thus enable students to express themselves, develop healthy relationships with peers, and define their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world.
Interactions with both the teacher and peers in the language being studied are essential to the development of all language skills. Having a conversation is a way to construct meaning. It develops, clarifies, and extends thinking. This is true not only of the prepared, formal dialogues in interviews, discussions, debates, and presentations but also of the informal dialogues that occur, for example, when students work together and ask questions, make connections, and respond to ASL literary works and/or ASL texts, share their learning experiences, or when a teacher models a think-aloud. These forms of interaction through the use of language are important to consider when planning lessons in an ASL program:
- Informal dialogue is used in conversations throughout the school day for a wide range of purposes, such as asking questions, recounting experiences, brainstorming, problem solving, and exchanging opinions on an impromptu or casual basis.
- Discussion involves a purposeful and extended exchange of ideas that provides a focus for inquiry or problem solving, often leading to new understanding. Discussions may involve, for example, responding to ideas in an ASL story or other piece of fiction, or exchanging opinions about current events or issues in the classroom or community.
- Formal dialogue involves the delivery of prepared or rehearsed presentations to an audience. Some examples are ASL storytelling, ASL poetry, role plays, ASL reports, academic conversations about ASL video works, interviews, debates, and multimedia presentations.
ASL teachers use a variety of instructional approaches and strategies in ASL to support students in deciphering-deconstructing, interpreting, constructing, representing, responding, reflecting, and using interconnected metacognitive and metalinguistic skills. This is accomplished through the gradual release of responsibility model. Initially, the ASL teacher demonstrates the use of comprehension strategies to decipher-deconstruct ASL literary works and ASL texts through modelling and sharing them with students in the classroom or in smaller-group contexts. Students then use inquiry-based collaborative strategies to work with peers to understand ASL literary works and ASL texts. Eventually, students are able to use comprehension strategies independently to understand ASL literary works and ASL texts. The same process is used to construct conversational discourse in ASL, ASL literary works, and ASL texts, as well as for the use of metacognitive and metalinguistic skills throughout the program.
ASL teachers need to provide daily opportunities for students to converse and interact in ASL. Teachers set up learning situations based on authentic communicative tasks, such as requesting information or conveying messages. Learning activities that are based on students’ interests, needs, and desire to converse will achieve the best results in the classroom. As facilitators, ASL teachers select communicative situations, model the effective use of language, and plan activities to enable students to continually develop their ASL language skills in various contexts.
By providing guidance to students as they carry out practice activities and work on tasks and projects, ASL teachers also assume the role of coach. Teachers coach, for example, when they guide a group in a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of learning another language, or when they model sentence structure and fluency while conversing with students.
Well-designed lessons include a variety of instructional strategies, such as structured simulations, guided inquiry, cooperative learning, and open-ended questions. Teachers can conduct frequent comprehension checks to ensure that students understand the information being conveyed, including both general concepts and specific ASL vocabulary and classifiers. Teachers can use various tools and strategies to support student comprehension, and can encourage students to develop their self-expression in and spontaneous use of ASL by eliciting conversation that increases in fluency, accuracy, and complexity over time. Teachers can also model a variety of strategies that students can use to request clarification and assistance when they have difficulty understanding.
It is essential that ASL be the language of instruction in class so that students have constant exposure to correct models of the language and many opportunities to use ASL. To help students improve their ability to interact in class, teachers can:
- use ASL at an appropriate and deliberate pace to ensure maximum understanding;
- explain concepts explicitly and in a variety of ways to address the needs of all learners;
- give clear instructions that meet individual students’ needs (e.g., numbering the steps in an activity);
- present information in small, manageable pieces;
- check often for comprehension, using a variety of tools and strategies;
- allow sufficient response time when students are interacting in ASL;
- use a variety of strategies to selectively correct students’ errors in conversing and constructing;
- offer ongoing descriptive feedback so that students are aware of which areas need improvement;
- scaffold learning and observe independent practice to support all students in using ASL in both familiar and new contexts.
ASL teachers can use a variety of instructional strategies to support language learners in the acquisition and development of ASL. For example, teachers can:
- design meaningful lessons and activities that are achievable by students and that take into account their background knowledge and experiences;
- provide frequent opportunities for collaboration and practice in pairs, small groups, and large groups;
- provide targeted instruction for students during shared or guided practice to lead them to explore ASL texts or concepts;
- use a variety of teaching strategies when demonstrating how to decipher-deconstruct, interpret, construct, respond, and interact;
- contextualize new ASL vocabulary and classifiers through visuals, ASL literary works, and ASL texts;
- allow students to demonstrate their understanding of a concept in alternative ways (e.g., De’VIA, drama);
- value and acknowledge the importance of students’ cultural knowledge, and literacy skills in other languages;
- encourage students to share information about their own languages and cultures with each other in the classroom.
ASL teachers can also make use of a variety of classroom and school resources to enrich students’ learning. For example, teachers can:
- introduce ASL vocabulary and classifiers and illustrate concepts using pictures, visuals, age-appropriate ASL literary works, ASL texts including media, and real objects;
- reinforce ASL vocabulary and classifiers in various ways (e.g., using ASL word walls, visuals, or anchor charts) to increase students’ understanding and enhance their ability to convey ideas and information;
- use technology to support ASL language and literacy development;
- demonstrate the use of a variety of graphic organizers, including video graphic organizers.
Schools in Ontario serve a diverse student population, both linguistically and culturally. Because students’ previous linguistic experiences vary greatly from one home to another and from one community to another, their skills in using their first language in academic contexts and in second-language acquisition may be at considerably different levels. Some students may already comprehend and use ASL well, others may have used ASL outside of school without formal instruction, while still others have not acquired or developed ASL as a first or second language for a variety of reasons. With this in mind, understanding the different stages of language development and implementing appropriate pedagogical and assessment strategies for students are priorities for teachers in an ASL as a second language program.
Regardless of their language skills, all students bring a rich diversity of background knowledge and experience to the classroom. Students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds support their learning and also become a cultural asset in the classroom community, whether their backgrounds are in ASL or another linguistic and cultural community. Teachers will find positive ways to incorporate this diversity into their instructional programs and into the classroom environment.
Sociocultural awareness is addressed in the ASL as a second language curriculum through the use of pedagogical approaches that convey the understanding that the study of ASL language, ASL literary works, and ASL texts, including ASL media works, can be taught only with strong references to the ASL community. Language and culture are inseparable. This principle can be applied to any language and the culture that nourishes it. French and francophone culture are inseparable; Cree and Cree culture are inseparable; ASL and ASL culture are inseparable.
Studying a variety of original ASL literary works and ASL texts, including ASL media works created by ASL people, challenges students to become receptive to new and widely varying ideas, information, and perspectives, and to develop the ability to think independently, collaboratively, and critically using an ASL cultural lens. ASL language and culture can build students’ awareness of all aspects of ASL identity – emotional, moral, cognitive, experiential, perceptual, spiritual, physical, mental, and social. Linda Wall states that “original ASL stories and poetry convey the experiences and emotions of ASL culture”. ASL works created by ASL people are crucial to developing a deeper appreciation of how ASL language and ASL culture are interwoven with a person’s identity. They allow both individuals and a community to transmit their view of reality: their thoughts, feelings, treasured values, beliefs, and priorities. Gaining this insight enables students to enact social change, take ownership of their school culture and school community, and provide support for the ASL community.
Students also learn about cultural references that relate to the ASL community, such as the everyday life of ASL people, ASL community calendars, historical research, and linguistic research. Collectively, this learning enhances their understanding of the ASL community – provincial, national, or global – and reflects how language, values, beliefs, ways of life, customs, and symbols are interwoven.
Cultural, linguistic, racial, and religious diversity is a defining characteristic of Canadian society, and schools can help prepare all students to live harmoniously as responsible, compassionate citizens in a multicultural, plurilingual society in the twenty-first century. Learning resources that reflect the broad range of students’ interests, backgrounds, cultures, and experiences are an important aspect of an ASL program. In an inclusive program, learning materials involve protagonists of all genders from a wide variety of backgrounds and intersectionalities. ASL teachers routinely use materials that reflect the diversity of Canadian and world cultures, including those of contemporary sign language cultures (e.g., langue des signes québécoise [LSQ] culture) and of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, and make such materials available to students. Short ASL stories, ASL epics, television programs, and films provide opportunities for students to explore issues relating to the cultural identity of an ASL community.
In an inclusive and intersectional ASL program, students are made aware of the historical, cultural, and political contexts of both the traditional and non-traditional gender and social roles represented in the materials they are studying. ASL literary works and ASL texts, including ASL media works, relating to immigrant experiences provide rich material for study, as well as the opportunity for students new to Canada to share their knowledge and experiences with others. In addition, in the context of the ASL program, both students and teachers will become aware of aspects of intercultural communication and discourse – for example, by exploring how different cultures interpret the use of eye contact in conversation.
Teachers can choose ASL resources that reflect diversity and intersectionality. They also need to keep in mind that students often deconstruct materials found outside the classroom (e.g., web articles, online videos, and material on social media platforms). It is imperative for the ASL program to create and sustain safe, healthy, equitable, and audism-free learning environments that honour and respect diversity and intersectionality for every student.
The development of critical thinking skills is integral to the ASL curriculum, as discussed in the section “Critical Thinking Skills, Metacognition, and Metalinguistic Skills”. In the context of critical literacy, these skills include identifying and analysing perspectives, values, and issues; detecting bias; and deciphering-deconstructing for implicit as well as explicit meaning. In the ASL program, students develop the ability to detect bias and stereotypes in ASL literary works and ASL texts. When using biased ASL literary works, ASL texts, or non-ASL works containing stereotypes for the express purpose of critical analysis, ASL teachers take into account the potential impact of bias on students and use appropriate strategies to address students’ responses. Critical literacy also involves asking questions and challenging the status quo, leading students to examine issues of power and justice in society related to ASL and the ASL community. Through critical literacy, students can present and argue their perspectives when discussing issues that strongly affect them. ASL literary works and ASL texts, including ASL media works, also afford both ASL teachers and students a unique opportunity to explore the social and emotional impact of different forms of oppression related to audism, racism, sexism, or homophobia on individuals and families, communities, and society.