Teaching Key Word Sign and Gesture – Another Approach
by Elizabeth Brownlie, Speech Pathologist
This article has been reprinted with the permission of the author and the Australian Communication Quarterly (ACQ, August 1999)
Key Words - sign/gesture, core vocabulary, teaching strategies, signing development
There has been much discussion recently on the use of key-word signing – the core vocabulary and how it is best taught. The following is one therapist’s attempt to address some of the problems perceived with current practice, and to add to current discussion. This is work is set in an early childhood context i.e. course participants are the caregivers, teachers, respite care workers, bus drivers, and others involved with children under 6 years of age.
The use of sign and gesture with young children with identified or suspected communication delay is a widespread but often less than fully successful practice. We know it can be an extremely useful tool if implemented well, but often signing programs do not “get off the ground” enough to achieve what we know is possible.
Limitations in Current Practice:
I am looking here at the outcomes of our teaching – how do adults use and develop their signing skills after they have attended a Signing Workshop?
1. Adult’s Use of Sign/Gesture:
One of the most obvious things when looking at signing programs that have not “worked” is the limited use of sign on the part of teacher and caregivers. There is a tendency to focus on the child’s use of sign, or lack of, rather than the extent of signing they themselves are using. Signing is most often used in more formal or routine situations, for asking questions or giving directions.
This pointed to a need for adults to develop:
- an understanding of the importance of a “signing environment” and so an increased awareness of the importance of their own use of sign,
- an understanding of the social aspects of communication development, and
- more confidence and ease in using sign and gesture generally and in particular, in less predictable communicative situations.
Participants in Signing Workshops were generally most interested in expanding their vocabulary into a wide range of nouns specific for many situations. However, most of this vocabulary was not used frequently enough to be remembered, as their basic ease and fluency of sign use was not established.
There was a need for workshop participants to
- better understand the interactive nature of communication development,
- learn first a manageable set of vocabulary that could be used in any joint activity,
- have opportunity within the workshop to develop skill using that vocabulary in conjunction with natural gesture.
3. Adult’s Communication Style:
Signing workshops did not appear to affect how teachers and caregivers communicated with their child or facilitated their communication attempts and development. They were often speaking too fast and using language that was too complex for their child to follow, which also made it more difficult to use clear sign/gesture in conversational, less structured situations. There seemed to be a belief that using sign and gesture alone would work the magic rather than understanding how the use of sign/gesture changed the adult’s use of language and the nature of communicative interactions. This reinforced the need for participants to understand techniques and strategies to assist communication development.
A New Approach
1. The Vocabulary
After repeatedly modifying and adapting the Makaton Vocabulary over many years of practice it was decided to move away from it altogether. As others have pointed out, there are many factors in the determination of an appropriate “core” vocabulary, including: that it contains words that are used frequently as well as those that are context specific; that it is highly individualised; that it contains a variety of word classes. It is important that the first vocabulary taught to conversational partners will provide for and facilitate the interactive nature of communication, can be used across many situations and is easy to remember, i.e. that it incorporates a great deal of natural gesture.
A vocabulary that satisfies these requirements is taught in three parts:
- Interactive vocabulary – a small set of signs that can be used during any shared activity:
hello/goodbye how are you? more help
give wait like finish
come go sit eat
drink see/look put what?
where? my turn/your turn no turn over/on/off
- Social/Descriptive vocabulary – divided into 2 sections and allowing for commenting and more social interaction from the adult. Until this point few signs for nouns have been taught, encouraging the focus to be on the interactive and commenting functions of language.
big wet slow now
little sick quick after
hot (thins) sore same clever
(people) happy different dirty
warm sad sorry clean
cold alright/okay please thank-you
- The second set of Social/Descriptive vocabulary is taught in smaller sections within a specific context, and including relevant content words.
old soft beautiful make
new angry silly play
hard broken naughty sing
difficult frightened safe careful
The major shift in practice here has been that selection of this vocabulary has been based primarily on the adult’s need for signs for receptive uses, rather than the child’s need for expressive use, as it is felt that the child’s first need is to see signs used in their environment and the adult’s first need is to focus on the interactive aspects of communication and to develop comfort and fluency in using sign and natural gesture in a range of situations.
This follows recent trends in the AAC field where the focus of intervention is less on the AAC user and more on the client’s communication partners to model use, provide vocabulary receptively, and to facilitate communication at the level of the client. It also parallels recent development in the area of aided communication strategies (Goosens, Crain and Elder (1992) and Bloom and Harnett (1995)), in particular Bloom and Harnett’s creation of a set of vocabulary items that can be used in any shared activity and are used in conjunction with different sets of context-specific vocabulary.
Similar to the use of phrases represented by pictographs in an aided communication display is the use of “phrase gestures”. Participants of workshops are encouraged to be flexible and gesturally appropriate when using a number of verbs i.e. to gesture or mime the phrase “wash the dog”, “open the door”, rather than to sign the key features of the phrase i.e. “wash the dog”, “open the door”. Participants are taught that it is more useful to convey the idea of what is being said in gesture than to accurately sign every key word. Similarly, participants are encouraged to use signs for some adjectives in a flexible and more visually congruent way e.g. the sign/gesture for “big” will vary with context – “a big tree” versus “a big ant” versus “a big ball”.
2. Development of participant’s sign fluency
Participants are reminded of how much “signing” we all know and use everyday. They are encouraged to become aware of the many natural gestures we use, and to use them more consciously and clearly. Once the first set of signs is taught they are used wherever possible in subsequent activities and in simple interactions. The facilitator uses sign wherever possible. A signing environment is created and built on throughout the course. Signs are taught formally, and practised in sentences after the first presentation. There is immediate and constant practice employing directionality and placement, as well as enhancing facial expression and body language. Specific exercises are given as “warm-ups” to practise the latter. Fluency exercises, such as role plays, writing and then signing scripts, “playing” with toys etc. are a part of every session. Fluency and consistency of sign use throughout all interactions are emphasised, and participants are regularly reminded to focus on their use of sign, rather than the child’s.
Theory, interwoven with practical exercises and video segments, focuses on -
- the breadth of communication without speech, and where different strategies fit on a concrete – abstract continuum,
- the importance of sufficient commenting in the adult’s language, rather than a predominance of questions and directions,
- strategies to enhance communication opportunity and to extend the child’s communication behaviours, including: choice, sabotage, modelling and expansion, sign shaping.
- the importance of providing a “sign environment” for the child, and strategies to achieve this,
- the process of setting goals and strategies for the child’s communication development.
A more extensive evaluation form was used to gather feedback on this model. Participants generally found the more practical aspects of the course ( e.g. sign teaching, practice sessions, video segments) the most useful, and often commented on the need for follow-up practice sessions. The most noticeable and pleasing difference was in the number of comments participants made on the need to continue to build on their own signing fluency.
An Advanced Workshop format was recently developed. It was designed to advance participants to the level of Sign Tutor and addressed the issue of use of unaided strategies in conjunction with sign and gesture.
Additional theory is given regarding the development of both aided and unaided communication and what strategies are appropriate at any given communicative level. There is an emphasis on creating language environments (both aided and unaided) and reiteration of the concept that all communication is based on interaction. This is depicted visually as a pyramid of three levels: the base – Interaction, the centre – Language, and the point of the pyramid – Sounds/Letters – the finer detail (figure 1). This information is also laid out in a linear form, incorporating information on expressive and receptive use of both aided and unaided systems and teaching strategies at different levels (figure 2).
Stages of sign development are outlined in further detail in the Language section of the pyramid. In this therapist’s experience there seem to be 3 broad stages in the adult’s use of sign and gesture, mirroring the child’s development of expressive use of sign.
- The initial aim is to establish the child’s functional communication i.e. enhanced comprehension and early symbolic communication. This tends to be the use of early signs across a number of situations (e.g. “more”, “help”, “eat/food”, “drink”, “finish” and other powerful/favourite signs). This stage may also involve the development of intentionality for those children who have not previously demonstrated this.
- The receptive use of sign at this level emphasises visual clarity, clear natural gesture (to enhance comprehension) and the use of “phrase gestures”. At this point early prepositions and adjectives are built into these phrase gestures rather than being signed as key words.
- Later, when the child is using some sign/gesture, receptive sign use needs to provide more language modelling to encourage the child to extend her own use of sign and move into sign combinations. At this point the adult moves away from the use of phrase gestures and towards more literal sign use e.g “wash your hair”, “make a tower”, “big ball”. The constant expansion of vocabulary is most important here.
- Further on still, when the child has expanded his use of sign and gesture to the level of a more extensive vocabulary and sign combination (and is perhaps also developing some literacy skills) he will need even more receptive input. This is when the adults in the child’s world need to move towards incorporating more features of Signed English in their use of sign.
The practical components of the Advanced Workshop involved brief revision of signs taught in the Basic Course/Workshop, fluency practice and vocabulary expansion based on topic areas – food, animals, playthings. The emphasis was on conversational sign use and practice of sign and gesture at different levels.
It is hoped that this approach will contribute to the current discussion and development of best practice in the teaching of key-word sign and gesture. It would be interesting to see further research into the stages of development of a child’s use of sign/gesture.
Bloom, Y. & Hartnett, L. (1995) Let’s talk together. Creating interactive communication opportunities for people with severe communication impairments and severe challenges living in group homes, The Forsight Foundation for the Deaf/Blind, Carlingford, NSW.
Goosens, C., Crain, S. & Elder, P. (1992) Engineering the pre-school environment for interactive communication 18 months – 5 years. Southeast Augmentative Communication Conference Publications, Birmingham.