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American Sign Language:  Voicing in ASL Class

Question
Dr. Bill,
What is your opinion on speaking during class?
--Steve

Answer
I believe in a bilingual/bicultural/multi-modal approach to ASL instruction. Personally I teach "no-voice." I think that we need to be cultural role models and remember that in Deaf Culture signing is celebrated, voicing is not.

Voicing can either be a crutch or it can be a tool.  Too often it takes the place of skillful voice-off instruction. 

There are many successful ASL instructors who don't voice in the classroom at all--ever.  They have invested the time, energy, and resources necessary to provide effective no-voice instruction.  

"No-voice" instruction and "no-native-language" instruction are two different things.  For example, writing the word "cheese" in English on the blackboard then demonstrating the sign CHEESE is not the same as holding up a block of cheese and signing, "CHEESE."

Carrying a block of cheese to class isn't exactly convenient (see my other discussions regarding technology though).

Adult or young-adult second language learners already have a language foundation.  To ignore that foundation-- or pretend it doesn't exist--is silly.

We have to consider the question: How can an instructor make the best use of a student's native (English or other) language to support ASL instruction--while making sure that the student does as much actual signing as possible?" 

Talking about ASL is not the same as signing ASL. Students who go to class and hear about ASL do not sign as well as students who go to class and use ASL to negotiate meaning.  On the other hand you can say the word "God" or the word "love" in your native language and then show you the sign a heck of a lot faster than you can "mime out" the concept of "love" or "God" before showing it to you.

There are tradeoffs:  Comfort level, frustration, drop out rates, skill level, etc.

Telling a student what a sign means saves time and expedites "vocabulary development" (which is to say the student learns lots of signs quickly) but doesn't do much for his "visual-receptive decoding" skills (which is to say he can't figure out a signed sentence to save his life). 

Think about this question, "At the end of a class with an initial enrollment of 30 students, is it better to have 20 really good signers and 10 drop outs; or is it better to have 30 mederately good signers?" What if you teach a student lots of signs via voicing during the first few class sessions then you turn off your voice and require them to sign and respond to questions using that vocabulary? 

Obviously there is no cut and dried best answer-- and there will much variation in every class--but the concept is clear:  The more challenging you make a class, the fewer students that can handle it. A total no-voice class is more challenging than a voiced class. 

It takes time, heat, and pressure to produce diamonds from coal.  The more heat and pressure you apply, the less time it takes.

Students are not lumps of coal, if you apply lots of heat and pressure, some of them will deal with it, do extra homework, pay attention more, and become great signers.  Others however will simply drop out.

It may be tempting to simply say, "Great!  Let's get rid of the deadwood!"  But that is pie in the sky thinking.  In the real world, administrators become concerned when they see high dropout rates because it's warm bodies in seats that pays the bills and pays your salary.  At the high school level you end up with an irate mom or dad wanting to know why you are being so inflexible with their student.

Plus, it is no fun when a student drops your class.

If you decide to teach a no-voice class either by choice (cultural respect) or by necessity (you are d/Deaf), my suggestion is to make sure you do your homework.  Prepare plenty of materials, handouts, overheads, and props so that you can provide sufficient context for your students to be immersed in a learning environment. [Check out "The Vicars Method"].  Don't fool yourself into thinking that you are providing a true learning environment if all your students do is come suffer through an hour of frustration then go home and learn ASL from their books, videos, the internet, and Deaf friends.  If that is the case, you are not a great teacher -- you are a lousy teacher and your students are learning despite you.

Keep in mind two different scenarios.
1.  If a teacher works hard and prepares appropriate supports, then his students tend to work hard and learn. Most stay with it. 
2.  If a teacher doesn't prepare and is lazy his students will get frustrated and give up, or they put up with him in class then go and learn it on their own.  Later they take advanced classes from someone other than that teacher.

So, to be clear, I recommend a no-voicing environment filled with plenty of "advance organizers." "Advance organizers" are devices (visual aids, props, Powerpoints, toys, etc.) that you use while introducing a topic to enable your students to "figure out" the topic and link it to what they already know. 

If for whatever reason you have decided to incorporate voicing into your class then I recommend you at least limit voicing to only on certain days or at certain times. For example: Alternate class days with one being "voice available" and the next being "voice off."  On a Monday/Wednesday class schedule you can let the students use voice on Monday but not on Wednesday. That way on Mondays you could have the students do "interpreting-type" activities where their partner signs a statement and the student interprets it. You might want to play vocabulary building games on "voice days." That way you can explain the game to the students in their native language. 

Explaining a game to the students in ASL (in a beginning level class) often takes way too much time away from the game itself. I prefer for the students to spend time "playing and using ASL themselves" rather than watching me "mime and fingerspell" the rules of a game. 

Explaining games can be done in a no-voice class by typing up the instructions for the game and sending the instructions home with the students to read prior to the next class period.  Then play the game during the next class period. The students (most of them anyway) will have read about the game and will readily pick up on how to play it in a no-voice environment. You might want to use email for this or use a video display.

In any case, whether you use voice or not, the real secret to classroom success is preparation and teaching ability.  Preparation is a matter of getting off your duff and doing it.  If you lack teaching ability I suggest you take a "train the trainer course," a drama course, and a course in classroom management. Also you might consider reading a few books on improving your interpersonal communication skills.   And remember...have a good time!


[Time passes...]

Remember how I said it isn't very convenient to bring a block of cheese to class?
Technology has totally changed that. Now it is common for instructors to use PowerPoint slides and literally bring hundreds of objects, people, places, and scenarios to class and display them using a netbook or cell phone and a projector.
[Note: These days using technology in the classroom is standard procedure, but at the time I first wrote that, it was new and led to a fascinating examination of "computer-assisted ASL instruction" methodology.
 


In an email message Marianne writes:

<< Much of my life has been spent working with the Deaf, as they are the true experts with regards to both ASL, and Deaf culture...>>

(Note: Marianne also asked my opinion about teaching with or without voice.)
 


Marianne,

Just for thinking purposes, let me ask you series of questions:
"How do you define an 'expert' on a language?"

"Are most Hearing Americans "experts" on spoken English?

"Are most Hearing Americans able to explain the rules of their language to other Americans?"

"To what extent would an average American be qualified to teach his language to a non-native speaker of English?"

"Would teaching to one's native language to a foreigner be more or less difficult than teaching someone indigenous to America?"

"Is it really immersion when an American goes to another country and is 'immersed' in that language?
Or does that American find himself immersed in an environment where while much of the target language is new, there is quite a bit of English available for support. (For example, the locals know a few words in English, and quite a few of the documents and/or signs are in English. There is just enough English available to point the traveler in the right direction or to bridge certain gaps.)"

"Should Deaf children be placed in an all-English classroom and voiced to?"

"Is it better to teach Deaf children general topics using ASL?"

"Is it better to teach Deaf children English using a combination of ASL and English?" (Should the English used be in spoken or visual format?)

Now, if we should be teaching English to Deaf kids by using ASL, then why or why not teach ASL to Hearing adults using English?

You answer those questions for me and I'll respond to your answers.
--Dr. Bill
 


An ASL instructor writes:

Dr.Bill,
I am hoping you can help me with this.  The reason I am contacting you is because I like your philosophy, and love your website.  I have contacted you before and you replied quickly.  I am looking forward to when I can meet you or take a workshop from you. I imagine by this point, you're trying to figure out who I am. I'm Janice, from _____.  I contacted you about two months ago about workshops.  I had also asked you about voicing in class. 
I teach "ASL 1 Lab."  One of the other instructors who is also deaf, feels that Deaf presenters should not be allowed in a LAB class. What's more, they should not use their voice at all. My feeling on this is that it is up to the presenter if she/he wants to use their voice.  I invite presenters in my lab class because I feel students do benefit from seeing a variety of signing in ASL. Not all deaf look, sign, act the same way. In addition the Dean of the college approved of the presenter. 
I have been deaf since birth, and oral for most of my life. Learned ASL at CSUN at 19 (did have basics before entering CSUN) .  My understanding is, culturally, it is up to the Deaf person to decide if they want to sign and voice simultaneously.  Am I correct?
Thank you.
--Janice


Janice,
When considering how to arrange the "learning environment" you have to ask, "What is the goal?"
Is the goal to give the impression to Hearing people that Deaf people cannot and/or do not voice?
Is the goal to spend 10 minutes miming or writing instructions that could have been explained in a few seconds using voice?
Is the goal to make "Hearies" struggle like Deaf people have done for thousands of years?
Or, should we consider the individual talents and abilities of the instructor and encourage him or her to create an environment where the students can learn the subject matter efficiently and effectively?
If the subject is:  "Level 1 students spending 10 minutes guessing and trying to figure out what they are supposed to be learning" then I guess requiring an instructor to keep their voice off is certainly understandable.
On the other hand, if the subject is "ASL Introductions and Greetings" and an instructor wants to play a game to help the students learn the vocabulary then I would suggest that it would be much more effective to spend 2 minutes explaining the game in voice and 8 minutes playing the game in ASL, than it would be to spend 8 minutes explaining the game in "ASL" and 2 minutes playing the game.  Non-voiced game instructions end up as gestures, pointing, fingerspelling, and mime since beginning-level students are not advanced enough to readily understand game instructions given in the target language.
(Note: There is a world of difference between briefly explaining a game using voice, vs teaching a whole class using simcom.  If you are using simcom you are not modeling ASL.)
So, if you teach in a "no-voice" environment you have two main choices:
You can reduce the use of games and activities in your class to include only those that can be explained in gestures, pointing, fingerspelling, and mime. That is a very good approach if your goal is to teach "gestures, pointing, fingerspelling, and mime."
You can  also resort to using written instructions.
That is a good approach to use if your goal is to teach reading.
At this point I should mention that I've experimented with quite a few different approaches.
I've developed a complete curriculum (http://Lifeprint.com ASL Level 1 and Level 2) based on an interactive dialog approach that works very well without requiring any voice. (It does however require an LCD computer projector).

For a host of reasons, (cultural, political, etc.) I prefer no-voice instruction -- utilizing a "completely silent" classroom. 

After a while I got tired of playing "voice cop." 

I'm serious. It felt terrible having to constantly threaten, beg, cajole, take off points, and otherwise try to intimidate students into not making a peep trying to live up to the hype that a "total no-voice" classroom would somehow magically produce better signers.

Eventually, I found out a secret that I will now share with you:
The problem goes away if you prepare enough, make your class interesting enough, and get your students signing enough -- often enough.
I've found that if you make your class "engaging" -- students actually prefer to sign rather than voice. Signing is FUN.

On the other hand, if I were running a program, I personally would not "order" any instructor to "never" use any voice in class.

Do not mistake a "properly run, voice-available" classroom with that of a class taught by a person who resorts to voicing due to lack of talent. 

Some poorly skilled and/or inexperienced instructors are forced to teach from confusing, non-student friendly textbooks. In an effort to "get by" those instructors end up photocopying and distributing pages out of the "teacher's curriculum" and/or voicing in the classroom to help reduce student frustration and attrition rates (dropouts).

Now, let me point out one very important benefit to having a no-voice classroom: it provides full access for instructors who have little or no residual hearing (that means DEAF!).  As a "hard of hearing" person I can "get by" in the Hearing world, but it is neither comfortable nor fun.  If I voice to my students they think I can "hear" them and they start trying to talk to me from "far away" or while my back is turned.  If that happens I have to constantly remind them that I'm not Hearing and that they either need to sign to me or they need to position themselves close by and in front of me prior to talking.  Thus, it works out better for me to simply not let my students get into that habit by not using voice from day-1.

In the end, micro-managing of instructors one way or the other is not good for academic freedom nor for continued development within the discipline. An instructor tends to produce excellent student outcomes (skilled signers who exhibit respect for and an understanding of Deaf culture) when we let them teach in a manner that best matches their style and abilities.
Cordially,
--Dr. Bill
Lifeprint.com
 

 


Note:
Simcom stands for "simultaneous communication." It is the process of signing and voicing at the same time. Simcom necessarily follows English word order since you are voicing.   Thus a person using simcom is not modeling ASL.

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