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Teaching ASL:  Voicing in class?

Should your school's ASL department establish a "no voice" policy?
(Thoughts, correspondence, and notes -- mainly by William G. Vicars, EdD. Updated and revised occasionally -- most recently 2023)
Also see: "American Sign Language: No-voice ASL class policy?"

A "no voice" policy in regard to an ASL program generally refers to requiring classes to be taught without the use of voice from either the teacher or the students.

An ASL teacher writes:

Dr. Bill,

Sorry for asking so many questions but I would like to get your feedback regarding your no-voice policy in your ASL classes.

I read your page on the no voice policy and a lot of what you stated I agree with. I do make sure I implement plenty of activities and this does work pretty well. I still do notice voicing in some cases. It actually not bad (I think). I’m considering putting this in the syllabus for next year plus I need to start gently reminding students to turn their voices off in class with a notice such as:

ASL zone: When you enter the classroom, I strongly encourage you to turn your voice off. If you choose to voice and if I believe your voicing is disruptive to the learning environment or disrespectful to your neighbors, consequences could be point reduction, letter grade reduction, and/or you may be asked to leave the classroom.

I don’t want to be an angry Deaf disciplinarian. I want to find the right balance where Hearing background is welcome but the goal is to focus on and understand Deaf culture. My view is, yes there are history of oppression against Deaf and sign language but using a no-voice policy to create a near-oppressive state (even for educational purposes) doesn’t make us all that different than those that oppress Sign Language.

And I’m pretty sure I asked you about cell phone usage before but do you have students put away their phone or do you have the students utilized their phones in class?

Thank you for your patience!

[Name removed for privacy. Edited for clarity and flow.]


Dear ________,

Expecting students to not voice in an ASL class is no different from expecting students in a swimming class to get in the water.

It isn't oppressive -- it is the goal.

ASL is a visual language. A student can't look at their cell phone and be attentive to the signing going on in an in-person class at the same time. Students can and should put their cell phones away for the relatively short amount of time the class is in session. An ASL instructor's time is valuable. An environment full of signers is valuable. To waste that time looking at a phone borders on insulting and indicative of poor judgment or lack of impulse control on the part of the student.

Rowing classes at Ivy League colleges put the students into boats where the students are expected to place their hands onto the oars. Imagine a student on a competitive Ivy League rowing team taking their hands off the oars during a competition so they can pick up their cell phone and look at it?!? That student would be off the team quick. Rowing students and ASL students can all leave their cell phones alone for a short period of time.

You don't have to get angry to enforce your rules. You can develop enough confidence to create an optimal learning environment and expect the students to decide to stay and participate or to leave and not participate.

You can choose to think of such policies as "rules" or you can instead think of such policies as "best practices" for successfully helping students to become signers.

You simply need to state your expectations in your syllabus and be clear that grading will be based on those expectations.

Then memorize the name of every one of your students so that when one of them informs you that they would like a lower grade (by voicing or looking at their cell phone) you can adjust their grade accordingly.

You will want to use a tiered approach that involves giving tactful notice to the student (or in other words – a private warning) and time to correct behavior prior to implementation of your pre-documented consequences. Also, check your school’s policy manual and/or show your syllabus to your Chair, Dean, or Provost to see if it is acceptable in regard to what you are and are not allowed to do at your school. (For example, some schools forbid expulsion from class for cheating on any one test and only allow the instructor to assign a zero for that particular assignment.)

In your email you mentioned something I would like to address.

You stated “... the goal is to focus on and understand Deaf culture.”

I encourage you to think a little deeper and challenge or question the accuracy of that statement.

You are teaching an ASL class not a Deaf Culture class.

If you are teaching a Deaf Culture class – then yes, the goal is to focus on and understand Deaf culture.

If you are teaching an ASL class the goal is to focus on and develop expressive and receptive signing ability.

Yes, of course, the learning of ASL should be informed by and respectful of Deaf Culture -- but an ASL class is not a Deaf Culture class. The goals are intertwined but different.

If an ASL teacher and the teacher’s ASL students really, truly respect and value Deaf people – then turning off their voices and putting away their cell phones during class is a way of showing that respect.

With all of the above in mind I will now also point out that at the accredited university at which I taught for close to 20 years we had a no-voice policy for our ASL classes -- but guess what? Eventually the department started scheduling interpreters (for all of us Deaf instructors) for the first day of class to expedite (or speed up) the explaining of the syllabus and to reduce the amount of misunderstandings between (some) of the instructors and their students. In other words there really should be an asterisk in that school’s catalog next to the statement that the course is:
“Taught in ASL without voice.*”
(* Except when it isn’t.)

Warm regards,



1. The absolute prohibition of a student's native language is very challenging to enforce. For hundreds of years Hearing people at "oral" (non-sign-language) schools have tried without success to force Deaf people to stop using sign language in the classroom. Yet what tends to happen is the Deaf students would ignore the ban and sign when the teachers weren't looking.

2.  Similar to how Deaf students at non-signing (oral) schools tend to sign behind the backs of their instructors -- (some) Hearing ASL students tend to whisper in the classrooms of Deaf instructors.

3. It is nearly impossible for a Deaf instructor to effectively police student voicing because it is impossible to tell whether the student is simply mouthing without voicing. Mouthing an occasional corresponding English word while signing ASL is very common in the Deaf world. To outlaw mouthing totally in the classroom would be to require students to sign in a way that is not representative of how communication occurs between average Deaf Americans.

4. Overly strict policies are viewed by students as unreasonable. Thus they feel justified in breaking such policies.

5. Behavioral scientists have pointed out that in attempting to control student behavior, "zero tolerance" policies may actually backfire. (Reference: Jaana Juvonen in the March 9, 2001 issue of Salon(dot)com)

6. It has consistently been shown that there are serious concerns about the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies.
Skiba, R. (2000). Zero tolerance, zero evidence: An analysis of school disciplinary practice (Policy Research Report #SRS2). Bloomington, IN: Indiana Education Policy Center. (available at: www.

7. A prohibition policy leads to a stressful "police state" instead of a emotionally welcoming environment.

* Note to readers:
In the above information I'm NOT advocating that teachers voice in class. It is my belief that ASL classes should be taught in an immersive environment, without voice, and with the option of limited typing or writing for occasional, brief, supporting of the instructional process. Sometimes instead of micromanaging of instructors the path to a better program may be to adopt a better curriculum and provide more training to early-career faculty.

Personally I would prefer to see "no voice" policies start at the administrative level and be applied throughout the entire organization.  Secretaries in ASL programs should be signing to the chair of the program.  ASL usage in ASL programs should be the norm, not an accommodation.





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