Using Sign Language as a Classroom Management Tool


Using Sign Language as a Classroom Management Tool

My interest in sign language started with my young nephew. At the time we were attempting to teach him baby sign language because we were spending every meal with him screaming his head off. Amazingly, as soon as he learned the sign for more the screaming stopped and dinner became a peaceful event again. As a teacher I wondered if this would work as well eliminating unwanted behaviors in the classroom.

I started off small, teaching the sign for the alphabet letter T as toilet (something I’d seen used before in EC classrooms) and pantomiming sharpening a pencil.  If students wanted to communicate with me however, I had to have a way to answer back. I settled on three basic signs; yes, no, and wait.  I could have gone with maybe, but I wanted the signs to be as unambiguous as possible.  When I taught students wait, I told them this did not mean to wait forever, but rather to ask me again in three or four minutes. We practiced these five signs for a week or so, but most students picked them up much faster and were using them immediately. If a student forgot, I simply prompted them with the sign.  As the year progressed we developed more and more signs for the everyday interactions of the classroom.  I did not feel constricted to using Baby Sign or American Sign Language, however, signs like water (a w next to the mouth), were easy enough to teach and use.  If the sign didn’t exist for something we needed, we made one up.

I had one EC student who would get very frustrated when working, so we developed a special secret sign for her to communicate to me when she needed time away from the group. Within a few months we had added many more signs to our repertoire and the students and I could communicate both quickly and silently.  I could walk around the room teaching, trip over a student, sign I’m sorry, and never break the flow of instruction. I could be teaching guided reading, have a student approach the kidney table, give me a sign, get an answer, walk away and not one head would look up from reading. I could prompt students who received a compliment from another teacher in the hallway to say thank you with just a sign. Students no longer interrupted a lesson to ask to go to the bathroom, sharpen a pencil, or get a tissue, as these requests were asked and answered silently and without fanfare.  Using sign language for housekeeping tasks eliminated wasted instructional time.

Here are some of the signs we used consistently. I’ve linked them to Youtube tutorials, but keep in mind you can always make up a sign for your class needs. Signs for put your name on your paper, be kind, four legs on the floor etc. may not exist, but you can work collaboratively with your kids to come up with a sign that makes sense. The possibilities are really endless.

Signs to consider teaching:

yes wait water thank you sit help
no toilet (T) food/hungry you’re welcome stand up line up
stop I’m sorry tissue clean up I’m finished ready

Click to go to a Youtube tutorial

If you try this with your students, I’d love to know how it goes!  Drop me a line and tell me how it went or reply in the comments below!

Note:  While over half of my class at this time were English Learners, they were all in later stages of language acquisition.  I did not have any Newcomers. While sign language might be helpful to Newcomers in the Pre-Production/Silent Phase, eventually they will need oral language practice. Use your best judgement in using sign language with these students. That said, my students were very good about understanding when to use the sign (like in the middle of my teaching a lesson), and when it was appropriate to approach me (like during recess, transitions, or other less structured times) and ask their request.  Thus, they still got oral language practice throughout the day.


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