As a college student, I was lucky to be offered the chance to study British Sign Language (BSL). I enrolled in a short course as a complete beginner and graduated with a fascination for sign language that has stayed with me since. The two worlds of ESL and sign language don’t have to be separate, as they can be combined to celebrate and support learning. In this blog, I will suggest activities to bring sign language into Primary level ESL classes, regardless if you know sign language or are a beginner.

Before we talk about activities, here are a few things to bear in mind when using sign language:

1. There is no universal sign language

There are over 300 living sign languages worldwide, and they are all different. American Sign Language (ASL) differs entirely from British Sign Language (BSL) and is not a variation.

2. The grammar is different

Sign languages are structurally different from spoken languages. In the case of British Sign Language, asking ‘What’s your name?’ is formed by signing in the following order ‘name you what?’ When we use sign language in the same order as a spoken language, this is called Sign Supported English (SSE). 

3. Sign language is constantly evolving

As with spoken language, sign languages are shaped by region, time, and trends. How someone signs (accent) and the sign they use (dialect) can vary depending on their location, age group, and community. Equally, sign languages create new signs to reflect changes and new technologies. For example, BSL has a sign for ‘Google.’ 

It’s ok if you are a beginner

You may wonder how sign language can be integrated into an ESL classroom, especially if you have never studied sign language. The following activities are designed with that in mind so you and your learners can start to build your sign language skills and then use it to support ESL language and skill development. While this blog refers to British Sign Language (BSL), the ideas can be altered and adapted for a sign language relevant to your teaching context.

Getting started

Fingerspelling is a fun place to start when introducing sign language. British Sign Language has a sign for each letter of the alphabet, making it easy to integrate with literacy-focused activities in the ESL environment. What’s more, there are lots of free online resources available that you can use to help orientate you and your learners to the alphabet. For example, you may want to watch and sing along to a tutorial video like this one from Commanding Hands or point and sing along using a poster like this one as a visual aid.

Once you and your learners are comfortable with the alphabet, it’s time to have some fun!

Activity 1: Sign Spelling Bee

This activity is a great way to engage learners in spelling practice and can be used in multiple ways. For example, you could use this activity to help learners build word banks before a writing task or use it to review particular spelling patterns that learners find challenging. As a result, this activity fits nicely into the teaching toolkit as it can be reused and adapted for multiple lessons.

  • How to set it up

Organise learners into pairs or small groups and ensure they have a pencil and paper or a mini whiteboard to note down the letters. Prepare 5 to 8 words that you would like to review – ideally, these should be words your learners have encountered before. 

Position yourself so your learners can see you sign clearly. If you are teaching online, adjust your camera and be mindful of your background so learners can see your hands. Use the alphabet to fingerspell each of the words. Normally, I would do a practice round first before diving into the activity to ensure that everyone can see me sign clearly and understand what they need to do. Learners then work with their classmates to interpret the spelling and note each word down.

Afterward, learners can check and support each other in correcting any words. As a follow-up, you can ask learners to share the words and their spelling (using sign language, too) and make a sentence using the word.

  • How to vary it

Once your students are comfortable with this activity, the sky’s the limit. Learners can work in pairs sitting across from each other to take turns to sign and spell words. In addition, you can alter the material on which learners record the words to further gamify the activity. For example, the word you fingerspell could relate to a puzzle that they have to solve or to items of treasure that they have to locate in the classroom.

Activity 2: Listen and Sign

This is more of a strategy that enables you to integrate sign language more widely into your lessons. There are great free online sign language dictionaries, like spread the sign where you can search and learn the sign for specific words you plan to teach.

  • How to set it up

Let’s say you have a selection of vocabulary that you need to teach learners before you read the story of Jack and the Beanstalk to support their understanding. The following words are part of a lexical set you intend to pre-teach using flashcards: giant, magic, beans, castle, gold, market, trade, and beanstalk. Include the signed form alongside the spoken form during the pre-teaching stage and practice these in fun spoken and signed drilling activities.

When reading the story, learners can listen and sign when they hear one of the new words mentioned. This use of sign language as a form of Total Physical Response[1] can help hold learners’ attention as it gives them a fun purpose and means to engage in listening.

  • How to vary it

The sign introduced earlier in the class can be recycled for numerous activities throughout the lesson. For example, after reading the story, sign language for the target vocabulary can be used to support learners in recalling events in the story when answering questions or reconstructing what happened.

Activity 3: Sign Bingo

This is a great activity that can engage learners in reviewing and using the target language. As with the Sign Spelling Bee activity mentioned above, you can fingerspell or sign words that learners then check off on their bingo cards. The first to get several checks in a row shouts or signs Bingo!

  • How to set it up

Give learners 4×4 Bingo cards that contain target vocabulary – these can be presented in written form or represented with pictures. Give learners time to become familiar with their Bingo cards to ensure they recognise each word and can recall the sign for each. Then you’re ready to play.

Sign or fingerspell words that the Bingo cards contain. I usually sign twice to allow learners to identify the word on their card. 

  • How to vary it

Once you’ve played the game as a class a few times, learners can play in smaller groups. In their groups, learners can take turns picking one of the words from a bag and then signing it to their group. If they forget the specific sign, then they can fingerspell it. For extra spelling practice, you can also give learners blank Bingo cards that they fill out themselves by referring to a word bank that you display on the board.

These are just a few suggestions that demonstrate how you can integrate sign language into the ESL classroom through play. I hope these examples spark further conversation among your teaching community about how sign language can be integrated into classes.

References and Further Learning