Engaging Students with Sign Language

Michelle Hollander
Director of Content and Curriculum
News on September 22 2020

I recently came across a meme that I found rather inspiring. It depicted individuals that have been educating us remotely long before schools went remote. From literacy with Levar Burton’s “Reading Rainbow,” to social and emotional learning with “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” to art with Bob Ross, nature with Steve Irwin, and science with Bill Nye — there are so many examples! What did they do so successfully to keep us watching? They had good production quality and great concepts, of course, but most of all, they were engaging. You felt that you could connect with them wherever you were.

As educators ourselves, we’re always looking for ways to help bridge the gap and make the transition to new learning models both easier and more effective. While we don’t expect you to create a full-fledged show from your kitchen table, educators are surfacing a lot of little tips and tricks for finding ways to make socially distanced learning and video meetings more engaging. For example, a little sign language and interactive “brain breaks” can go a long way in your virtual endeavors.

The Benefits of ASL in the classroom

American Sign Language (ASL) has been used in physical classrooms to help improve focus and understanding, quietly celebrate and acknowledge student successes, and even guide direction-giving. How about bringing ASL into the socially-distanced classroom, or to your next online/video lesson?

Behavior management is an added bonus of using a collection of signs with your students — it encourages students to keep their eyes on the teacher, and also provides non-disruptive ways for students to communicate with the teacher during class. It’s also a great way to help with vocal fatigue, as neither the educator nor the students need to actually say anything if they need to use the restroom or want to communicate that they are confused. As you’ll see below, there are even silent ways to tell students to “wait” or “stop.”

ASL anywhere

ASL can certainly help bring clarity to a classroom where masks and face coverings are required, but even online classrooms can benefit from this engaging way to connect with students and hold their attention. Additionally, teaching, learning, and using these signs is a great way to help build social and emotional learning skills. Of course, you don’t need to sign everything you say, but using certain key words can make a big difference.

ASL classroom basics

The following list of words are suggested to inspire you to think about the signs that would be most beneficial for you and your students. Don’t feel limited to these alone — you can decide which will work best for your classroom whether you are in a physical classroom, fully remote, or hybrid. Another great thing about these signs is that since they are a standard language, they are not specific to individual classrooms, so you don’t need to worry about having individualized signs that might get confusing.

Some helpful words to sign with your students:

  • Yes/No
  • Right/Correct
  • Thank you
  • Wait
  • Again
  • Slow
  • Same/Me too
  • Understand/Don’t understand
  • Restroom
  • Applause

sign language example


Finally, here are some great resources for more ideas and tools to help you get started:

For more tips, tricks, and tools for teaching in and out of the classroom check out more articles on our blog.

We also offer virtual professional development, training, and remote learning support for educators with OTIS for educators. Explore the technology, tools, and strategies that can spark student success — no matter where teaching or learning are happening.