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Fingerspelling in the Classroom:

Teacher for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Carson City School District

Topic:  The appropriate use of fingerspelling in the classroom.

First, let me give a little back ground on fingerspelling. Each letter of the English alphabet is represented by a handshape. These handshapes then can be used in a variety of ways. Interpreters and teachers as well as the deaf use these handshapes, fingerspelling, everyday in communication for many reasons:

1. There may not be a standard sign for a given English word. There is NOT a one to one relationship between words in English and signs in sign language; just as there is not a one to one relationship between words in any two languages.

2. Proper names are usually fingerspelled unless a sign is agreed upon.

3. Many short words (4 letters or less) are fingerspelled.

4. If there is an agreed upon sign for a word but there is a synonym for that word that does not have a sign, the signed first letter of the synonym may be used at the beginning of the original sign to indicate that the meaning is similar but it is a different word. Or, the "initial" letter may be used throughout the original sign. This is commonly used in signing that is English based. Confusing? Ask me or an interpreter.

5. Some words have been fingerspelled so often and so long that the pattern and shape of the fingerspelling have been abbreviated and have actually become the sign.

6. When introducing new vocabulary, the word may be signed many times before the standard sign is substituted. In this case, fingerspelling is used to facilitate the recognition of that word when reading or writing. Or, the fingerspelling may come to represent that word as described in #5 above. Also, see #6 below.

7. For spelling tests. Does this shock you? Does it look like we are spelling the test word for the students? No, actually, fingerspelling a word correlates to a phonological representation of the word. Sounds in a spoken language are represented by a letter. When we hear the sounds in a word, we connect a letter to it and it becomes a written representation of the spoken word. That is a big help for hearing children on a spelling test. If we were only allowed to show a picture, then expect a student to spell the word correctly, both hearing and deaf students would be challenged to remember how to spell that word with no clues. They would need to memorize the spelling. Instead, we pronounce the word with more or less emphasis depending on the grade level and purpose of the spelling exercise. This is also true with our deaf students. We will fingerspell the word (remember the handshapes are not the same as actual written letter...only a representation). We will slow it down, or speed it up, depending on the intent of the teacher. If the teacher is slow and deliberate in pronouncing the word, we will do the same as we fingerspell. If the teacher says the word normally, we will fingerspell the word in the same way. The deaf student recognizes the shape of the word, not the individual letters, and converts that shape into a written word, much the same way as the hearing student recognizes the sounds in that word and converts the sounds to letters. Also, having said this, don't be surprised if the interpreter uses a sign rather than fingerspelling. Our students need to memorize the spelling of signed words as well. If there is an agreed upon sign for a particular word, the interpreter will probably use it: however, for many of our academic words, there is not an agreed upon sign and those words must be fingerspelled. (See #6 above)


American Sign Language University William Vicars