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Fingerspelling Supports English Print

Mr. Grady is teaching his 2nd grade class a ‘Habitat’s unit.  The new vocabulary word is forest.  He is using “chaining” in his classroom to teach new vocabulary. First he shows the sign for FOREST. Then he fingerspells the word F-O-R-E-S-T. Then Mr. Grady points to the word on the board.  He likes to add a picture because of the age of his students. Then he fingerspells it again. Mr. Grady’s instruction looks like this.


2) Fingerspell F-O-R-E-S-T


4) Fingerspell F-O-R-E-S-T

Big Idea: There is a strong relationship between a child’s ability to fingerspell and reading (Sedey, 1995)


Fact #1 brief explanation

“Chaining” is a teaching strategy that allows new vocabulary to be presented in several different ways.  The new vocabulary is presented through fingerspelling, written word and attached to the sign (Humphries & MacDougall, 2000).

Supporting Fact

“Lexicalized” fingerspelling can be used to teach new vocabulary as well.  “Lexicalized” fingerspelling looks more like a sign that includes a movement pattern.  A good example of a lexicalized fingerspelled word that is now a loan sign is B-U-S.  In 4-14year olds, this strategy improved children’s ability to recognize and write a printed English word (Haptonstall-Nykaza & Schick, 2007).  


Haptonstall-Nykaza, T. S., & Schick, B. (2007). The transition from fingerspelling to English print: facilitating English decoding. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12(2), 172-83.  Fingerspelling is an integral part of American Sign Language (ASL) and it is also an important aspect of becoming bilingual in English and ASL. Even though fingerspelling is based on English orthography, the development of fingerspelling does not parallel the development of reading in hearing children. Research reveals that deaf children may initially treat fingerspelled words as lexical items rather than a series of letters that represent English orthography and only later begin to learn to link handshapes to English graphemes. The purpose of this study is to determine whether a training method that uses fingerspelling and phonological patterns that resemble those found in lexicalized fingerspelling to teach deaf students unknown English vocabulary would increase their ability to learn the fingerspelled and orthographic version of a word. There were 21 deaf students (aged 4–14 years) who participated. Results show that students were better able to recognize and write the printed English word as well as fingerspell the word, when training incorporated fingerspelling that is more lexicalized. The discussion focuses on the degree to which fingerspelling can serve as a visual phonological bridge as an aid to decode English print.

Humphries, T., & MacDougall, F. (2000). “Chaining” and other links making connections between American Sign Language and English in two types of school setting. Visual Anthropology Review, 15(2), 84-94.

Seday, A. (1995).  Fast mapping of novel fingerspelled words by profoundly deaf students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison.