More Teachers Turning to Sign Language to Manage Classrooms

Woodburn School second-grader Ruby Reid, 7, signs the letter
Woodburn School second-grader Ruby Reid, 7, signs the letter "B" to ask her teacher for permission to use the bathroom. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

Teachers come to the classroom with noble goals: closing the achievement gap, illuminating young minds. But first they must confront a more pressing problem: how to manage children's urgent requests, in the middle of the most carefully planned lessons, for permission to sharpen pencils, get drinks of water or visit the bathroom.

One solution, a growing number of teachers are finding, is learning to speak without sound.

"The very first year I taught, I realized how much time I was wasting in my classroom for my students to be constantly raising their hands," said Fran Nadel, 25, a second-grade teacher at Woodburn School for the Fine and Communicative Arts in Falls Church. "I realized if they could do this without talking, I could send them somewhere with a flick of my finger."

Sign language has become a saving grace -- a way to communicate without interrupting instruction -- not just in her classroom but in schools around the Washington area and across the country. Students sign the letter "B" for bathroom, "W" for water fountain, "L" for library -- and Nadel, who devised the silent system when she was student-teaching four years ago, replies with a nod or by pointing .

"Sign language is the ultimate multitasker's tool," she said. "It lets you tend half the class's bodily needs at the same time you're helping a small group learn."

On a recent Wednesday morning, Nadel huddled with a reading group of four students while the rest of her students worked independently at their seats. Every so often, a hand would shoot up from the back of the room. Nadel would respond almost imperceptibly, and the reading lesson would continue uninterrupted as the student scampered off to the bathroom, pencil sharpener ("S" for supplies) or the trash can (the letter "T").

"It's fun because it's pretty quiet in the room," said Steven Ly, 7, who signed the letter "L" after finishing his work sheet. With a nod of approval, off he went to peruse the library at the front of the room.

Signing has long been a tool for teachers to help special education students develop language skills, and for years it has been offered in area high schools as a second language. Now its use as a management tool appears to be on the rise.

Signing Time, a Utah-based business that has been selling how-to-sign DVDs since 2002, launched its first classroom edition this summer. And at Time to Sign, a Florida-based company that provides American Sign Language training workshops for teachers, sales of "classroom management bundles" of CDs and posters are up 300 percent in the past two years, said owner Lillian Hubler.

That growing appetite might be caused by the push for accountability, which means teachers are spending less time in front of the whole class, said Woodburn Principal Bridget Chapin, and more time working with a few students at a time, grouped according to skill level. Teachers have to be able to maintain a coherent lesson for those few students while managing the whole class -- and talking, said Chapin, is often not the best way to do that.

"So many kids are so visual that words just wash over them," she said. "A lot of times the more words you use, the less effective you are."

Teachers in the Washington area, who said they use either American Sign Language or signs they've developed themselves, echoed that sentiment.

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