As y’all most certainly know by now, teaching has always been much more than a gig for me to pay the bills or even just a job. I have always enjoyed teaching and sharing what I know. Before I recognized my calling as an EFL teacher as a teen, I had thought from a very early age that I wanted to be a teacher to deaf students. However, growing up and being educated in mainstream public schools in the Midwest did not present itself with many opportunities to learn any American Sign Language (ASL).
Despite trying to teach myself signs out of a coveted, second-hand ASL book that I had bought with my own money at age ten, I had nobody to practice with. Had this been the case, I would have also learned that sign language varies from country to country (despite any common languages between two nations). Not that this would have deterred me, but the fact that ASL syntax is more similar to Latin-based languages than actual English made any meaningful communication that I attempted very limited and disjointed.
Fast forward some 25 years later. I am able to recall several signs, as well as the ASL alphabet. As a current teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL), I still encounter opportunities to use what I remember from my childhood, and (get this) I can actually incorporate it into my teaching repertoire on the daily.
You see, effective ESL/EFL teachers have a “bag of tricks” that they can rely on to pull something out of whenever Plan A might not be working. These helpful tricks can be anything – realia and crazy props, mnemonic devices, songs, whatever; the rule is – there are no rules.
One of the oldest, most tried and true tricks in the EFL bag is a nifty little thing called “TPR.” Officially known as “total physical response,” it is essentially a means of language acquisition in which bodily movements are associated with different aspects of language (think imperative commands like, “Come here,” or nouns like, “Baby,” or distinguishing the number of syllables in “Triangle” with three claps). You get the idea (hopefully). I’d previously briefly delved into TPR before on my blog, but kept it kind of superficial and moved on.
In any case, the longer that I’ve been teaching and evolving as an educator in general, the more value I recognize in TPR. Despite some cultural, technical, and linguistic barriers that might exist when teaching my kids online, some gestures are universal. Hence, it was only natural that my old ASL skills started creeping in as I became more comfortable with my language learners.
Not that long ago, I noticed that my online kids in China sometimes made some odd signs with their hands when talking about their ages and numbers. They consistently made a “hang 10” looking gesture to express six, or crossed their fingers for nine. At first, I didn’t give it much afterthought, but it turns out, I wasn’t just imagining things. Indeed, the seed had been planted.
I was teaching a young child about different commands in the classroom in English (I think they were something simple like, “Stand up” and “Sit down”). There was really only so much broad palm raising and lowering that I could do to attempt to get my point across. Additionally, I could only give the thumbs up and grin like a fool for so long before it got old. So I started signing the words in ASL. And you know what? I think I got my point across much more effectively. The kid even started mimicking me a bit. Subsequently, our communication became easier during the lesson.
Apparently all those random hand movements that I was doing weren’t so random after all. All that crazy signing in my EFL classroom had a name! Who knew?!?
Anywho, without further ado, I would like to share some of my most commonly used signs in the lessons that I give. You should totally check them out and practice them, because ASL is cool AF:
STAND – Create a “floor” with the palm of your non-dominant hand, and then create a person’s two “legs” standing on the it with the other one.
SIT – Start with a “floor” (like with “STAND”) and taking two fingers with the other hand, place them over the side of the “floor,” like two dangling legs.
SING – Two extended fingers being pulled away from your lips in a curvy motion, as though music were coming directly out of your mouth.
MATCH – Pretty much interlocking the fingers of your two hands in front of yourself.
EAT – Intuitively, you just put your fingertips together and motion them toward your closed mouth.
And of course…
TOILET – Make a “T” (for “toilet”) with your fist (like “I got your nose!”) and rotate your wrist back and forth (Hey! Ya gotta go, ya gotta go!).
COOKIE – Form your right hand as though it were grabbing something circular (like… a cookie (duh), and twist it back and forth over the palm of your left hand.
As the globalized world becomes smaller, effective communication and understanding are paramount. Even if your dextrous ASL skills need some polishing, as long as the right intention is there, the message is rarely lost, and in the end, TPR, ASL, and EFL are just a few of the best means. Hopefully, you might be able to use a few of these signs when you teach, or… whenever!