ASL in ESL *The Amazing Discovery!*

Here’s something I’m very excited about! As many of you know I’m always on the look out for the next “magic bullet”, the next technique or method that will make as much a difference to our teaching as the songs and games already have. Well, I think we may have found it….

The uber talented Val from Daddy Ross Preschool in Argentina has sent in this report and video which could very well be a game changer in how we use Genki English. It’s using ASL, American Sign Language, but for me at least this is the first time it has really clicked just how amazing it can be. Check out the video, then I’ll let Val explain in her own words….

Hi. My name is Val, I am the mind behind the activities and videos of Daddy Ross Preschool (YouTube) but most of all I am a teaching methods creator.

I made an experiment in two of my eel classes about the amazing benefits of using ASL in ESL.

The best teachers know that: English without GESTURES is like a lamp without light. Right?
Yes, gestures are the key to learning the vocabulary for good.

I noticed in my teaching activities that sometimes I found myself struggling to find the best gesture for new vocabulary or commands.

And when I was doing some reading about teaching ASL to hearing babies, I realized how descriptive those signs were! Almost the same kind of gestures I have been using in my ESL classes.

So, I decided to make a little fun experiment and see if there are any changes in the learning process by using ASL in my ESL classes.

The experiment

Having 2 ESL groups with almost the same characteristics (like age, routines learned, level of English, same themes studied and positive attitude to learn) I was attempting to do a little experiment:




The difference in the speed and quality of learning between the 2 groups was highly marked!

The results:

The groups who used ASL were more focused, relaxed, comfortable, and active in class from beginning to end.

They learned faster and took advantage of that by doing 3 times more games or activities in the first class because they all have the vocabulary and their meaning inside their mind, and when they couldn’t remember, they started to use the signs by themselves to help remember the new words learned as if they had an ORAL INSTANT FLASH CARD build in INSIDE THEM.

They showed high self esteem in their English skills, because they could learn a whole lesson in a matter of minutes and also learn a new way to express themselves through ASL. (They loved to show off all of this to their family)

They participated more!

They talked so much more too!

Their learning process could be compared to a ROCKET!

Otherwise the other group who use the gestures I created for them and not ASL, their learning process could be compared to a plain old car or a fast bike. They showed the normal struggling and confusion while ESL students learned new vocabulary, even though they tried with such a great positive attitude, they couldn’t assimilate all the words, so they couldn’t follow the song, or do a decent game session in the same amount of time the other group did 3 times more.

WHY this HUGE difference if they are both gestures after all?


– ASL is clear, easy and descriptive in signing the word that is expressed.

– They learn ASL attached to the new English word.
So the sign is only related to the English word and NOT to the word in native language.

– They learn the sign language first because it is fun to do and easy and the sign DRAGS along the English world almost automatically.
-By themselves they started using the ASL as an Oral Instant Flash Card. Can you imagine putting a dictionary in your students brains? This act almost likes that! LOL

All this is the main reason WHY using ASL IN HEARING ESL students makes them learn FASTER and in a relaxed and positive atmosphere.

If your student could learn easier and move directly to games or activities, it is natural that will develop a hunger to learn MORE and more!

I am not an ASL teacher. I just taught myself the words or commands I would need for a theme.
There are so many wonderful sites on the internet to get yourself acquainted with ASL.

As a teacher I realized by using ASL in my hearing ESL students that I could have the perfect sign for each word or command from the experts! Even though those words were very difficult to find a gesture in flashcards, like Zoo, Farm, Vegetables, family members, or colors.

Now I am able to help my students in their language acquisition right on the spot! Without having to look for flash cards, point to far away posters or act out like crazy! I just repeat the word they don’t know what it means with the sign. And they get it.

ASL make the more shy students also participate!

My kids also understood that the ASL signs belongs to a word with a meaning and not to a fancy choreography of one song.

And not to mention the happiness I see them learning ASL with so much respect for people who cant hear us!

After all learning a language is not about learning it for itself!
It is to express yourself to each other!
To open new path of adventures!

See you soon!


Pretty cool eh? To be fair the vegetables theme is probably the perfect one to choose here as it’s very difficult to come up with normal gestures. And for example the Superhero gestures are a big part of the song. But did you see the difference in the kids? Amazing. This will also help with one of the biggest problems with GE which is what to do in the chorus of songs that don’t have obvious gestures. Well, ASL!

I have had teachers saying we shouldn’t teach two sets of sign language, e.g. if they are already learning Japanese sign language. But as Val points out, the link is between the English and the sign, so this should be no problem. And I guess ASL is a better choice in the big picture than the British version!

Anyway, I hope you are as excited as we are about this and let’s discuss it in the comments. If everyone is on board I think we can start making new videos and things to get ASL signs for all the themes! Cool!

Be genki,

Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. And when I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. So I'm sharing it all with you now...

29 Responses to “ASL in ESL *The Amazing Discovery!*”

  1. Yumiko

    Thank you very much for sharing the amazing video, Val! It’s great to see your kids enjoy learning English through ASL.

    I think it would be a good idea to teach ASL when we teach words which are difficult to put gestures( ex. countries). I sometimes see the ASL site which gumby taught me to check if our Japanese gestures would work. (ex. Our gesture for “money” is “OK” for English speaking people.) So I think putting ASL signs on the site as a reference would be helpful.

    I really like the way Val teaches her kids and ASL must work greatly on 2-5 years old kids.

    But I still feel like leaving my students(6-12 yrs) freedom to put gestures of their own. That’s one of the main parts they enjoy.

    Richard, why don’t you try both ASL and free gestures with our students when you come and teach them? We would be happy to cooperate with you!

  2. Margit

    Val, thank you for this video. It’s very inspiring.
    I’m sure that it absolutely works and makes things much easier for most kids.

    Still, I think that I maybe wouldn’t use it in many classes, basically for the same reason Yumiko mentioned. The kids are just thrilled to find their own gestures, and I think the greatest thing about GE is the freedom in teaching and the freedom in learning (what topics to choose, in what order etc.)

    I do see the point that there are topics and structures where it is hard to come up with a gesture, but with just one hour a week, I think I would prefer to use flash cards instead of teaching sign+English.
    Especially because my students now are getting used to using computer and CD at home. So it makes sense to teach with the cards here and they can review on their own at home.

    If I would have 2,3 lessons a week I would try to do Sign and Flash cards, I think.

    So, I think ASL would be a good “spice” to add to GE, but leave the option to choose.

  3. Julian-k

    I cant see the video until I get home (school computers all have you tube blocked), but if the idea works as well as Val seem’s to suggest, I think it wouldn’t be right not to try it. Anything that makes things easier for students and teachers should be put to good use!

  4. richard

    @Yumiko: Yes that is a very good point about the originality, kids choosing their own gestures is a very strong learning aid. So I guess we’d have to test to see which is more effective.

    @Margit: The ASL wouldn’t be a replacement for the picture cards, you’d still need those for the visual learners, it’s just a replacement for the gestures.

    And I think, with a bit of practice, it’s actually quicker to teach the more abstract words with ASL! I’ll still keep the option to choose for you guys of course.

    @Julian-K: Thank goodness you’re alive! 8)

  5. cj

    My lessons are bimodal (voice-aural/gestural-visual) and have been for years. In other words, I use sign language (SEE* not ASL) simultaneously with spoken English. I initially began signing to slow myself down when I spoke. One can speak nearly twice as fast as one can sign so if as in my case you sign complete English you will slow down significantly but it also allows the kids to see, hear, and feel the words. For more about using sign language with hearing children, I recommend the following book:

    *SEE (Signing Exact English) is an English-based sign system. It adopted much of the vocabulary of ASL but added grammatical features of English such as articles, verb endings, etc. and signs by English word rather than by concept.

    I sign a word a fraction of a second before I say the word. I encourage the kids to say the words with me, i.e. they read the signs out loud. Eventually I stop speaking and just sign and the kids do all the speaking. There is a popular method in Canada, called AIM that uses gestures in this way. There was a report about AIM on a Canadian TV show (francophone) a few years ago. You can watch it here.

    Tonester mentioned ACTLAN (Active Language) in another thread which appears to use signs in a similar manner.

    My favorite signed song is Signing Time’s SILLY PIZZA SONG

    I encourage you all to go bimodal in your lessons. As Val’s video demonstrated the difference between a class that is taught with signs and one that’s not is incredible!

  6. Joy k.

    Hi Val sensie, Congratulations for your ASL success experiment. And thank you very much for sharing your video with us. After watching your video I couldn’t find any exact word to express my feeling of gratitude.
    Goodnight from Japan.

  7. Margit

    For what ages (up to what ages) would you say it works?

  8. Val

    Hi Richard! Hi everyone!
    Thank you so much for all the interest in my little experiment.
    When a new way to do things come up and move our way to do things, it´s natural to feel a little apprehensive.
    As alredy Richard wrote up here, ASL its perfect for those abstract words or words that have a slightly difference from another one (peas, beans).
    But I want to make something clear here, I am a ultra creative person, this means there is no way to teach in one way for me.
    I DO USE ALL! lol. And I mean it!
    I am not talking about differents games, I am talking about doing things always differently. for example as simple of showing flashcards, i use a different way to do this every time i need to do it! we never do the themes in the same way, in the same order, in the same phisical position. We never just sing the songs we challenge ourself with little things each time to make us feel fresh and enthusiastic all the time! We create our genki enviorment! 😉
    So, even though the funniest and most amazing activity, will go directly down the hill if u do it all the time.
    I do let them create their own gestures for specific songs and vocabulary as a creative activity as itself. It´s awesome. That make it special interesting! And what if we check later who get closer to the ASL signs?
    It´s all about mixing it up.
    It is how their mind work.
    In a time of a super fast mass media, video games, mp4, mp3, psp, ps3, wii, MTV, mac, …
    Let´s challenge their brain… let´s guide them to have an active mind!
    So, I teach ASL attached to the new words. They inhale them both together as one. It is not a speacial activity for them.
    This help us to develop almost an instant freedom in the class! They build up their own extra vocabulary! We create nEw Mrs VegetAlien! LOL And after that we have ahead of us 3 more times of activities in all the areas you can imagine, because they handle the vocabulary. We don´t do the activities just to learn the vocavulary, we do the activities to apply the vocabulary while doing something else (art, social studies, world cultures, math, mind teasers, creativity, mass media marketing)
    We Learn english to do something they really enjoy! Not to just learn english.
    My kids learn english because they have so much fun doing the english activities, and they found it a real challenge! They feel like superheroes sometimes! 😉
    I do read about Signing Exact English, but I chose and feel to keep the signs as simple as possible. THe Star of the show is the ENGLISH word and the signs come as a sidekick, a few steps back.
    And I think the less time you have, the better to learn faster! Wich ASL is perfect for! It accelerate your class!
    I have a lot of years of experience teaching kids, and without a doubt I would say, depending of the cultures that you could use it from 12 yrs old and under without any troubles at all. And don´t forget it is perfect for people 50 and up who start to learn english as well!
    THe older the more challenge for them! Exelent for Brain cardio! LOL
    THank you Yumiko, Margit, Joy K (wow), CJ, Julian-K, and Richard!
    Stay Genki (in sign language) LOL

  9. Julian-k

    After watching the video, I’ve got to say it looks like a nice way to do things. My first thought is that it kind of looks like a sign-language class with English as a bonus (rather than the other way around) – which I guess is actually a pretty good thing/ maybe why it works so well. Kids always pick up the words best when they don’t realize they’re doing it! To answer Margit’s question, is there an age limit? Kids are able to use sign before words, and as you see In the ACTLAN videos, it’s fairly natural for adults too. Actually, maybe for adults its much much better than the normal gestures – there’s something far less self-conscious about using signs compared to gestures.

    My first thoughts however, is that as with anything “new” I wouldn’t want to suddenly be like, “right kids, from today we’re gonna start doing things a different way!”- from experience I think introducing major new teaching methods into a class half way only upsets the class dynamic that you’ve already got going. I also wonder about using it without at least some training? I’d hate to say “This is ASL!” without actually knowing for certain was I doing it right. I guess as long as the teacher learns it properly before the class it’s not a problem, but I think we’d have to be concerned about teaching mistakes. Am I thinking too much into this? Maybe.

    On the other hand again though, with the 5th and 6th graders, I can see a certain “cool” factor working with signed language!!

  10. Val

    Hi Julian! You are right, while the kids are having find trying to do the signs they learn the english word without noticed!

    If u are Genki style, you are alredy used to do gestures in class. Right? If u decide to add ASL when it fits your class, you don´t need to explain alla bout ASL. You just do the signs, wich are gestures. 🙂
    THey never notice the difference!
    They only feel it with what they achive!

    I think any good teacher will do some reasearch before teach signs.
    THis is a little bit easy because genki english themes are short to let the kids take in the vocabulary. So they are perfect to add some ASL too. You could start yourself adding asl to one song… and gradually move on.
    To let you see how do you feel and your kids feel.
    And always remember… English is the MAIN thing.
    ASL would be a tool aid.
    Thank you for your comment!

  11. Gumby

    Val, great video and lots of happy children! They really seem to be enjoying the whole process.

    I am very intrigued by your experiment. I am already a firm believer in gestures, as videos like yours show, they are effective. I am curious as to why ASL gestures were better than your usual gestures. Could you speculate as to why? Do you usually create them with your students or do you already have them prepared? Do you think the usual gestures are more abstract? more commonly used in your culture, thus students tend to think of their first language? Did you present them any differently? Sorry for all the questions. I never really thought how some gestures can be better than others and your experiment really started me thinking!

  12. Roger

    Thanks very much for sharing this idea with us. Its very interesting.

  13. Gloria Rojas

    Hi all,
    Val, your video was inspiring. Soy Cubana..and I am also a bilingual speech and language pathologist. There are so many positive reasons to utilize ASL. Here are just a few.
    The difference between ASL and made up gestures is the consistency it offers. I have been utilizing ASL as the “bridge” between Spanish and English. I write “parallel” songs so the same (or as similar as I can make it) target vocabulary is introduced in English as well as in Spanish with the “ASL” as the anchor, cement, or bridge between the two spoken languages. It is truly amazing to watch how this strategy helps to ACCELERATE the acquisition of language.

    Why is ASL an effective early intervention strategy?
    • Dual memory storage
    • Multi-sensory, aids in kinesthetic learning
    • Supports individual learning styles
    • Makes language more tangible, effective, and fun
    • Leads to more interest in books
    • Adds a new dimension to classroom learning
    • Bridges the gap between other languages spoken in the classroom and at home
    • Reduces noise levels in the classroom
    • Assists in the development of early language skills
    • Aids in classroom management
    • Increased IQ
    • Provides a base for a second language
    • Provides an atmosphere for inclusion of children with special needs

  14. Spencer

    It is so nice to see someone else doing ASL for teaching English. I was in the process of getting my self to learn ASL to use in my classes because I have a hard time trying to create gestures for all the target languages and the vocabulary. I will be keeping my eyes on you Val and hope I may have the chance to get help and/or resources on this. Keep up the amazing work!

  15. Val

    Hi Gumby: I think I alredy answer you this in the forum :” I am curious as to why ASL gestures were better than your usual gestures. Could you speculate as to why?”
    I used to create gestures with them, and in other themes I prepared them beforehand. I like to keep things different.
    About: “Do you think the usual gestures are more abstract? more commonly used in your culture”
    I definetly think the regular gestures are less consisten, less descriptive and unique for this object. I think ASL is descriptive of the objetc and also separate the objet from similar thins.

    With gestures… students students tend to think of their first language. You are correct. BEcause in their mind…to create a gestures they are probably using their native language!

    “Did you present them any differently?”-Gumby asked.
    No Gumby! THey do know signs are used as a way to talk and comunicate of people who can hear or talk.
    But For them are just gestures. More fun gestures because they are detailed and never did this before.

    “”Sorry for all the questions. I never really thought how some gestures can be better than others and your experiment really started me thinking!”””
    Gumby all your thoughts is welcome!
    With every question… I can explain this better!

  16. Val

    THank you Roger! It is awesome to share ideas with people who like to make things different and who have an open mind!

  17. Marijke Geurts

    Hi everyone,

    like most of you here I am a teacher. I have recently started the course to receive the TESL certificate. I have always been interested in sign language and used it with my own children when they were young, we are bilingual Dutch-English. I’ve found using sign language makes it so much easier for them to learn any language, it just helps them communicate better!
    For my TESL course I have to write a paper, and I would like to do it on using sign language (ASL) in teaching ESL. However, it is hard to find articles on the subject!
    Does anyone know of any research that has been done on the matter? I appreciate your help!
    Thanks, Marijke

  18. Gumby

    Hi Marijke,
    Good luck on your paper.

    I know that the AIM method uses a lot of gestures. I don’t know if it is specifically ASL but here is the link:

    CJ also has done a lot of work using Signed English in her classroom.

    I also remember a study in James Asher’s Learning Another Language through Actions
    where adults learned faster than children when taught via TPR.

    Please share what you find as I am interested in this as well.

  19. Marijke Geurts

    Hello Gumby,
    I appreciate your input! Thank you for providing these links.
    Yes, if I find anything interesting in my research I will share it here!

  20. Stephen

    I’m interested too as to why there was such a marked difference between using ASL and gestures. I wonder if expectations may also have been a factor in the results. Children are pretty intuitive, and perhaps they could sense your enthusiasm toward using ASL over gestures. On the other hand, if ASL produced such awesome results, its a definite inclusion for me in my classes. Would love to hear other teachers experiences.

  21. Margit

    Hi Stephen,

    believe me, I wasn’t
    enthusiastic at all with this. I thought there is no way I would check up words and find gestures for all words in first place, thinking of remembering them all was out of my mind as well, and I didn’t even want to try it.

    Then by incident my son had a bunch of friends here and he wanted to show them Val’s vegetable video. They were so into it, and want dot see it several times, and after that they remembered the English taught in the song.
    So I gave it a try and since the vegetable song is my favorite; it works same wonders with 5 year olds as with 12 year olds.

    And since then I’ve been checking up more and more gestures and basically am doing all of the songs with ASL and gestures.
    This year I even did “What would you like for breakfast”
    It was incredibly fast but 40 kids in the class were able to sing while gesturing and they got so good in “Would like”

    Hope this helps,


  22. Stephen

    Just an update. I have started using ASL in my lessons. I found ASL extremely useful regarding gestures for abstract vocabulary such as colors and stuff. There are some great free websites (sorry, I dont have the links now) that provide ASL dictionaries. If learning Japanese wasn’t enough, now I have to learn ASL!!! 🙂 Seriously, I’m really happy I found your post. Thanks for the heads up!


    I’m a ESL Teacher in preschool, and USe LSM (Mexican Sign Language) to help my students with spelling, last year I introduced them to Sign Language while on the Farm animals unit IT WAS GREAT!, Now it´s the ABC’s

    Im Getting my MASTERs Degree and I’m also doing a PAPER about this learning strategy, Its hard to find the information based on a THEORY 🙁 I don’t know , Im think to use Brunner’s LEarning Theory but I´m Lost

  24. Colin Speed

    Hi Val,
    I first saw your vegetables video about a year ago and, although I wasn’t very sure about it, I decided to use it with one of my classes. It was electric! I thought it might be like having to teach 2 “words” for each 1, how wrong I was.
    They learnt quicker and remembered better.
    I’m afraid I’m not very creative, I tend to steal other people’s ideas and adapt them. That’s one of the reasons I find Genki English so good.

  25. aimee

    Thanks for sharing. I teach ASL and have such a hard time convincing educators of the positive impact on ELL students…that, and that ASL should be taught in schools period.

  26. Richard Graham

    Hi Aimee, set up a study, one control class and one with ASL. That should give you enough leverage to pique the interest of an independent university researcher who can do impartial follow up studies. Et voila!

  27. Trevor Lawless

    A long time ago I saw a couple of teachers demonstrating the use of sign language to teach English. These teachers were terrible, they kept forgetting the signs, they were teaching something very simple but because of the way they did it everyone was confused, so my first experience of using sign-language was terrible. But now I’m a total convert. The I love vegetables song is consistently one of the most popular songs in GE and i’m pretty sure it’s largely because of the sign language. If any of you guys have put signs to more of the GE songs I’d love to see them. (Yes, I’m lazy and should figure it out myself, but if you’ve done it, please put it up on youtube etc..). Cheers.

  28. Richard Graham

    Hi Trevor, great to hear this and I’ve got something very exciting along those lines coming soon – or rather as soon as I can get around to organizing it properly! 🙂


    hI! My name is william Meneses I’m from Colombia and in this moment I am working in my thesis for getting my master degree, My theses is focused on the use of some ASL signs and gestures for improving spoken and writing skills in hearing students.
    Can you help me giving me all the possible references taht c anm help me in my project?
    I pretend demostrate that using some elements of ASL can improve the acquisition of vocabulary and some focused sentences, but I better use ASL or SEE or PSE ? PLEASE HELP ME TO ORGANIZE MY IDEAS…!!!

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