Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Support of Finger Spelling

When I meet parents who are learning to sign I notice often they avoid finger spelling. I know that it is hard to learn and the receptive side can be taxing on the eyes but I would encourage folks to jump in and try. There are so many times where spelling is necessary. I don't mean spelling out whole concepts but there are so many things that need to be spelled. Serious if I, the worlds worst speller with the attention span of a rabid ferret, can do it so can you.

One of my son's first words was Elmo. He was about 12 months old and loved the little red monster. We didn't know a sign for Elmo and didn't want a home sign that wouldn't be understood by others so we would spell it. We were also nervous that if we made up a home sign we would find out it meant something else. I will leave it to your imagination the mistake we made with milkshake.

First he would sign a shape of the word, small closed hand shape, splayed fingers extended then closed handshape. Try it, first spell Elmo. Now do what my son did. See how the shape of the word is there? Over time he was able to spell Elmo. Before he could recite his alphabet he could finger spell several words.

I am not the type of person to just sit down and practice spelling. I am a lousy speller, yes I know this is a shock, so that is close to slow torture for me. I found ways to just add it to daily tasks.

So when learning to receive a word I would often look at the shape it made. Take a word like carrot. It starts small gets tall (double R) then small. I also don't label the letters C-A-R-R-O-T. Instead I sound the word out as I see it. Kind of like when as a kid I was learning to read. Sounding out the long words until it clicked.

Learning to express a word was still a challenge but I found I had plenty of opportunity to practice. In the car I would spell out every road sign, Restaurant names any thing I saw. As I got better I would turn on the radio to NPR and spell everything I heard. Of course I couldn't keep up but I would simply finish spelling a word and jump in when I was finished. I am sure I looked crazy to those who peered into my car.

I worked on a TV show and while we were rolling I would spell everything the actors said. Again I am sure they questioned my mental stability but I got faster every day.

So we finger spell a lot now because my son goes to art school and there are so many cool details about his lessons I would never get to hear about if he didn't spell it out for me. There are names of artists, styles of dance and visual art. Each art form seems to have it's own language so if I couldn't receive his spelling I would maybe loose out on sharing this with him in a natural way through casual conversation.

His sister will spell out a word she doesn't know a sign for. Then he can show her the sign and they can quickly get back to their conversation. I rarely hear her say, "Mom whats the sign for.....?".

We also finger spell about cooking, comic books, music and film. I guess my point is I would encourage everyone who is using ASL as a primary mode of communication to start finger spelling early because if you don't you may miss out on hearing about the fun stuff.

Like always this is not a research paper just my opinion about what works for us. My next post I think will be about bullies since I see a lot about that subject right now.


  1. OMG. I can imagine what your home sign for milkshake must have looked like. LOL.

    Yes, finger spelling is important. I am also glad you realize how confusing using home signs would have been. You seem to have received useful information about sign language and communicating with your child. Where did you learn or where did you get the information starting out?


  2. My oldest daughter (hearing)in our hearing family would always spell out words to her sister that she didn't know the sign to. She is 18 months older than her sister and practically grew up signing. The great thing about that is...she is awesome now at receptively understanding almost anyone's fingerspelling. It makes makes her receptive ASL skills even better!

  3. (e my blog is rated G glad you didn't spill the milkishake!

    Well the answer to your question is a little sad. We learned from the written word. Books and research papers got us started. Early Intervension Services in California were not set up to provide ASL services and they meant well but didn't have the infomation we needed so we did it through contacting people who wrote books.

    The good news is if you reach out people will help regardless of how scary the move in that direction is.

    Sue, awesome point!

  4. Many people think that in order to fingerspell, you have to know how to spell. As a result, they avoid using it with kids. Which, is harmful in the long run, as well as false.

    There are three stages in fingerspelling acquisition. First, children see and recognize the basic shape of the fingerspelled words and connect it with a concept. The fingerspelled word, is processed like a single sign. Then they try to recreate the shape (which is what your son did). As time goes on, it becomes more refined and you see the actual letters. Later, in the third stage, the connection between fingerspelling and the English letters and writing is made, although at first some letters may be missing or reversed.

    The older boy that I watch is Deaf, and at a year old already had about 5 expressive fingerspelled words - namely BUS, AVOCADO, PEAS, TOES, and BLUEBERRIES, and receptively he understood a lot more. Now he's 2 1/2 and expressively and receptively uses a lot of fingerspelling.

    Also, it's very important while reading a book to actually spell the names of characters. While it may seem like too much work, it's important for them to know the actual name of the characters rather then just "G" or "E" or "S". Some common characters (such as Clifford, Elmo, etc) have sign names that are generally used by most ASL users, and those can be introduced later as well as the fingerspelled name.

    Interestingly enough, many Deaf kids will ask things like "how do you spell #CAR?" while using the lexicalized sign for car, not realizing that the handshapes (C, A, and R) they are using in the sign is how you spell car :)

  5. You know, as a newby signer (really bad, actually), finger spelling has served me well! When I don't know a word, I always resort to spelling so my friends can help me. I learned spelling (self-taught from the Webster's Dictionary...I know...hey, I was 8!) when I was young and it has stuck.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I totally agree -- go for the finger spelling!