Signs of learning


Exploring the role of British Sign Language in education and looks at how it differs from other signing systems around the world.

British Sign Language (BSL) is the language of the Deaf community in Britain and also forms the basis of signing systems used in education with deaf children and the even greater numbers of adults and children with SEN who use BSL signs in their learning and communication.

Sign languages are used all over the world, but they are not all the same language. They are visual gestural languages with their own syntax and grammar. They share similar features and structures but each has its own vocabulary and variations; even other English speaking countries, such as the United States, have their own separate sign language.

Most of our experience of language is of spoken language, which is linear in nature, with one word following another. Language in a different modality brings unexpected and creative ways of exploiting the visual/gestural medium to the full, for example:

  • items can be located in space in relation to each other
  • direction of movement can relay the subject and object of verbs
  • the type of movements can differentiate the manner and mood
  • hand shapes can indicate physical size and shape
  • two ideas or signs can occur simultaneously.

Sign Supported English

Sign Supported English (SSE) is a form of sign language that encourages the simultaneous use of spoken language with signs for keywords taken from the lexicon of BSL vocabulary. It is widely used in education to great effect with children who have a learning disability and additional speech, language and communication needs.

SSE is a common element of BSL used in deaf education. It is used by some deaf adults and as a contact language in interactions between the Deaf community and the hearing world. Deaf people and children may switch between BSL and SSE in different situations and to suit the needs of others.

In practice, the terms “sign language” and “BSL” tend to be used to refer to all signed communication – whether ordered in the visual gestural structures of sign language or using sign vocabulary alongside spoken English as SSE – or combinations of the two depending on the situation and the individual needs of each user.

An ongoing process

Acquiring language requires meaningful and accessible exchanges with those around us if language and learning are to be achieved. Children and families who need sign language are themselves likely to be in the process of learning it. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents (approximately 90 per cent) who may have no prior knowledge of sign language, just as the families of children with special needs are also likely to be completely new to signing.

Learning a new language as an adult does not always come easily and will be a sustained and continuing effort requiring support, for families and professionals alike. Parents may be devastated to discover that their child is deaf or has a learning disability and this may require early intervention and support to enable the best outcomes. Signing groups and clubs can also offer a good opportunity for providing contact with others and with the adult BSL-using role models that have so much to offer from their language, culture and experiences.

Advantages of sign language

BSL signs and fingerspelling offer advantages to learning that can prove an asset to children’s development; the visual and kinaesthetic elements add extra dimensions to language and communication that some children are extremely responsive to and they can be of potential benefit to all children, from pre-verbal babyhood onward.

There are exciting new developments with BSL key word support for children for whom English is not a first language and promising moves for BSL as a school language option. This groundswell of interest in and respect for BSL is greatly welcome but it is also ironic that BSL was for generations banned in deaf education and continues to be omitted from educational use for many deaf children – due at least in part to lingering beliefs that signing hinders spoken language development, in spite of evidence to the contrary. It was not until the 1980s that BSL started to re-emerge in deaf education and this relatively recent development by no means applies to all deaf children.

Who uses sign language?

There is a general misconception that all deaf children use sign language and attend special schools. However, the 2015 Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE) report found that there are at least 41,377 deaf children in England, only ten per cent of whom use sign language in some form, either on its own or alongside another language. It also found that 78 per cent of school aged deaf children are in mainstream settings where there is no specialist provision.

The number of youngsters who are not deaf but have other SEN and have the benefit of signs to support learning and communication is far greater, although the exact figures are not known.

The opportunity for all children to have effortless communication with their educators and peer group should be a given, but without special steps to encourage the wider acceptance and use of sign language in education, it will remain a lottery, based on individual school and educational policy, making it even more important that all pupils and staff gain a basic working knowledge of sign language.

The encouraging news is that the drive to include signing in education seems to be coming from young people themselves. According to recent research covering 2,000 deaf and hearing people by the National Deaf Children’s Society, an overwhelming 97 per cent of young people think BSL should be taught in schools, with 92 per cent calling for it to be a GCSE option. This is not only a deaf issue; hearing respondents actually showed more interest in learning BSL than deaf respondents.

Sign language in other countries

The many different sign languages that exist all over the world are necessary to and highly valued by the deaf communities through which they have evolved. Their visual spatial grammatical structures are very different to those used in spoken languages and each has its own vocabulary of signs but all are to some extent influenced by the spoken languages of their country.

One such influence is the use of fingerspelling which represents each letter of the alphabet on the hands. It can be used to spell out whole words, abbreviated forms or initials, including names for people and places, but is used sparingly. It can be quickly learned and needs practice for fluency but is an important and integrated part of BSL that gives a direct link to English.

There are many different fingerspelling alphabets, most of them one-handed such as the American Sign Language (ASL) system (shown above left). BSL uses a two-handed Alphabet (shown above right).

The sign languages of Australia (Auslan) and New Zealand (NZSL) are identifiably BSL-based and use the two-handed alphabet, but they have many unique signs in their vocabulary and also influences and borrowings from other sign languages such as ASL. Like all languages, spoken and signed, BSL also has influences and borrowings from other languages and, as with all living languages, it continues to evolve and develop.

Further information

Cath Smith trained in social work with deaf people in Manchester and London in the 1970s. During her 18 years employment in a deaf school she also qualified as a BSL/English interpreter. She is the author of the Let’s Sign Series of BSL educational materials, which includes dictionaries, books, flashcards, posters, reward stickers and e-Book learners for all ages and abilities:

Cath Smith
Author: Cath Smith

Hearing impairment BSL interpreter BSL/English, author on BSL, former teacher

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Hearing impairment
BSL interpreter BSL/English, author on BSL, former teacher


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