The Benefits of American Sign Language for Language and Literacy

Commonly Asked Questions about ASL and English Literacy

What is American Sign Language?  

American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language, with its own grammar, syntax, and morphology.   What we call American Sign Language has been around since the establishment of residential schools for deaf children in the early 1800’s.  Before that, sign languages had developed in several New England towns and communities that had significant populations of deaf citizens; one such community was Martha’s Vineyard. 


Is ASL like “English on the hands”?

American Sign Language has its own unique word order, grammar, and other language features.  There are communication systems that do use individual signs to “code English,” but these are not easily understood and do not function in the brain the same way that natural languages do.  For example, there are many signs for the one English word, “run.”  Water runs, a sick child’s nose runs, a person runs down the block, and so on.  Content-based signs in ASL make the meaning and context clear.  A person who was manually coding English could not make the meaning clear without knowing the right sign and syntax to use.  ASL is not based on Spoken English.

Is there only one signed language?

Natural sign languages exist all around the world, and these have developed from the deaf communities in each country.  There is no one universal sign language.

How can I learn ASL?

American Sign Language is the fourth most popular language in the United States, according to the Modern Language Association.  High schools often offer ASL classes for their students.  Parents can go to their local community centers, colleges, and other resource centers for ASL classes.  Parents can also make arrangements to take classes at ASL-English programs or schools in their region.  They can also take classes, for credit, at colleges like Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.  For those who have access to a high-speed internet connection, some colleges offer sign language classes online, and there are some free ASL dictionaries that can be found.  And last, but not least, there are computer applications, or “apps,” that you and your child can use to learn ASL.  VL2 has a series of ASL-English storybook apps for the iPad that can be found here.  More ASL-related links can be found below.

Additionally, some states offer “Deaf mentor” or parent and family resource programs. See here for more.

Is ASL good for my deaf or hard of hearing child?

Yes.  We know from multiple studies on both deaf and hearing bilingual children, that more language does indeed mean more. More access to information, larger vocabularies, quicker language processing in the brain, and so on.

Will ASL block or hurt my child’s speech development?

No. In fact, it is the opposite!  Studies have found that having a strong language foundation (such as is possible through ASL) correlates with stronger speech abilities for those children for whom speech is accessible through hearing aids or cochlear implants.

I want to learn ASL but I don’t think I can learn to sign very well.  Will this hurt my child's language acquisition?

Hearing parents of deaf children who sign with their children note that they very much appreciate always having at least one language that is accessible for all.  Studies on language communities have found that even when a deaf child does not have a fluent language model, he or she picks up the language from socializing from fluent language users.  The most important factor here for the family is to make sure that communication between child and parent is always reliable and clear.

I am not a native user of ASL; how important is it that my child get language role modeling through me?

Studies show that children correct for mistakes they see in production.  Children make errors as they learn how to sign. This is normal and you can either correct or sign back, showing the correct way to sign that word. You can be the child’s first teacher, but you can also expose the child to other signing models by interacting with other signers and deaf adults. 

Will learning ASL delay my child’s language development?

No, in fact, studies show that language milestones in ASL are the very same as the milestones in spoken language.  Deaf infants babble in ASL before signing their first words. ASL babble uses gestures that resemble signing, much like hearing children’s babbling sounds like words without using clear adult words.

For deaf babies who are exposed to sign language from birth, first signs typically emerge at about eight and a half months. This is earlier than spoken language, in which a hearing child’s first word usually emerges at 10 to 13 months. Studies show that the size and scope of vocabulary words used by deaf children and hearing children are identical. Both children learn one word or sign at a time until they reach their first 50 words, then they start combining words and from there, their vocabulary rapidly increases.

Not only do deaf children reach the same developmental milestones as hearing children, they make the same kind of errors. The errors are an important part of language acquisition and linguistic development.  They develop their knowledge of grammar by first using simple sentences and then developing complex sentences.


How do deaf people learn ASL?

ASL is acquired natively by less than 5% of the American deaf population.  Most deaf people acquire ASL through schools or other programs.  Deaf children acquire language in the same way as do hearing children.  Researchers have reported that language acquisition is facilitated by the mothers who use sign language, make signs on their deaf babies’ bodies, move the babies’ hands, use exaggerated facial expressions and sign in the baby’s line of vision. This is similar to the "motherese" hearing mothers use with their hearing babies. Their vocal tone is varied, facial expressions are exaggerated, and they use shorter phrases and repeat words.

Is it hard to learn ASL?

As an adult learner, you can learn how to sign basic words almost immediately, but it will take a few months to master basic communication and then at least two years to be fluent.  However, children who are exposed to ASL from birth acquire it effortlessly and in a predictable developmental fashion.

What about fingerspelling? Why is it important?

Despite the tendency to wait to teach fingerspelling until after a child knows the alphabet, studies and experience show that young deaf children with early exposure to ASL learn to fingerspell well before they develop the alphabetic principle.  They see fingerspelling, not as individual letters, but as whole units within a "movement envelope."  As a result, the fingerspelled word is comprehended as a sign instead of letters that make up a word.  Later after they learn the alphabet, they realize that the signs they learned earlier were actually made up of letters.  Children learn to use fingerspelling in more complex ways, and this process has been found to increase the vocabulary of deaf children. 

What are the benefits of learning ASL for us, a hearing family?

A few of the many possible benefits are: correlation to reading/second language success; access to both hearing and deaf communities (which is important for strong self-identity and social-emotional growth); and fewer communication barriers between the child and her family.  The world will only expand for the family and the child who use a visual language. 

It's important to note that even the best lipreaders only catch some, but not all of information contained in speechreading, even under ideal conditions.  Additionally, lipreaders have been found to draw upon a number of strategies to help comprehension, such as drawing upon a large vocabulary, using prediction and context strategies, and so on.

Does being bilingual slow down a child’s processing of language?

No.  In fact, balanced bilinguals have faster word recognition. More language = more!

Does bilingualism cause language confusion?  And what is the best age for introducing a second language to a deaf child?

For the first question, the answer is no.  Bilingual language acquisition is as effortless, efficient, and successful as monolingual acquisition In fact, says VL2 Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, “Being exposed to two languages from birth—and in particular, being exposed to assigned and spoken language from birth—does not cause a child to be language delayed and confused."  Start right away!


How can I teach my deaf or hard of hearing child to read?

The Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University has developed “Principles for Reading to Deaf Children” which can be found here.  This set of principles is based on what signing deaf parents do when reading to their deaf or hard of hearing children. 

Can a deaf child learn to read without relying on speech?

Yes.  Both signed and spoken languages contain what is called “phonological” information, though it is visual phonology for a signed language, and sound-based phonology for a spoken language.  In fact, sound-based phonological processing skills do not explain much of the variation in reading achievement in deaf students; instead, VL2 researchers found that language skills play a much more important role in predicting reading outcomes.

To sum up, some of the most important things for parents to know are:

●      Deaf and hard of hearing individuals rely strongly on vision; vision is the super-highway--regardless of hearing level--of information for most deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

●      It is best to maximize visual learning opportunities.

●      Sign language does not interfere with spoken language development

●      Sign language fluency enhances cognitive functions in the brain

●      It is important to have deaf mentors, and some states offer programs for mentoring hearing families.

●      Early language exposure is important for behavioral control and thinking skills

●      Connecting with other parents of deaf children and with deaf adults is important.

References for this section and all other sections of this parent information package can be found under the "Research" tab above.







The Cochlear Implant Center at The Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center:


Simms, Baker, and Clark (Fall 2013) Visual Communication Sign Language Checklist:


Gallaudet University Press’s Children’s Books and Videos:

“Benefits of Signing with Your Child” and link to Signing Time Materials:

Dawn Sign Press:

ASL Dictionary:



The Literature section of DSDJ:

VL2 Storybook Apps: