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 ASL has been around since the establishment of residential schools for deaf children in the early 1800s. Before that, sign languages had developed in several New England towns and communities that had significant deaf populations; one such community was Martha’s Vineyard. 


Is ASL like “English on the hands”?

ASL has its own unique word order and grammar. There are communication systems that 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 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 sign language?

Natural sign languages exist throughout the world, each developing from the deaf community in a particular country. There is no universal sign language.

How can I learn ASL?

ASL is the fourth most popular language in the United States, according to the Modern Language Association. High schools usually offer ASL classes.  Parents can go to local community centers, colleges, and other resource centers to take these classes. They can also take classes, for credit, at colleges like Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.  For those with access to a high-speed internet connection, some colleges offer ASL classes online. Finally, there are computer applications, or “apps,” that you and your child can use to learn ASL. For example, VL2 has a series of ASL-English storybook apps for the iPad that can be found here. You can find more ASL-related links below.

Additionally, some states offer “Deaf mentors” or parent and family resource programs. Click here for more information. 

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

Yes. Multiple studies on both deaf and hearing bilingual children reveal that more language leads to an improved knowledge base, lexicon, and language processing faculties.

Will ASL impede my child’s speech development?

No. In fact, it is the opposite. Studies show that having a strong language foundation (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 be detrimental to my child's language acquisition?

Hearing parents who sign with their deaf children note that they appreciate having at least one language that is accessible to everyone. Studies have found that even when deaf children do not have fluent language models, they still pick up the language from socializing from fluent language users. The most important factor for parents to remember is that communication between them and their children must be 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 grasp the concept of an alphabet. 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 a hearing family?

Learning ASL can result in reading/second language success, access to both hearing and Deaf communities (important for fostering a strong sense of self-identity and social-emotional growth), and fewer communication barriers between children and their families. The world only expands for families who use a visual language. 

It is important to remember that even the best lip readers do not catch all of information when they read lips, even under ideal conditions. Additionally, lip readers draw upon a number of strategies to help comprehension, such as  a large vocabulary and using prediction and context strategies.

Does being bilingual slow down children’s language processing?

No. In fact, bilinguals report faster word recognition. More language really does mean more.

Does bilingualism cause language confusion?  Also, what is the best age to introduce a second language to a deaf child?

Bilingual language acquisition is as effortless, efficient, and successful as monolingual acquisition. According to VL2 Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, “Being exposed to two languages from birth—and in particular, being exposed to a signed and spoken language from birth—does not cause a child to be language delayed and confused." Start as soon as possible.


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 “phonological” information (visual phonology for a signed language versus sound-based phonology for a spoken language). Sound-based phonological processing skills actually do not explain most of the variation in deaf students' reading achievement; instead, VL2 researchers found that language skills play a much more important role in predicting reading outcomes.

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

●      Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals rely strongly on vision to obtain information.

●      Parents should aim to maximize visual learning opportunities for their deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

●      Sign language does not interfere with spoken language development.

●      Sign language fluency enhances cognition.

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

●      Early language exposure leads to improved behavioral control and cognitive function.

●      Try to connecting with other parents of deaf children as well as deaf adults.







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: