A Sign of the Times

American Sign Language: an ideal form of communication

Over the years many articles and news clips have detailed the benefits of teaching young children sign language. But, there are a myriad of other reasons to learn American Sign Language (ASL), even if you are a high school student or an adult. Research has shown ASL benefits individuals with no hearing impairments; studies stated learning this language helps to “improve spelling, behaviors, small motor skills, and develop a stronger vocabulary and ability to communication more effectively.” Additionally, professionals benefit as well because knowing ASL allows effective communication with deaf or hard of hearing clients.

Throughout the Commonwealth many school divisions offer ASL instruction (see the list of regional schools), and some provide credit to students who successfully complete coursework outside of their school. For students with reading difficulties, such as dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities, ASL provides an alternative to traditional foreign language classes, and provides them an opportunity to learn a useful language skill and explore a potential career path.

Information for students and parents.

The Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) website noted: “Foreign language instruction is an important part of Virginia’s efforts to provide challenging educational programs in its public schools and to prepare students to compete in global society. Knowledge and skills that students acquire in foreign language classes reinforce and expand learning in other subject areas.”

So, why is ASL considered a foreign language? ASL is not a form of English as many may think. “American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, complex language that employs signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body. It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing,” according to the definition from The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

For Virginia public school students seeking an advanced diploma, individuals must successfully pass three (3) foreign language classes (of the same language), or two (2) classes of one language and two (2) of another to fulfill degree requirements. For those with learning differences such as dyslexia or other specific learning disabilities, learning any foreign language is difficult. According to the VDOE, “ASL courses have satisfied the high school Advanced Studies Diploma foreign language requirement for over 20 years.” (See 1998 Supts.’ Memo # int001 on the Web at doe.virginia.gov).

Current Virginia legislation states (§ 22.1-207.5.): “Instruction in American Sign Language. ‘American Sign Language’ means the natural language recognized globally that is used by members of the deaf community and that is linguistically complete with unique rules for language structure and use that include phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse. If local school boards offer one or more elective courses in American Sign Language such school boards shall (i) grant academic credit for successful completion of an American Sign Language course on the same basis as the successful completion of a foreign language.”

VDOE standards of accreditation does address the awarding of course credit (section 8 VAC 20-131-110). According to a VDOE representative, Lisa Harris Ed.D. specialist for world languages and international education: “The SUPTS. Memo #205, dated September 21, 2007 (doe.virginia.gov) specifically references this section when discussing the awarding of foreign language credit to native or heritage language speakers.”

Harris supplied the Standards of Accreditation (SOA) currently in place (full SOA text may be found online at doe.virginia.gov): “The SOA allow for school divisions to award credit for other than clock hours, as you will see in the Supts. Memo [Memo #205 noted above].” Harris detailed, “Some Virginia school divisions have a local policy to award credit for demonstrated proficiency, such as in the Fairfax County Credit by Exam program. In order to pursue this option, a local school division would need to have a written policy in place for how they would award the credit. This policy must be approved by the Superintendent and School Board.” She also shared that “it is a local decision as to whether they [local school division] will award credits for other than clock hours and how that credit will be awarded, so long as the policy is consistent with the SOA regulations as outlined in the Supts. Memo #205.”

Harris also said revised SOA are scheduled to take effect in 2018. The SOA includes updates to the regulations pertaining to the awarding of credit, and the new graduation requirements referred to as the Profile of a Virginia Graduate.

Additional state legislation (HB 84) has been approved by the Virginia House and Senate this year and will take effect upon approval (signature) by the Governor, which adds to existing legislation in the Code of Virginia. (full text available at law.lis.virginia.gov).

Fauquier County Public Schools

Fauquier County Public Schools currently offers several foreign language courses for students, but not ASL. Brian Gorg, Fauquier County School Board Member, Center District, said, “I am supportive of the school division researching options for adding ASL back into our curriculum. ASL instruction has positive learning benefits to students in addition to its relevance as a modern language. Implementation of an ASL program is being researched by administration but options will depend on divisional budget priorities, enrollment interest, and the options we have to deliver ASL courses.”

Dr. David Jeck, Superintendent of Fauquier County Public Schools, said, “I know there is interest within the school community to add ASL as a course, or series of courses. I am a big fan, but we need the state to cooperate in regard to recognizing it as a foreign language substitute. This would really be helpful. I am more than happy to push for this.”

Prince William Public Schools

Patriot High School, located in Nokesville, offers three ASL courses. Initially Patriot offered Level 1 ASL in 2012, but has grown the program over the years. Dr. Michael E. Bishop, the school’s principal, said, “We went from having a handful of Level 1 classes in our second year to having two full-time teachers, offering 10 sections of the course between them, in levels one through three.” Bishop also shared, “We have found that kids who have struggled with language or foreign language previously often do very well in ASL courses. It stimulates different areas of the brain and allows them to learn a language that improves fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and processing abilities.” Bishop also explained this course is accepted as a language credit by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) Clearinghouse and “allows students to provide evidence of three years of a language (which is a college entrance requirement).”  

Bishop shared advice to other schools interested in offering ASL courses: “Hire a qualified ASL teacher and ensure there is a curriculum in place for the students and instructor to utilize. Our two instructors, Ms. Chadwick and Ms. Carter, do an excellent job of challenging the students while supporting their maturation and development.” Bishop also said some students, as juniors and seniors, will “sign” during end-of-year school ceremonies, such as graduation.

Tressela Bateson, support specialist with the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing shared some positive experiences: “I have taught ASL before (at the university level). I recall one of my students coming up to me telling me that he had a disability and needed accommodations. He was dyslexic. Needless to say, he was the best student in that class. He described learning ASL like a light going off in his head; language just made sense all of a sudden.” She also said, “I have seen children with other types of language processing disorders pick up ASL easier than learning to speak, read, or write English. That helped bridge to their learning English after they had a way to express and receive information in a less frustrating way.” Bateson also shared, “I even taught my own hearing children how to sign (as I am deaf). My children sign, and both excel in language arts.”

For Professionals and Students

According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), there are 335 Certified members in Virginia. RID’s website provides information on becoming an interpreter as well. “Interpreters and translators, not just ASL, are listed at The Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov). The job growth is 18 percent. However to be a good interpreter, and a certified one, a B.A. degree is required by RID. It is a tough career. You have to have a good foundation in English and be fluent in ASL. But, it is also a rewarding career and in very high demand,” said Bateson.

Bateson suggested a few organizations which offer online ASL instruction. “Ones [classes] taught by native signers are best,” she said. Here are a few of the websites she provided for individuals interested in learning more about ASL instruction options: signlanguage101.com, signingsavvy.com, and gallaudet.edu/american-sign-language-program/asl-online.

For adults, it is not too late to learn ASL to benefit your career, or to transition into a new one working with the deaf community. LFCC , Northern Virginia Community College, and and many four-year colleges and universities across the nation offer ASL courses. This language provides students and professionals a way to communicate more effectively with deaf individuals. If you communicate with the public and many customers (no matter the career), there is a likelihood you will need to talk with someone who is deaf; being able to speak their language would be an asset to your business.

Students Share Experiences:

Tristan Corbett, an 18 year-old studying at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), was a Patriot High School student who participated in ASL, and is now enrolled in ASL 3 at the NOVA Annandale Campus. He shared his experience with this language: “I found it to be a very satisfying experience. Learning a new language was always fun for me, I had stints with German, French, and Mandarin for short periods of time but with ASL I found that it clicked so much easier than the others. I also feel ASL has improved my English. When you sign in ASL often times you come to a point where you’re not sure of a certain word’s sign equivalent, it forces you to think and make connections, breaking down semantics, and building a new perspective on your world. As with every language, I look forward to using ASL with the deaf community, it’s nice to have someone speak to you in your own language and that’s no different for them I’d imagine. As far as using it in my career I do hope to become adept enough to be able to use it in the field. I’m currently planning on becoming a counselor, and to broaden my horizons with more languages would be helpful to me on a professional platform and to better any experience I may have should someone within the deaf community become a patient of mine.”

Erin Newman is currently in her second semester at Northern Virginia Community College, and studied ASL at Patriot High School. Newman is pursuing a career as a sign language interpreter and shared: “If you study ASL you are doing your part in helping to expand the reach of the deaf community and make the hearing world a bit more open to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Studying ASL in high school benefited me in that it helped me get a head start on my chosen career path. I have always had an interest in ASL, and with the help of my teacher Mrs. Andrea Chadwick-Jenkins, I was able to begin educating myself on the language and culture. Having the opportunity to begin those classes in high school made entering the college level courses much easier for me.” Newman utilizes her skills with patrons she serves at her job as a waitress and server.

Schools in the region which offer ASL instruction.

Fauquier, Culpeper and Rappahannock County schools do not offer ASL at this time.

Prince William County offers course at Patriot HS and Woodbridge HS

Loudoun County offers classes at the following schools: Briar Woods High, Broad Run High, Dominion High, Freedom High, Heritage High, John Champe High School, Loudoun County High, Loudoun Valley High, Park View High, Potomac Falls High, Stone Bridge High, Tuscarora High, and Woodgrove High.

Fairfax County schools with course offerings include: Oakton High, West Potomac High, West Springfield High, Westfield High, and Woodson High

Virtual Learning is another option and offers approved providers schools may use for ASL instruction. According to VDOE, students who wish to sign up should consult their local guidance office and visit the Virtual Learning website (doe.virginia.gov) for more information, which includes a FAQ section. For public school divisions who require additional information, administrators should contact the VDOE specialist for the region, Timothy Ellis.

(Source: VDOE)

Existing Virginia Laws:

HB 1435 American Sign Language; recognition for completed coursework (effective 7/1/11):

American Sign Language; recognition for completed coursework. Provides that if a local school board offers an elective course in American Sign Language, it must grant academic credit for course completion on the same basis as the successful completion of a foreign language course and count course completion in American Sign Language toward the fulfillment of any foreign language requirement for graduation. Additionally, the bill requires public institutions of higher education to count academic credit received for successful completion of American Sign Language courses in a secondary school or higher education institution toward satisfaction of the foreign language entrance requirements.”

Source: https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?111+sum+HB1435

HB 1512 Higher educational institutions, public; academic credit for American Sign Language courses (effective 7/1/17):

Public institutions of higher education; academic credit for American Sign Language courses. Requires each public institution of higher education to develop policies for counting credit received for successful completion of foreign language courses, including American Sign Language courses, either in a secondary school or another institution of higher education toward satisfaction of the foreign language entrance, placement, and course credit requirements of the public institution of higher education. The bill requires each public institution of higher education to count credit received for successful completion of American Sign Language courses at the institution toward satisfaction of its foreign language course credit requirements.”

Source: https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?171+sum+HB1512

2018 Legislation Pending Governor’s Signature:

HB 84 American Sign Language, instruction in; academic credit, foreign language requirements.

Introduced by: Richard P. Bell

SUMMARY AS PASSED HOUSE: (all summaries)

Instruction in American Sign Language; academic credit; foreign language requirements. Requires any local school board that does not offer any elective course in American Sign Language to (i) grant academic credit for successful completion of an American Sign Language course offered by a comprehensive community college or a multidivision online provider approved by the Board of Education on the same basis as the successful completion of a foreign language course and (ii) count completion of any such American Sign Language course toward the fulfillment of any foreign language requirement for graduation.”

Source: http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?181+sum+HB84


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