Learning strategies in sign language classroom

ASL instructors give their best shot to teach you well. In most cases, Deaf instructors are passionate about their own language and teaching. But, it's only a half way. The other half way is students' learning responsibilities.

Everyone has some different learning experiences and strategies that work for them. Find some learning tips below to attain your learning process and signing skills.

Be an im-perfectionist

Language anxiety is common in language learning. Relax and make mistakes. Learning a new language guarantees mistakes, because you're making efforts, trying new sentence constructions with new vocabulary. It's safer to make experiments and mistakes in classes before you do your best on tests. Learning a new language is more about to be able to communicate than to make a perfect sentence.

If you know you make a mistake, simply self-correct it. It's more relaxing than trying to make a perfect sentence at once, which is more anxious. Once you feel comfortable with the skill of correcting yourself, you'd feel more relaxed and confident (then less mistakes follow).

Think in the target language

Instructors teach in the target language (ASL) through contextualized tasks and activities. Take the opportunities to interact with your ASL instructor who can offer you corrective feedback with your sign production ("pronunciation"), grammatical structure and more.

Think in concepts. Focus on the meaning of a word rather than word-for-word translation. Avoid word-for-word translation or English in your mind when signing ASL.

One of the students' strategies is to look at the sentence-level meaning first before scrutinizing the smaller components (word-level meanings) in the sentence.

Another student's tip is "When switching back to English for clarification is probably the worst. Stay immersed in ASL and learn those problem solving skills in ASL. Remain immersed in ASL because 1) you allow yourself to learn more, and 2) it is pretty hard to switch back and forth when you are learning."

Maximize your time to practice ASL in class. "Try my best to maintain a signing environment in and around class and on breaks." If you are in ASL 101, start practicing the habit now: think in ASL (or at least in concepts) from the start on.

Signing practice

Absorb whole information from signed words to grammar and non-manual grammar, and nuances and subtleties. Take notes of syntactic grammar, non-manual grammar, inflections, tones and variations from native ASL signers in various contexts.

Generally focus on signer's face, not hands. Develop your peripheral vision. Use a mirror to look at yourself when signing. Check your non-manual grammar, such as furrowed eyebrows for wh-questions and raised eyebrows for topicalization and yes/no questions.

Videotape yourself and look at your signing from a different perspective in time that you wouldn't be able to assess the same way with the mirror. The cool thing about this is that you can document your progress and compare your skills months later or even years later.

Commitment and attendance

Like for any second language courses (whether signed or spoken), regular attendance is crucial to learning language. Missing classes for the lessons' contextualized learning and human-to-human interactions would be a big loss.

Learning a set of vocabulary from the dictionary or online materials doesn't bring the same benefits as much as the environmental type of immersion. ASL classes are your best opportunities of building and developing the foundation of language in a formal setting. They teach you grammar, structure, contextual meanings, tips, ideas, and live feedback. So, commit to your attendance.

Reguarly practice signing by yourself or with your buddy team. You cannot crash-study ASL (same true for any language) for a test or exam.


Ask a question. Ask for clarification if you don't understand the content or a new word. Or, ask to repeat if you miss a fingerspelled word. Negotiate meanings.

If you feel timid in class, you can ask questions during the signing exercises in pairs or groups. For broader questions, ask questions during the break, or after or before the class.

If you have a number of words to review, first try the ASL dictionary during your homework. When in doubt or for clarification, check with the instructor in your next class.


What I've observed over the years was that there is a strong correlation between learning results (marks) and students diligently writing notes. Notetaking is one of some active learning methods that helps keep your learning active.

catching up with note-taking

Students may find note-taking in ASL classes a little challenge. So, how can you take notes and maintain paying your attention to the instructor? Find some strategies and the right time to write down notes.

Some instructors may provide prepared notes for you. Check your class's online materials reguarly for any handouts to download or print out before your next class. Bring the handouts to classes either in print or on your tablet or laptop. It's your responsibility to add any new information that your instructor provides in classes.

Do your homework the day before your next class so you know which is new information to write down and what is already in the textbook and/or eclass. If you have any questions, bring the notes to next class and ask the instructor your questions.

After your teacher's instructions and demos, write down the notes during the practice or exercise in pairs or trios. It's also a good time to ask the teacher questions, practice signing, etc.

If you must jot down while watching the teacher signing, quickly write a single word or brief notes and wait until a practice session starts and you can return to the notes to expand.

If you can type like a pro without looking at the keys, it's your advantage. You can type notes. But, make sure you do at the right time as the brain doesn't fully pay attention to two tasks at the time.

Extra practices

Outside classes, find the right resources and materials (developed by Deaf instructors) to learn more. Sign language materials including books, videos, and online materials can be also a useful resource.

Try practicing sign language with a classmate via webcam or phone.

Or participate in a sign language club if offered at your post-secondary institution. If not available, create an informal club with your classmates to practice outside classes once a week, once a month, or on a need basis.

Do some fun activities and games with your study buddies. Try a race of fingerspelling the manual alphabet against a partner. Or, if a family plays the pictionary, use it as "gestionary" instead (manual gesture instead of drawing).

More ideas from the students: "To encourage my family to participate in my learning process." "Signing with your family members or friends/roommates even if they don't know the language." "Practice signing by teaching your boyfriend/girlfriend at home."

Do Homework

Not only you do homework what the instructor assigns, but also review what you've learned in the last class and make notes what you are unsure of or don't recall. That way, you have an opportunity to ask questions in the next class.

One of sign language learners told me, "I draw signs along with their words on yellow stickers and stick them on the refrigerator, monitor frame, or mirror. When I spend time online or brush my teeth, I can memorize these foreign signs."


Not lastly, it's the foremost important of all. Respect the instructors, students, and ASL/Deaf community. Respect the Deaf people's signed language which is their innermost cultural identity.

You may miss many classes, daydream in classes, or ignore homework -- all these things may make you a lousy student. But, a lousy attitude of the best student is a worse one, especially for a Deaf ASL instructor.

Maintain positive attitude that you can apply to any other cultures and people of all backgrounds -- growing compassion, expanding your horizon of perspectives, building cultural relativism (lessening ethnocentrism), personal growth and all. These things are more than merely learning a language. We live in the world of diversity.

Have fun and be fearless

Ligthen up if you're afraid of making mistakes in ASL classes. Toss fear away and be brave to communicate and learn. Laugh when you make a naive silly mistake.

Don't worry about mistakes, which are a normal part of the learning process. You will learn more and quicker by doing it. Usually, more often than not, fluent Deaf signers will be delighted to see you talking with them in their language.

Related posts

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Also see: How to learn sign language the best way

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