Sign Language Assessment

The issue


Children identified with hearing loss are often at significant risk for language delay or deprivation. Thus, it becomes critical to have tests or measures that can accurately assess a child’s language development in both signed and spoken modalities.  Unfortunately, in comparison to spoken language assessments, sign language assessments are only recently developed and are far fewer in number. We still have a way to go before these measures are used widely in the “everyday practice” of clinicians and educators.

What we know and what we don’t know

Clinicians and educators have a plethora of assessments they can utilize to document the development of a deaf child’s communication skills. However, the majority of these assessments focus on early, pre-linguistic communication (e.g., gestures, symbolic play) or speech development (comprehension and production). More recently, researchers have developed instruments designed to assess sign language development in children. This innovation is important as it enables a clinician to take a balanced approach to understanding the child’s communication skills. It may be that the child’s language acquisition is more advanced in one modality (signed or spoken) over the other. Unfortunately, in comparison to spoken language assessments, sign language assessments are rarely commercially available, are often without “norms,” and are not always appropriate for use in settings beyond research. Furthermore, the current instruments available have been developed to assess acquisition of only the most well-documented signed languages (e.g., American Sign Language [ASL], British Sign Language [BSL]).

Most sign language assessments use benchmarks for age-appropriate acquisition that are based on  “native signer” performance. While it is estimated that only 5-10% of the population of deaf children are native signers, benchmarking to this group establishes the potential linguistic capacity for any child learning a signed language—for example, at age 3, what level of sign language production is to be expected if a child receives plentiful and high quality sign language input? With these benchmarks we can determine whether a deaf child is failing to reach age-typical signing. A documented lag could be due to inadequate exposure to a signed language or possibly to other factors such as a cognitive impairment or a pre-existing language disorder. More research is needed to better understand language and learning disabilities in young deaf children given the prevalence of input-based delays.

In practice, most educators and specialists still resort to conducting informal descriptive evaluations of a deaf child’s signing skills or adapting English tests into ASL. Experts have raised serious concerns about the validity of these approaches, especially if a deaf child’s placement or programming decisions are dependent upon their results. Furthermore, it is essential that the Sign Language Assessor is highly fluent in the target sign language and has a significant understanding of its grammatical structure. First, this ensures that the child’s sign fluency is not being underestimated because of weaknesses in the Assessor’s competence; and second, a “fluent-eye” will be able to detect linguistic errors in the child’s sign productions and would thus provide a more appropriate set of recommendations for educational planning.

In summary, there is still a great need for 1) efficient, teacher-friendly, and commercially available instruments to assess sign language proficiency; 2) increased exposure to signed language assessment tools in training programs for clinicians and educators; 3) more detailed diagnostic tools that can assist with evaluation and remediation for those in need (e.g., “signed language therapy”); and 4) collaborative or large scale studies that use a particular instrument so that we can establish age-norms for sign proficiency—this will go a long way to creating realistic acquisition trajectories for nonnative signers.


One question is whether native-signing standards are generalizable to the large population of deaf children who by most definitions would not be considered a native signer (the 90-95% who are born to hearing, and usually nonsigning, parents). Most researchers think we should set the bar this high because the cognitive, educational and occupational risks associated with limited language proficiency are far too great. For example, The Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University has launched a new effort to create National ASL Learning Standards for U.S. deaf children in Kindergarten through 12th grade and the proposed standards are mostly aligned with native-signer developmental trajectories. Implementing such standards may mean that early interventionists and educators of the deaf will need to redesign curriculum to promote earlier age-appropriate (and age-capable) ASL acquisition. Accordingly, adapted standards for ASL may be required for deaf children whose first exposure to ASL is in late childhood because their learning strategies may be quite different from that of a much younger child.

Posted on April 1, 2015 by
Jenny L. Singleton
School of Psychology
Georgia Institute of Technology
jenny.singleton {at}

Further reading

Mann, W. & Haug, T. (2016). New directions in signed language assessment. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies and Language: Policy, Practice, and Research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details

Marschark, M., Tang, G., & Knoors, H, (2014). Bilingualism and Bilingual Deaf Education. New York: Oxford University Press. view details

Singleton, J.L. & Supalla, S. (2011). Assessing children’s proficiency of natural signed languages. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, volume 1, 2nd edition (pp. 306-321). New York: Oxford University Press. view details