Academic American Sign Language

Image of a teenage girl and teacher signing in a classroom

The issue

American Sign Language (ASL) is a minority language in a majority culture in the United States. A majority of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) students who were born to hearing parents do not acquire ASL naturally at home, in the communities, or at school until after they graduate from high school. DHH students are primarily in continuous contact with a school community that is not fluent in ASL. Most educational professionals of DHH (EPDHH) are second language learners of ASL, and their knowledge and use of the grammatical and discourse principles of ASL are limited. English is perceived as the language of academic instruction, with ASL serving mainly as a medium for the delivery, not the language of curriculum or assessment. In this view, ASL is in a second-tier supporting role, only functioning to ensure that the English terms and content are conveyed.

What we know

While academic ASL might sound novel, some people don’t realize that it has been around since the early 19th century. New York School for the Deaf adopted academic ASL as its language planning policy in the early 1830s and other schools, including American School for the Deaf, eventually followed. The adoption and implementation of academic ASL had produced the need for higher classes and eventually a college for the deaf. By the end of the 19th century, the use of academic ASL in the classroom had abated due to the rise of the English-only instruction movement.

Since the 1980s, some schools for the deaf in the US have adopted bilingual (ASL-English) language policies, and begun to design instruction to foster DHH students’ mastery of both languages. These practices are supported by literature, demonstrating how the processing of English print is facilitated by knowledge funds of ASL, and in ASL. However, it continues to be challenging to apply and implement ASL for the full range of educational activities, because classroom resources, instructional practices, and communication policies continue to be oriented toward the use and development of English. Despite insufficient resources or curricula for ASL language learning and content instruction, bilingual schools for the deaf are working to define and apply ASL as an academic language in their curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Like any bilingual speakers, DHH children use all of their languages in their linguistic repertoire. Academic ASL allows them to communicate and think about subject matter. However, research shows that the challenges DHH students face in learning advanced academic concepts are often tied to difficulties accessing appropriate vocabulary for those concepts in ASL as well as accessing world knowledge inside and outside the classroom. With access to the specialized vocabulary of ASL, DHH students can use language in creative ways.

What we don’t know

While we are becoming familiar with the role of academic language in fostering DHH children’s language development, we are debating the impacts of academic ASL features (e.g., phonological features, grammatical features, lexical features, organizational/space features, and discourse features) on their language and academic learning. We recognize that DHH children enjoy playing with language, exploring its patterns/rhythms, and we need to learn more about the impact of ASL patterns/rhythms in specialized vocabulary and discourse on their subject knowledge building. Research investigating the overall and individual effectiveness of these ASL features, including academic discourse, in DHH students’ academic achievements are not pursued aggressively.



As we are learning more about the general linguistic features of academic ASL, the percentage of DHH students who have access to academic language in ASL is still very small. Also, the percentage of EPDHH who are heritage ASL speakers is very small. ASL fluency of EPDHH plays a crucial role in the effective use of academic ASL, and this affects the language policy for curriculum, instruction and assessment. In turn, DHH students do not have choice related to their language planning as their teacher’s fluency are often limited.

DHH students use all of the languages in their linguistic repertoire to develop literacy. DHH children still need a peer group of language users to learn, play, and create words or concepts. Deaf children ideally acquire academic ASL from Deaf heritage ASL speakers who are subject matter experts. The development of academic language development requires students to acquire and produce it, and scaffolding children’s language and literacy growth heavily depends on teacher-student interaction where language play and interaction is natural and spontaneous.

Posted on Jan. 17, 2020 by
Christopher A.N. Kurz
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

Kim B. Kurz
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

Further reading