Online Learning

How Using a Little Sign Language Can Improve Online Classes

Nonverbal communication such as American Sign Language can help students and educators in every grade feel more connected.

September 14, 2020
Emma Kreiner
University of Cincinnati ASL instructor Emma Kreiner demonstrates the sign for “slow down.” Using a few key signs during remote instruction can help students communicate more effectively.

We all have felt it. Disconnected. We have been “present” in a synchronous (live) online meeting or class but not really present. We may have been distracted, felt separated, or lacked a connection to others. Despite the desire for emotional closeness during this time of physical separation, “Zoom fatigue” sets in and live meetings lose their effectiveness.

But we can’t lose hope. At the heart of live meetings is the goal of connection and sharing. Incorporating proven nonverbal communication practices from early childhood education and American Sign Language (ASL) can benefit all of us by changing the way we host, participate, and connect for the better in online meetings.

Nonverbal Communication and Attention

One reason for the fatigue caused by online meetings is that these meetings often take more focus and attention than face-to-face conversations. In addition, the lag in response time (think unmuting microphones or waiting for answers in the chat) has been shown to decrease personal connection and interest.

However, as executive coach Jeff Wolf writes in SmartBrief, consciously attending to nonverbal communication in online meetings can improve the experience of both teachers and learners. A variety of studies over the years have shown that more than half of our communication is nonverbal. Yet we largely tend not to think about our nonverbal communication, especially in the online environment. Though body language speaks louder than words, and we typically believe what we see more than what we hear, we “often ignore visual communication,” according to Emma Kreiner, ASL instructor and program coordinator at the University of Cincinnati.

In the spring, Jessica Hughes, a K–6 STEAM Lab teacher at the Hyde Park School in the Cincinnati Public School District (CPS), quickly realized the connection between nonverbal signals and student engagement in her online meetings. By the end of the year, teachers across her building used agreed-upon signs, successfully making messages clearer and attention easier and more meaningful. Now, Hughes plans to shift to using ASL signs for “Thank you,” silent cheer, “Stop,” and “Happy” as learners continue to engage in an online environment.

ASL provides Hughes’ students a common language and emphasis on delivery practices, such as strong, clear facial expressions that communicate or reinforce the intended meaning of a sign. This intentionality in visual online communication can support activities that require high-energy delivery to maintain attention and focus, including read-alouds, problem-solving steps, and other instruction. In ASL, facial expressions can significantly affect the meaning of a sign and need to be attended to. This intentionality in our expressions helps us and sends the right message of support, encouragement, confusion, or agreement to our students and encourages the same from them.

Nonverbal Communication and Connection

One of us (Rosemary), a CPS administrator and technology leader and former self-contained first-grade teacher, used nonverbal communication to engage students and solidify procedures and routines. Even in a classroom full of happy, engaged student chatter and active-learning noise, nonverbal signals were a way to interact with the teacher and peers.

In our virtual world, the happy chatter of students engaged in their own worlds of learning isn’t happening the way it once did—but nonverbal signals and communication continue to support procedures and build community. When Jaton Kershaw, a CPS elementary intervention specialist, taught in person, her students routinely used ASL for procedures: stop, line up, sit, stand, and to ask a question or permission. They also used signals to build community, such as silent cheers when working with a partner or groups, or encouraging one another to tell more about their ideas.

ASL signs like “again” and “slow” can help a learner feel that their needs are being heard and also help a teacher read the room to know more quickly when learners need support. A favorite of my students and colleagues is “same.” This can be used when students share an idea, opinion, experience, or feeling. “Same” implies deeper connection and listening and holds more meaning than a simple head nod or thumbs-up. ASL provides more relational communication and reinforces the self-determination theory for e-learning that “students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them,” which, in turn, improves engagement and motivation.

Value of ASL

Using an established language, like ASL, versus creating hand signals has a range of benefits, from greater cultural awareness and comfort with difference to using a common language that is more universal. ASL also can reinforce and extend the nonverbal commands (hand raise, thumbs-up, emojis, etc.) already built into tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and Webex.

Benefits of using ASL include:

  • Improved focus
  • Enhanced social and emotional connection between teachers and students
  • Introduction of a total physical response, which supports attention and memory
  • Universal meaning (versus classroom or program-specific meaning)
  • Increased support and inclusion of diverse learners
  • Improved use of facial expressions
  • Increased student willingness to turn on webcams
  • Improved expectations for participation

According to Kershaw, consistently using ASL signs for nonverbal responses gets straight to the students’ needs, saving time, improving focus, and ensuring that students feel seen and heard from a distance. Reaching every student must include actively building a supportive community, starting with acknowledging one another.

How to Use ASL in Live Meetings

ASL for nonverbal communication in live meetings works well for small groups where webcams are turned on and for larger meetings where you are able to use a tile layout and see all of your students. Start with one sign per meeting or class to introduce the concept. Practice using the sign as a group. “Applause” and “understand” are other useful signs you may want to share with your students or team.

Discuss with students why and how signs will be used during meetings, and have students help pick the signs that will be norms for class meetings. This cocreation will encourage community, regular use, and understanding among students.

You can learn more helpful signs for live meetings here from University of Cincinnati ASL instructor Emma Kreiner, who contributed to this article.

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