SignWriting List Archive 1
October 1997 - May 1998

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April 25, 1998

SUBJECT: SW Literacy Development

On April 24, 1998, Ruth Kartchner wrote:
>SignWriting is all over the world now, and I noticed that some teachers are
>having a little difficulty teaching SignWriting to young children. I wonder
>if this has something to do with the educational systems in the different
>countries. Having grown up in Chile, I know that whole language was out of
>the question, for instance. The methods used even today tend to be a little
>painful for the children.

Hello Ruth -
Your work on literacy sounds most interesting and valuable. Thank you for sharing with us.

In regards to the difficulties of teaching SignWriting to young children, I believe you are referring to another posting written by Ronice Müller de Quadros. You can find Ronice's two postings on this subject on our web site on these pages:

Message #1 from Brazil...

Message #2 from Brazil...

I had originally planned to respond to Ronice's excellent points too, but never got the chance until now. So in a way, this is a response to both of you :-)

I think that it is a matter of perspective on the history of the development of other writing systems. For example, literacy in English did not truly begin until centuries after the actual alphabetic characters were developed. First, small groups of educated people, such as monks, wrote bibles and other religious materials laboriously by hand. Later the printing press was developed. Later dictionaries finally helped standardize spellings, but all this took centuries. And "everyday people" still did not read and write. It took a long time for school systems to develop. Literacy in English "for every child" is, from an historic perspective, something rather new.

Twenty-five years ago, I started developing the symbols and testing them. Then, from 1981-1984 we wrote the SignWriter Newspaper laboriously by hand (it took three months to complete 20 pages with ink pens). That was the equivalent of monks writing bibles by hand. Then we worked on the first dictionaries - someday I will tell you all about that experience...which was much harder than you would ever imagine - and of course the work is not done! Then we developed a way to type SignWriting by computer (and we were told it could never be done). And now we are starting the SignWriting Literacy Project to encourage teachers to experiment with "Sign Language Literacy". That too is a new idea.

So...historically, reading and writing signed languages is in its infancy. We are the first generation attempting this, and naturally, when pioneering a new idea, there are difficulties to be overcome. But we will overcome them, with your help, and with experience.

I admire Marianne Stumpf and others in Brazil for their courage in teaching something that is so new. The main reason why Marianne and others have had frustrations is that there are no materials written in Brazilian Sign Language yet! That is exactly why we started the new SignWriting Literacy Project, so that we can assist teachers with free materials and technical support.

So I think that your expertise in literacy in other languages will be very useful, if we can apply that knowledge to the experience of teaching literacy in signed languages. But I also would not fault the school systems in any country, because no one knows, at this moment, where this adventure will lead us!

By the way, while I think of it, Dr. Judy Shepard-Kegl and her husband, James Shepard-Kegl, have done outstanding work with literacy in Nicaraguan Sign Language. They are actively building written literature written in SignWriting there. Some of the Deaf people in Nicaragua are writing and typing directly in their native signed language - so it is happening in small pockets around the globe. It just isn't widespread yet.

All the best -