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A New Controversial Approach to Literacy:
SignWriting: Will It Work?

Mark Twain School Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Left to right: Simon, Jazmine, Joe and Desi. The kids are waiting for
the SignWriter Computer Program to "boot" on the library computers,
and while waiting, they are reading from the SignWriting storybooks.

by Alexandra Han
A controversial way to read, write and type one's sign language, SignWriting (or SW) is an 'alphabet', or a list of symbols, that can be used to write one's sign language. Like the Roman alphabet, used to write many different spoken languages, such as Danish, German, French, Spanish and English, SignWriting can also be used to write many different sign languages. After all, if many spoken languages can have written versions, why not sign languages?

Resistance Against SignWriting: Why It Is Controversial
Yet even within the Deaf communities, Sign Writing has been controversial from the first time it was invented in 1974: either dismissed, laughed at, or scorned. "Historically, new ideas that create "social change" are always met with resistance in the beginning, and SignWriting is no exception," points out Valerie Sutton, creater of SignWriter.

Among reasons listened why SignWriting "should not" be accepted:
1) Signed languages are not supposed to be written
2) Deaf people will become isolated and never learn to read and write English
3) You have no right to write our language if you are a hearing person
4) If I learn it, no one else can read it, so why bother?
5) I had trouble enough learning to read and write English, why should I learn something new now as an adult?
6) I refuse to learn SignWriting unless other Deaf people back it first!

Yet as SignWriting continues to evolve, it is gathering greater acceptance, and its many uses, including a possible educational advantage for Deaf and hard or hearing students, is slowly beginning to be sensed by others. Interestingly, while both Deaf and hearing adults struggle with their reactions to SW....

Deaf Children: Their Reactions
....Young children respond differently. They're drawn to it, get excited about it, and will do this 'school work' harder, and for longer periods. According to their teachers, they tend to take about six months to learn the basics of SignWriting, a relatively short time in their long academic education. They also learn it more quickly than adults, being younger, unbiased, and more linguistically flexible. Research is currently being undertaken to determine whether SignWriting helps, or doesn't help, these children's ability to read and write English - and, perhaps more
importantly, their self esteem. From an elementary Albuquerque, New Mexico school, this eight-years-old young student,Desi Baca, chortles: "It's FUN!.....My favorite thing is to learn SW" Asked if she thought it will be hard for deaf people, she signed emphatically (In ASL), "No, it's easy for Deaf people" (because they already know signs). About the SignWriter program, in which one can type in the symbols for SW, she signed emphatically,."I admit I like to use the computer! It's a lot of fun to make up stories, and it is beautiful". When asked to clarify what is beautiful, she pointed to the instructional manual with the signs and SW symbols illustrated in color, and signed, "I like (the symbols)....they are beautiful".

Another young student, Jazmine Martinez, reminded of the occasion when she found the sign for 'girl' in the SignWriter dictionary and became very excited at finding it, giggled, and commented '(That sign) 'girl', yes, you are right!', then proudly demonstrated some other signs she found using the SignWriter dictionary, such as 'bug' and 'cat'.' As to her favorite book, "I read it at home. I sit and look at the signs (written in SW) and then write the word...I will work for a long time in my room when my mom goes to the store". Other teachers have reported similiar reactions...

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Silent News
133 Gaither Drive, Suite E
Mount Laurel, New Jersey, 08054

Alexandra Han
Silent News Columnist

...related articles....

SignWriting In The USA
Literacy Projects in American Schools

The Albuquerque Public Schools
SignWriting Literacy Project
Letters & Web Reports, Mona Sherrell & Cecilia Flood

Classroom Experiences Teaching SignWriting
in the Albuquerque Public Schools
Excerpts from email messages by Cecilia Flood


Research Project
Albuquerque Public Schools Research Project
Assessing Deaf Children Learning SignWriting

...Cecilia Flood 1999 & continuing...
University of New Mexico Linguistics Department


...other Silent News articles...

Controversial Approach to Communication: SignWriting, The "Alphabet" of Signs Alexandra Han....
Silent News, March 1999