How Using American Sign Language Can Improve Online Classes in virtual schools, and help students and educators feel more connected.
One of Bromberg’s ASL instructors, Denice Draper, demonstrates some sign languages during a virtual session. Using a few key signs during remote instruction can help students in a virtual environment communicate more effectively.
We’ve all felt it. Disengaged and disconnected. We have been “present” but not truly present in a synchronous (live) online meeting or seminar. We could have been distracted, alone, or disconnected from others. Regardless of the need for emotional closeness during this period of physical separation, “Zoom fatigue” sets in, and live streamed encounters lose their effectiveness for teachers and students.
But we must not give up hope. The ideas of connection and sharing lie at the heart of live meetings. Incorporating established nonverbal communication strategies from early childhood education and American Sign Language (ASL) can benefit everyone by improving how we host, participate, and engage in online meetings. Why ASL – let’s dive in!
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION AND ATTENTION
One explanation for online meeting weariness is that these meetings frequently require more focus and attention than face-to-face talks. Furthermore, lag in response time (such as unmuting mics or waiting for responses in chat) has been demonstrated to reduce personal connection and interest.
However, as executive coach Jeff Wolf argues in SmartBrief, paying attention to nonverbal communication in online meetings can improve both teachers’ and learners’ experiences. Several studies have indicated that more than half of human communication is nonverbal. However, we rarely consider our nonverbal communication, particularly 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 spring 2021, a teacher at Hyde Park School quickly noticed the correlation between nonverbal signals and student engagement in her online classes by employing ASL signs for “Thank you,” “Good morning,” “Stop,” and “Happy” as learners continue to communicate in an online setting. By the end of the year, all of her building’s teachers were utilizing agreed-upon signs, which resulted in clearer messages and easier and more meaningful attention.
Her students benefit from ASL because it provides a common language and focuses on delivery strategies, such as strong, unambiguous facial expressions that transmit or reinforce the intended meaning of a sign. This intentionality in visual online communication can assist activities, such as read-alouds, problem-solving stages, and other instruction that demand high-energy delivery to retain attention and focus. Facial expressions in ASL can substantially impact the meaning of a sign and must be considered. This intentionality in our expressions assists us in sending the correct message of support, encouragement, confusion, or agreement to our students and encourages them to do the same.
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION AND CONNECTION
Nonverbal communication was employed by one CPS administrator and technology leader, as well as a former self-contained first-grade teacher, to engage students and solidify processes and routines. Nonverbal signs were a method to interact with the teacher and peers even in a classroom full of enthusiastic, engaged student chatter and active-learning noise.
The cheerful chatter of students engaged in their own worlds of study isn’t as common in our virtual world as it once was, but nonverbal signals and communication continue to support procedures and form a community. When a CPS elementary intervention specialist taught in person, her students utilized ASL for processes such as stopping, lining up, sitting, standing, and asking a question or requesting permission. They also employed signals to foster community, such as silent cheers while working with a partner or groups or encouraging one another to share more information about their ideas.
ASL signs such as “again” and “slow” can help a learner feel as if their needs are being met, as well as enable a teacher to read the room to identify when students require assistance more quickly. “Same” is a favorite of students and colleagues. When students share an idea, opinion, experience, or feeling, this might be utilized. “Same” signifies a more meaningful connection and listening rather than a simple head nod or thumbs-up. ASL allows for greater relational communication and strengthens the self-determination theory for e-learning, which states that “students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them,” which 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 differences to using a common language that is more universal. ASL can also 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 ASL teachers, 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 with webcams turned on, as well as bigger meetings with a tile layout and the ability to observe all of your students. Begin by introducing the notion with one sign per meeting or class. As a group, practice using the sign. Other good signals to share with your students or team include “applause” and “understand.”
Discuss with students why and how signs will be used during meetings, and have students assist in selecting the signs that will represent class meeting norms. This collaboration will foster student community, regular use, and comprehension.
You can learn more helpful signs for live meetings or virtual schools here from Bromberg ASL interpreter Denice Draper, who contributed to this article.
Luckily, all American Sign Language interpreters working on-site and via Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) with Bromberg & Associates have extensive experience working with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community and are nationally and/or state-certified.