How to Build ASL and English Vocabulary with Word Cards


The majority of my students come to me without a full first language base. All of my students have some kind of hearing loss.  Some are deaf and have no access to sound and depend completely on visual language, while others have two working cochlear implants and are learning to hear and understand verbal language. I'm pretty sure I have encountered every child in between as well.  Needless to say, their language needs are diverse!

However, they all have one thing in common.  They come to school to LEARN.  What are they learning, and how do I teach it? That  requires a complex answer but today, we will discuss using American Sign Language to teach English.

First and foremost my students must learn to sign.  This is important in a Deaf school because it is necessary to communicate with peers and adults at school.  We start with basic signs used to communicate and this largely consists of Nouns and Verbs. Basically, we are giving labels to the people, things and actions in our environment.
I use these word cards to reinforce that there are labels (signs) to describe our environment.  Once students are independently using two to three word phrases to communicate, we begin attaching the labels to English words.

(as a side note.... I wish I had several years to develop ASL proficiency before teaching English, but unfortunately that is never the case... but that is an entirely different topic)

These word cards have 3 essential parts:

A picture representation of the word.
The English word
An ASL representation of the word.

Now we all know that aside from the English word, the sign and the picture will not always be the same... these are both representative of the "real thing" and used as a reminder of what that item really is.  A 2D picture will never be an adequate description of a moving, directional sign, but it IS a starting point and a brain trigger.  The same concept goes for the picture.  The picture of a cow for example is just one representation of a cow. The color, the size, the smell.... all of these vary greatly, but we use a picture as a starting point to help our brains remember the concept.

We typically begin by using these cards to identify the sign or the picture.
We play many games with these words to gain familiarity with them.


Read the room - students are given pictures or words (differentiated for individual needs) and sent around the room to find the matching card.

War- students are given a pile of cards and they flip over cards rapidly, the first student to sign their card gets to keep both cards.

Go Fish- I make two sets(or sometimes more) of cards and the students play "Go Fish" trying to find a match for the cards in their hands.

Match- make two copies of the cards and play match... try to find a pair among cards turned face down

Realia- We label things... I bring in toy whatevers and we stick the card to the real item.  Also, we watch videos and pause them.... again sticking the card to the correct  item.
For action words, we stick cards to the students and they have to perform the action...

One of our favorites (and I don't really know the name of this game) but here's how it is played.
Place all the cards in a pocket chart and hide an item ( picture, coin, sticker etc.) behind one card. The students have to sign the word of the card they want to look behind it. When they reveal the item,  let that student hide the item and continue playing.  SO MUCH FUN! Also, the student who hid the item is now "the teacher"  and is required to find the card that the other students are requesting.  (sneaky teacher imbedding learning in a fun game)

When students are ready, we begin sorting words into categories.  ( this is also an endless many categories.) But for this particular post, I want to discuss how we begin to bridge labels to sentences.

We start by sorting two categories.

Who/What  and   What Doing

This is just sorting.  As you can see in the picture below, this little guy still has some work to do, but that's okay, this is another great point for discussion.... and THE BEST assessment for me to see where they are at with the understanding of words, label, signs etc.
This is the link between just saying/signing a word (because you have memorized it) and actually understanding the concept behind the word.

For example when I asked this student why he put the word (fish) in the "doing" category, he told me it was because he goes fishing with his dad.  What?! discussing multiple meaning words with young learners?  Yes! After much discussion we moved that card to the "what" side, and we drew a picture of fishing, and put it under the "doing" category.  #teachablemoment



When students are able to sort efficiently and demonstrate clear understanding of the topics we begin sentence building with the cards. All of the cards here are set up with the correct grammar to make simple noun + verb sentences.  We choose a word from the Who/What category, and then a word from the What Doing category and we make an English sentence. We read the sentence, sign the sentence, act out the sentence etc, then we return the cards to the correct category and choose cards for another sentence.

When we are not using the picture cards, I keep them stored in containers labeled  with the contents so we can keep them organized. This picture has several other related items as well, so when we are working with this particular group of words, we have many options.

The vocabulary for these cards are derived from theReading Milestones  curriculum.  You do not have to use this curriculum to use these cards but the progression of the vocabulary included in these card sets follow that curriculum.  
To find the Wh question word cards CLICK HERE
You can find all the word cards for RED books in the RM Curriculum below.  Just click on the caption below the picture.  The first set is FREE.

ASL Word Cards Set 3 and 4
ASL Word Cards Set 5 and 6
ASL Word Cards Set 7 and 8
ASL Word Cards Set 9 and 10

What do you do to bridge the gap with your early learners?  I would love to hear your ideas!  Please leave your  questions or comments below.

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