Signing into English

September 2006: a young neighbour was not happy after her first ever English class, so we sat down…

It was published in Humanising Language Teaching Magazine, HLTM 9.1 (January 2007) Lesson outline 4. use.  Over the years the server has changed, so the link is a little indirect – it’s worth a little patience to find the materials.  And then you can then read more of their articles 🙂  Or read the text below:

LESSON OUTLINES Year 9; Issue 1; January 07

Signing into English: a Single-session Therapy with a Fearful Starter

Claire Ozel

Claire Ozel has been an ELF teacher for 12 years. She worked from early on with learners with different needs to identify better ways for them to achieve: methods that were then used to benefit any learner. Since 2004, she has been Disability Support Coordinator at the Middle East Techical University in Ankara, Turkey. E-mail:,

The Sunday after the new school year started, I asked two young neighbours how their first English lesson went. While one was happy, the other was sulky, negative; this called for immediate remedial action!

They brought their books and we sat down under a tree, with a good supply of blank cards and a pen. “What English words do you know?” I asked, and they started ‘CAT, DOG, BOOK, PENCIL,…’ then rattled off ‘Van, tu, tiri, for, fayv, siks, seven, eyt, nayn, ten’. In the first twenty minutes I wrote each of the 50 words one a card; and we could have found many more. From sports (FOOT/HAND BALL, TENNIS), professions (MUSICIAN, DOCTOR, PROFESSOR, DANCER, POLICE), instruments and equipment (RADIO, TELEVISION, TELEPHONE, TELESCOPE, MICROSCOPE, FLUTE, PIANO, internationally known characters (Ninja TURTLES, SPIDER MAN), and others (BANK, CONCERT, PIZZA, FILM, MUSIC, CINEMA, DINOSAUR, VIRUS, all words are similar enough both language to be ‘already known’ to our new learners.

I laid each card out in front of us, including the correctly spelt numbers 1 to 10. At this point something interesting happened: the children were attempting to match the sounds they knew and the spellings in front of them. 7 and 10 are phonetic, no problem. 9 and 5 can be spotted by their two recognisable consonants. 4 and 2 have few cues, but can be guessed. 6 has a new letter X, and 2 a W (known from http://www.adresses, but misleadingly silent). This leaves 1, 3 and 8 which can be worked out by elimination :

We had our first game! We mixed the cards and put them in order, mixed them again and named one drawn at random, repeating this until the responses were becoming reflexes. The game then moved instinctively into signing: a show of fingers, and the others had to name the number. Without spelling, there were no letters to cue the answer; the learners had to be able to connect the number of fingers shown with the spoken word – until then known as part of a memorised sequence.

New connections require lots of patience and repetition, but the young minds eventually wanted to move on before the words/sounds/meanings were sufficiently linked. As a learner of Turkish Sign Language (TSL), I found myself slipping into Sign and remembered Hava Jonai telling me how she had used Sign alphabet with young learners to anchor pronunciation. I wanted to convey pure meaning, bypassing use of L1. I knew TSL signs for some of the nouns the children had initially identified: DOG, CAR, BALL, NAME, TELEPHONE, BOOK, HAND and TURTLE. We created Signs for FLUTE, RADIO and PIANO and created a ‘Sign Game’: the leader signs a number then a noun; the players then have to say the two words in English. ‘Four books, two names, seven turtles, one piano, ten balls…’.

At such an early stage of English, no grammar was taught but the children quickly picked up on the plural S (different from the Turkish: nouns preceded by any number take no plural ending) and asked for clarification. In this activity, nouns with irregular plurals – FOOT, MAN – had to be left aside.

With ten numbers and a dozen nouns, the combinations are numerous enough to maintain suspense and interest. The hand movements bring a kinaesthetic component, and the game is easily handed over to the learners themselves. Not only can they carry on independently, but a few Turkish Signs are now passing round a local school playground. While Sign language is processed in the language processing section of the brain, it carries meaning visually, symbolically rather than orally so it reduces interference from mother tongue: rather than translating a word into a word, the learner is connecting a meaning directly with the target language.