Children, Australian Sign Language and the Web; The Possibilities

Kirsten Ellis, Lecturer, School of Multimedia Systems [HREF1] , Monash University [HREF2] , 100 Clyde Road, Berwick [HREF3], Victoria, 3800.

Professor Kathy Blashki, Professor of Multimedia, Deakin University [HREF4] , 221 Burwood Highway Burwood Victoria 3125.


This paper examines the advantages of using the World Wide Web (Web) as a resource to teach hearing primary aged children Australian Sign Language (Auslan). There is a trend towards educating signing deaf children in mainstream schools, therefore it is important to teach the hearing children sign language to enable meaningful communication and the formation of social relationships between hearing and deaf students. The authors will compare various methods of teaching sign language with the Web and further describe a selection of the available instructional material. Considerations for designing appropriate sign language teaching material for the Web are discussed particularly in the context of designing content that engages the primary school aged audience.


Communication is primarily focused on the exchange of information between two individuals (Karlan, 1990). Many deaf Australian children use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) to communicate with family and friends. In addition, they are also educated within the school system using sign language. American Sign Language (ASL) is the American equivalent to Auslan. Drasgow believes that for profoundly deaf children sign language is "a natural language existing in the visual modality and therefore is fully accessible to these children who rely mainly or entirely on signed input for communication" (1998: 335). In Australia, as in many countries, there is a trend towards integration of deaf students into mainstream schools. Integration provides the students with the broadest educational opportunities, however, it has significant implications for the social welfare of the children as it may effect their communication with both teachers and peers (Smith, 1996).

Both professionals and parents of deaf children express a number of concerns regarding integration of deaf children into mainstream schools. Research has found that deaf children in an integrated setting congregate together, physically removed from hearing children due to communication barriers - either perceived or real (Allen and Karchmer, 1990; Komesaroff, 1998; Wall, 2000). One way to alleviate the communication barrier in this situation is to teach sign language to the hearing children in mainstream schools in order to foster communication and the formation of social groups. Stoke claims that "One of the most important uses of language is the formation and preservation of social groups" (1976: 387). Teaching sign language to children is also likely to result in a more inclusive society.

If the present trend continues, and more and more children who are deaf receive their education in inclusive mainstream settings, it will become increasingly important for a larger number of their hearing classmates to know how to communicate with them in ASL or some form of sign language (Daniels, 2001: 104)

This research thus aims to investigate the possibility of using the Web as a resource to teach sign language to primary aged hearing children

Currently Available Sign language Instruction

Each sign consists of a number of parts: hand configuration, place of articulation, orientation, path of movement and non sign components such as facial expression (Capirci, Iverson, Montanari and Volterra, 2002; Drasgow, 1998; Hudson, 2000). The visual and kinetic nature of sign language renders it difficult if not impossible to learn from a book, as movement, emphasis and facial expression are difficult to convey (Drasgow, 1998). Thus, traditionally, sign language has been taught via means of person to person, either from deaf or hearing parent to deaf child, or in an educational setting. Gallaudet claims that to acquire sign language the learner,

must consent, carefully and perseveringly, to take lesson after lesson off the older teacher who is proficient in this language, while the older teacher must have the patience to give these lessons. For, the language of natural signs is not to be learned from a book. It cannot be delineated in pictures, or printed on paper. It must be learned, in a great degree, from the living, looking, acting model. Some of the finest models, for such a purpose, are found among the originators of this language, the deaf and dumb (1848/1997: 7).

At the time, Gallaudet could not have predicted the advances in technology that have led to the development of other tools that are appropriate for teaching sign language such as videos and computers. Sign languages are currently taught in traditional instructor lead courses, through books, videos, CD-ROMs, and on the World Wide Web.


Currently there are a number of organizations that teach sign language classes. There are Association for the Deaf and TAFE colleges as well as community organizations that teach sign language. In addition, there are university courses that teach translators and interpreters for the deaf. Classes are designed for people with an interest in sign language such as parents of deaf children and professionals that work with the deaf as well as people who have an interest from a social perspective. Instruction in sign language also occurs in schools that use sign language as their Language Other Than English (LOTE). The advantage of classes is that they are the only current form of sign language instruction that can check receptive and expressive skills. However there are also two main disadvantages in sign language classes: students cannot work at their own pace as they need to keep up with the rest of the class and students are compelled to travel to classes at set times which may be inconvenient.


There are three main types of books that support sign language: dictionaries, instructional books and stories in sign. Dictionaries are convenient for looking up particular words of interest, however, they do not provide an instructional course for language learning. Two examples of comprehensive dictionaries for adults are Signs of Australia: A New Dictionary of Auslan (Johnston, 1998) which uses diagrams of Auslan signs and The VSDC Dictionary of Auslan: English to Auslan (Bernal and Wilson, 1998) which uses photographs with arrows and occasionally multiple pictures to show movement. There are also dedicated children's sign language dictionaries such as A Picture Dictionary of Australasian Signs for Young Children (1990) which is an alphabetically organised dictionary presenting words and concepts with which children would be familiar. Another example is Signs for Me: Basic Sign Vocabulary for Children, Parents & Teachers (Bahan and Dannis, 1990) in ASL and divided into nouns, verbs and adjectives. Children's dictionaries present the sign, the written English word and a picture to illustrate the word.

The second type of sign language books are those that provide a home study course in sign language. Australian Signed English for Teachers and Parents: a series of lessons to aid fluency (Warden) is a home study course in sign language. The signs are organised into themes, with a number of lessons in each of five books. In each lesson, approximately 20 signs are presented including a diagram of the sign, the word and a description of the sign. At the end of each lesson all of the words presented in the lesson are listed and a series of practice sentences are written. At the end of the book there are test sentences using the vocabulary presented in the book. There are also instructional books in sign language that are designed for the classroom situation and suggest a particular sequence for learning signs: for example, Hafer and Wilson (1996) Come Sign with Us: Sign language activities for children, an American book produced in ASL intended for classroom teachers. Cahn (1988) Signing naturally: Teacher's Curriculum Guide, Level 1 is an American book that provides a syllabus for teaching adults ASL.

Story books provide support material for sign language instruction rather than a comprehensive learning strategy. Several books take the approach of presenting a storybook with words and illustrations of signs; for example, Bertels and Hewitt (1990) The River of Silence. Other innovative techniques for teaching sign language include using well known songs to introduce signs to children. These books include the music, words to the song and signs to match the words. Two examples of song books with signs are Collin and Kiefer (1995) Songs in Sign and Ryan (2002) Sing & Sign with Me: Combining 26 favorite nursery rhymes & songs with melodies, sign language & natural gesture for use in all early childhood settings. There are several approaches that storybooks take to conveying the movement in sign language. Some books use diagrams and arrows (Bertels and Hewitt, 1990); others use photos and arrows (Bove, Cooke, Shevett and Shevett, 1980). A novel approach is taken by Ancona and Miller (1989) in Handtalk Zoo using motion blur photography to show the movement of the signs in ASL. The start position of the photo is clear and the end position is blurred with trails in-between.

The advantages of books are that they provide an extensive vocabulary available at any time for students to work through at their own pace; however, books do not show movement and facial expression effectively and producing signs accurately from books can be difficult.


There are a number of videos available to teach sign language. Videos can be an accessible way to learn sign language for people who are unable to attend classes as they are appropriate for the individual home learning situation. Videos should be supplemented by interactions with other sign language users to ensure that the signs are articulated accurately. The advantage of videos over traditional classes is that students can progress at their own rate. Talking Hands (Chobocky and Clancy, 1984) is a series of videos designed to teach Signed English to parents of deaf children. It introduces between eight and fifteen signs per lesson and encourages the viewer to take advantage of the video recorder's counter and memory function in order to rewind and repeat sections of the program until the target vocabulary is learned. The drawback of using the video and counter is that this method of repeating sections can be cumbersome. The disadvantages of videos are that expressive and receptive signs cannot be checked and purchasing videos is often very expensive.

There are several videos that are presented in AUSLAN that are specifically designed to engage the interest of young children. The following videos are designed for immersive learning rather than specific vocabulary instruction. Time to Learn in AUSLAN about animals and camping is designed for preschool children using characters, stories and crafts to encourage learning about animals and camping. Toddies Tales 2 presents a number of songs and stories in Auslan with a signing puppet named Bud introducing each item. Makaton Nursery Rhymes for Australasian Children presents well known traditional nursery rhymes and songs interpreted into Australian Makaton Sign language. All three of these videos are designed to be enjoyed by hearing and deaf children as they have sign, sound, image, and captions.

Multimedia CD-Rom

Multimedia CD-ROMs for computers offer many of the advantages of video, such as the ability to convey the dynamic movement of sign with the added advantage of giving the user control of the pace and path of the learning process. In addition to this, a Multimedia CD-Rom can check the learner's receptive ability and the lessons can be adjusted accordingly. For a technology that shows great potential for teaching sign language very little has been created using Multimedia CD-ROMs probably due to the relatively small audience and the expenses associated with production and distribution. One CD-Rom that has been produced recently is Discovering Auslan: A Beginner's Dictionary of Australian Sign Language (Johnson, Thornton and Napier, 2002). It uses a scuba diver and bubbles for the interface metaphor. The main menu is a diving watch and bubbles are used for navigation. Users of this CD-Rom can search for a specific word or search through a category list. The video of a person making signs can be played in slow motion and synonyms, category and dialogues are presented. Dialogues present two people having a sign conversation that incorporates the selected words. The CD-ROM also enables an image of selected words to be printed for future reference. Discovering Auslan also introduces the alphabet by providing images of all of the letters in the alphabet and incorporates two activities to practice finger spelling. One activity shows a letter sign and the learner types in the correct letter in the space provided. The second activity requires the learner to type in a word and the computer displays the appropriate letter sign. Whilst a useful resource, it is based on a dictionary and as such, does not explore the full potential of Multimedia CD-Rom technology.

The Web

The Web has similar advantages to video format when compared with books including: the ability to present dynamic pictures and enabling sections of lessons to be repeated however the Web offers far more in terms of quality of, and engagement in, the learning process. The World Wide Web enables presentation of vocabulary in multiple modes such as video, text, auditory files and pictures to enhance the learning experience. Inclusion of several multimedia elements in web pages enables the creation of an ideal tool for teaching sign language as web pages can highlight the essential elements of the language learning process.

Each of the Australian deaf associations and several of the deaf schools have web sites, however, these are not designed to teach Auslan, rather, they provide information for deaf people and contact details. One web site that has a small section showing Auslan signs [HREF5] . This site has approximately twenty basic words. The words are listed under the heading Sign Online. Selecting a word brings up an animated image of the selected sign using photographs of people. Search engines found three sites for learning Auslan,, and Unfortunately, none of these sites currently exist despite several links to them.

There are several web sites for learning American Sign Language such as ASL University [HREF6] which provides a very comprehensive course in sign language and is available free to individual users. This site contains information on deaf issues, references to information for the deaf, answers to frequently asked questions as well as providing an online course in ASL introducing words according to themes. The site uses a combination of animated gifs, images, videos, diagrams and texts to convey the target signs. It also provides conversation practices, the first 100 words to learn, an ASL glossary and numerous finger spelling quizzes. It is a well organised, comprehensive site that a motivated adult could use to become conversationally proficient in ASL. Unfortunately, it is text heavy and therefore inappropriate for young children. Signing Online [HREF7] has similar aims however it is a user-pays service. There is slightly less text and more videos, quizzes, a dictionary and information on ASL. Commtech [HREF8] provides an extensive alphabetically ordered list of ASL signs on video. Whilst a useful resource it is structurally modelled as a dictionary rather than a tutorial.

There are ASL web sites that have been designed for children. Often the ASL components are an adjunct to the main site content. For example; Alfy the kids portal playground: Teach learn communicate [HREF9] is a section of a larger site that is a portal to a number of sign language activities for children. These include signing with Koko a signing gorilla, sign dictionaries and sign language games. The interface is bright and engaging for children though several of the links were not functional. Signing time [HREF10] is a site that sells videos and DVDs that teach young children ASL. A small sample section of the products are provided. For example, there is an interesting short video on learning the sign "Eat" which includes animation, children and adults making the sign and the text of the word. The signing time song is engaging, with a female performer signing and singing the song against an animated background with children popping up to make some signs. The colour and music in this site are appealing for children.

The British Royal Association for Deaf people [HREF11] has a web site which incorporates a children's section containing a number of sign language games including a crossword puzzle on deaf issues. The BBC [HREF12] also has an extensive web site on issues for the deaf and the BBC presents one show each week called SeeHear which uses British Sign Language (BSL) and deals with issues for the deaf.

An advantage of the Web is that it enables various levels of control to the users, ranging from the program controlling the path, content and timing of the learning experience to the user having total control of their learning experience (Ellis, 2002). In the case of learning Auslan, a web application could be designed to enable the user to control the rate of presentation of new words and the number of times that the sign is repeated. Individual customisation of the curriculum could enable the presentation of facets of sign language in an order that suits the learner's requirements. The web pages could be designed to guide the user in the vocabulary that is presented or the user could select the words that they want to learn based on themes or topics. Once the signed vocabulary has been developed, it could be used as a learning tutorial or as a dictionary to 'look up' the correct sign for a particular word. Each individual's learning progress could be addressed using a standard computer system. A responsive application can check on the students' progress by testing their recognition of signs, therefore, if the computer was in control of the learning process, it could adjust the rate that signs are presented to suit each individual's needs based on feedback from the testing process.

An advantage of the Web over CD-Rom is that the student could learn the language wherever an appropriate connected computer is available, bypassing the complexity of advertising and distribution to a diverse demographic. The advantages of distribution that the Web provides cannot be underestimated, especially in a highly diverse environment with a relatively small population of users. AUSLAN has an Australia wide population of 15, 000 (Komesaroff, 1998) and easier access to resource material may encourage more people to learn this language which will aid deaf sign language users. Authoring software such as Macromedia Flash, Macromedia Dream Weaver, Cold Fusion, in addition to Java, JavaScript, jscript, image maps and animated gifs make the rapid development of educational software a possibility. The use of authoring software can keep the development cost relatively low, however the requirement for plugins and compatibility issues must be considered.

Comparison of methods of sign language instruction

  Instructor Book Video CD/DVD Web
Relevant vocabulary can be taught
Pace can be matched to learners needs
Pressure for learner to keep up
Lesson can be repeated as often as required for the learner
Receptive signs can be checked and corrected
Expressive signs can be checked and corrected
Shows dynamic movement and facial expression effectively
Always available
Can be used at any time
No need to travel for access especially for rural and remote people
Low costs involved in production
Low costs involved in distribution issues despite of the relatively small and widely distributed audience
Distribution to widely distributed audience
Easy for intended recipients to find and access Australia wide

Figure 1: A comparison of advantage for several modes of learning sign language.

Considerations in Web Based Sign Language Instruction for Children

Interface considerations

When designing web based sign language instruction, the interface needs to be considered carefully to ensure that the environment is conducive to learning. The first consideration is whether the sign can be seen clearly by the user. This includes the size of the sign in the viewing area. If too many components are included on the screen then the sign will be too small to see clearly. Is the sign shown in the appropriate signing space? Signs are dependent on where they are produced. Failure to correctly place the sign in relation to the body will render some signs unintelligible where other signs are robust in handspace. The lighting and backlighting need to be considered and the appropriate use of contrasting colours will aid the clarity of the target signs (Kampfe, 1990). The angle of the image may make a difference to the child learning the sign correctly. Signs that have movement away from the body may be difficult to distinguish if the sign is not shown from the appropriate angle.

Each target sign needs to be named for the learner: an image, text and speech could be combined to fulfil this function. All three elements would be required as the child audience may not be able to read the text. In addition to this, multimedia could incorporate memory aids to assist the child in remembering the sign: this is usually done by associating the sign with existing knowledge. For example, in Auslan, the sign 'yellow' is a hand touching a yellow ribbon in the hair.


The other advantage in the use of multimedia to teach sign language is the ability of well designed software to engage the audience. In teaching sign language to four to six year old children, multimedia must be designed to be age appropriate, introducing the sign vocabulary in an interesting and engaging manner.

The use of songs, stories, games and rhymes would be appropriate in addition to more traditional explicit learning models. Children of this age often learn songs with actions. There are a number of traditional songs such as 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'; 'Rock-a-bye-a-bear' and 'Open Shut Them' that children learn. Reynolds (1995) has researched and taught sign language to preschool and lower primary aged children and she recommends that learning sign language should be made entertaining by incorporating signed songs and stories which is highly engaging for children. Daniels gives an example that when learning to read, "There is a progression of learning that begins with the names of the letters. They are often taught from the 'Alphabet Song,' set to the tune of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'. Most children are able to learn it rather quickly and easily." (2001: 19). In addition to this, children learn songs and actions from videos of popular singing groups such as "The Wiggles" and "High Five". Children with these videos learn actions and words by heart by repeating the video multiple times because they are enjoyable. Replicating this level of engagement would encourage the learning of sign language by multiple repetitions.

Of key importance is the duration and intensity of the sign language classes, to enable children to leave the classroom with a desire to know more rather than feeling overwhelmed. Reynolds (1995) suggests a learning session of twenty to thirty minutes in the morning (as children tend to be more receptive at this time) with a combination of expressive and receptive activities and alternating voice and voiceless activities as some children find voiceless activities a strain.

Signed children's stories and rhymes are also an appropriate way to introduce sign language as they engage children's interest and small sections are often repeated in order for children to join in with more and more of the story. In the design of web pages it is important to take a more creative approach to language learning rather than the drill and practice format. Interactive stories offer narrative, which promotes interest for children as well as the ability to control their progress. Games offer another avenue for presenting and checking vocabulary acquisition. Games such as 'Simon Says' encourage children to repeat the actions of the leader. In this way, children could be encouraged to sign in an enjoyable manner rather than by rote learning.

Another consideration in designing multimedia to teach sign language to children is the use of characters to facilitate higher levels of engagement. For children, it may be more interesting to follow a friendly pirate, a dinosaur or a teddy than a person. Designers of multimedia should follow the lead of television producers of children's programs who have had many years of experience in capturing children's attention. The character should be carefully selected to reflect a positive image of sign language users. For example, a clown or monkey would be inappropriate because they could be made fun of, a super hero or a fireman could present a positive role model.


The World Wide Web provides great opportunities for creating engaging learning environments for primary aged children and could effectively be used to teach Australian Sign Language. However, as yet there are very few resources that have been created utilising this technology. The Web is appropriate for teaching sign language because video and animation can be used to show dynamic movement, the instruction can be matched to the needs of the learner, it can be used at a time most convenient to the learner without having to travel, resources can be developed for moderate costs and the products can be distributed widely to a diverse population of learners. In developing Web pages for teaching sign language the interface must be considered carefully to ensure that the signs are represented clearly and in an interesting manner in order to engage the users in the learning process. For the lower primary audience the use of songs, stories, games and rhymes presented by interesting characters would enhance the learning processes. The benefit of using the Web to assist students in learning Auslan is that a more inclusive society is created for the deaf and other Auslan users.


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Toddies Tales 2: Auslan Entertainment for Infant School Children, Series (Dir.) Coates, N., Deafness Resources Australia, videorecording.


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Hypertext References




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