Learning ASL with Different Learning Styles


Learning ASL with Different Learning Styles

by RaVen Sequoia


Most of us, by now, have discovered we have different learning styles when mastering a subject.

There is now a newer Learning Style approach called “Multiple Intelligences”. Most traditional teaching methods that is used (and still being used) is mainly linguistic and logical teaching.

Learning Style simply means there are different techniques where a student can master a subject with more ease and quickly compared to traditional lectures, textbook & passive listening mode.

There is a common myth that we have only one or two learning styles – it depends on a certain subject, an individual’s personal preference, cultural upbringing and other factors to consider. There is no one way or the other way – can combine as many learning styles to enhance your study skills.

Most students studying American Sign Language are hearing students in high school and colleges.  Most students are trained from a young age to listen and take notes. American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual gestural language.  If one cannot listen to a lecture and is not used to always visually watching – how can one improve studying ASL with ease? It will be awkward at first but utilizing other learning styles, as I have witnessed over and over again in the past 21 years has proven to be quite successful.

As an American Sign Language Mentor – I have noticed a common habit from most students is using an index card – studying one word/sign at a time or a long list of sheet of vocabulary.  Working in an ASL Lab & private students, I encourage them from as early as Level 1 that are using index cards method to actively create short sentences. This has increased their confidence dramatically as they test out creating new sentences as most teachers lecture a lot and do not encourage enough time during a class for hands-on interactive practice of signing full sentences/dialogues. In a group setting, the students practice together using enhanced learning styles. Instead of just one student showing another student the cards themselves, I had them finger-talk the vocabulary to improve their expressive and receptive finger-talking skills.  This approach is kinesthetic and it works much better than just mindlessly trying to mentally memorize many new and overwhelming list of words for a test.  Creating sentences on the spot improves memory recall as well as the body memorizes the movement. So, if later on, you get stuck – sometimes a student forgets the hand shape of a sign and then when moving the correct motion, the brain will automatically and kinesthetically remember the hand formation. Muscle memory is a wonderful thing to witness.

How do you determine which learning style is your preferred method? Study the list below and experiment with all methods and see which one “flows” the most for you.  Remember it’s encouraged to combine as many learning styles in mastering new foreign languages.

The Seven Learning Styles

  • Aural (auditory-musical): Use of voicing, sound and music.
  • Logical (mathematical): Use of logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): Use of body, hands and sense of touch.
  • Social (interpersonal): Studying in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): Work better alone and use self-study.
  • Verbal (linguistic): Use of words, both in speech and writing.
  • Visual (spatial): Use of pictures, images, and spatial understanding.

Can one even learn ASL with auditory-musical method? You bet! Aural (auditory-musical): Use of voicing, sound and music.

Applying Aural method

A lot of hearing and hard of hearing or even orally raised students (with hearing aids often times) and now more profoundly Deaf sign-singers learn ASL better auditory-wise.

For beginners, using very simple songs and memorizing new vocabulary is often a fun way to master new signs, concepts, miming, depicting verbs, emoting and non-manual signals fluently. Music often helps people to forget about obsessing every little detail and get carried away with musical instrument or singer’s voice that moves them to express meaningful lyrics in a fun way.

Start with a very short elementary song and work your way up to more advanced songs. Try to avoid heavily implicit or abstract lyrics as that’s for high-advanced or superior signers.

Here is an example of a cute child signing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”


Here is a low-advanced ASL student efficiently applying a rock song called BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY


Here is a superior CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) ASL interpreter who created a wonderful music video for a song “Somebody I used to Know”.

For deaf students – using English subtitles in MTV or YouTube music videos is a great way to mimic singers – turn on the volume as high as you can with big speakers to feel the vibrations is a helpful way to feel the beat and stay on track.

Logical (mathematical): Use of logic, reasoning and systems

Being a 100% logic oriented person – I have a tendency to ask WHY & HOW things are the way they are. In ASL, there are two sets of signs – arbitrary and iconic signs.

“Arbitrary and “iconic” are terms used to describe how the form of a symbol and the meaning of a symbol are related. If the form of the symbol, and the meaning of the symbol share nothing in common, it is considered to be “arbitrary”. There is no reason for that symbol representing that specific thing. If there is a specific reason for a symbol for a certain thing, it is considered to be “iconic”.

It made much more sense when I realized that some signs were obvious (iconic)  when forming specific hand shapes for certain words or concepts.

Book for example, is using the hand shape “Open B” – with both palms pressed together, it forms a shape of a closed book. Then when you “open” the palms, it will mimic opening a book with the bind intact.  Arbitrary signs such as “explain” is abstract and using two hand shapes “F”, palm down, sliding forward and backward indicates “explain”.

This is an example how certain linguistic rules have logical explanation of why certain signs are formed as they are; just as how non-manual markers are created since American Sign Language does not use spoken words/sounds from voice.

There is also fascinating historical origin of how certain signs were form and like all living languages, new concepts or vocabulary are constantly added to the dictionary (written or passed along kinetically) and studying the difference and knowing how and why it was originally formed and why it differs now will make a lot of sense.

Physical (kinesthetic): Use of body, hands and sense of touch

This is obvious, but you’d be surprised of how many ASL students attempt to learn ASL only through writing reports, essays, ASL glossing, watching videos, watching teachers and other classmates sign, taking written tests and avoid using as much as possible physically signing.  ASL is a visual-gestural language – students must physically apply learning the signs with their bodies.

Many people, especially in America, are not comfortable using their facial expression for ASL grammar markers and emoting. Some are too embarrassed to make such “contorted” and or “funny looking” facial expressions. It’s part of a very important ASL grammar rules and one must appropriately apply physically moving different parts of the face (eyebrows, nose, lips, and chin) to express specific details. When studying ASL – practice DAILY physically by applying all the movements with your head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.

Sense of Touch: I have taught many individuals who could not understand how tensed their bodies were and made them close their eyes and feel my hands forming the manual alphabet to show how relaxed it felt. Too many beginners habitually tense their shoulder, arms, hands and fingers too tight and it actually causes more expressive signing mistakes.  This method has made my point quickly once they realized how tensed their bodies were and all the explaining via signs until blue in the face did not get past them until I had them touch my hand to FEEL the difference.

One of my favorite kinetic method is applying, TPR (Total Physical Response). TPR is an amazing approach of applying physical objects and interacting with the prop while mastering any foreign languages.  Instead of just using a textbook or a workbook – students can use real life objects and practicing dialoging what’s in front of them. It makes dialoging real-life-like instead of always using imagined and abstract scenarios.

I’ve studied TPR with an amazing group of teachers who uses sign language as a TPR in preserving native’s languages that are dangerously going extinct.


When studying floor plans of houses/buildings, furniture placement – I use miniature doll house items to clearly make use of depicting verbs (describing nouns) quickly. It’s obvious and it’s similar to the hand shapes in ASL.

Social (interpersonal): Studying in groups or with other people

I am a firm believer that ASL students learn best in a group setting or at least with another advanced fluent and patient signer.

Form a frequent study group with your classmates or hire a professional and skilled ASL Tutor to practice conversing until you’re fluent.  It’s a fun way to apply all you’ve studied in the class and use it with another signer. Make sure to turn off your voice during these meetings.

Solitary (intrapersonal): Work better alone and use self-study

I find this happening only to very few ASL students, since ASL consists of both expressive and receptive signing skills, interactive ASL dialoging is required.  An ASL textbook CD (video) or online videos is not the same as in person interactive practice.  However, there are a few students who need a lot of quiet, uninterrupted focused studying for memorizing, practicing signing full sentences/stories and watching videos to build a solid foundation.

Verbal (linguistic): Use of words, both in speech and writing

ASL does not use speech, so voicing is not applicable.  However some strongly auditory student who may struggle to memorize some signs, find it helpful to forcibly voice out loud a sign, for example, “wedding” — as many times people get “wedding” and “married” mixed up. So, some students have to repeat “wedding” 5 times voicing out loud while simultaneously signing it. It works as a reinforcer for the mind to permanently memorize the appropriate hand shape/movement/or palm orientation, etc.

There is also a tool that many ASL teacher uses called ASL Glossing. ASL Glossing, as described in The ASL University website by Dr Bill Vicars, “Glossing” is what you call it when you write one language in another. The written information is known as “gloss.”

Some ASL teachers do not like glossing as they worry that students will habitually get stuck thinking in English.  I find it helpful up to a certain point to lay the foundation of mastering ASL sentence types. Just like a child first learning to ride a two wheeled bicycle, there are training wheels to help them to get used to the feel of riding on a taller, heavier and differently designed bike. Then a parent will take off one training wheel and when the child finally feels more comfortable, take off the second pair of training wheel and guide the bicycle until they know when to let go and let the child figure out how to ride on her own. The same approach applies when the student advances to ASL Level III or low-advanced level, then it’s time to put away glossing and apply fully on their own.

Visual (spatial): Use of pictures, images, and spatial understanding

This is one of my favorite learning style as I’m a strongly visual-oriented Deaf person.

Sometimes words get in the way and drawing pictures helps ASL students to quickly understand concepts immediately. A lot of high technical, linguistically information can overwhelm students and they lose patience, motivation and resist from stress.

As this Total Physical Response teacher analyzed, stress should be avoided as much as possible when learning a language.

Asher’s third hypothesis is that language learning should not involve any stress, as stress and negative emotions inhibit the natural language-learning process. He regards the stressful nature of most language-teaching methods as one of their major weaknesses. Asher recommends that teachers focus on meaning and physical movement to avoid stress.[4]

Students are highly encouraged to use as many drawn images/doodling/symbols in their note taking to reduce relying on written English format.  I always tell them that learning ASL is relearning to see a language in your mind with images and “mental-movies”.

As a mentor, I teach a lot without lecturing via using pictures on a white board or paper and reverse roles in having students to pretend they are an ASL teacher and teach me how to describe a piece of furniture and its placement in a room. When I draw their mistakes, they will quickly realize it and fix the placement/size/details by changing the direction/size/details of their signs. This beats explaining why it’s wrong – a simple drawing says it all quickly and efficiently.

Summary: By using many different learning style methods – you’ll enhance the speed, memorizing, fluency in ASL much more quickly and efficiently than the traditional lecture/book reading/drilling methods.

Works Cited

Baker-Skenk, Charlotte & Cokely, Dennis. 1980. American Sign Language; A Teacher’s Resource Text on Grammar and Culture. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet Press






About RaVen S

Deaf since birth, I've gone to Model Secondary School for the Deaf at the age of 16 and learned sign language fluently in three months and embraced Deaf (ASL) Culture. To my surprise, I was rewarded with a certificate stating "Best Rookie of the Year". After graduating MSSD- I went to NTID (National Technical Institute for the Deaf) at Rochester, NY for a year but decided social work was not my forte and transferred to Gallaudet University in Washington DC. It was there from my Deaf peers who all taught me the basics of hard core ASL (American Sign Language). In 1995, wanting to fully understand its own grammar rules, I began studying ASL linguistic, Deaf Studies and mentored from various ASL teachers and attended many ASLTA workshops in the NW earning many certificates for over 7 years. Became an expert in helping ASL students who learn differently - those who were getting Ds and Fs from other teachers began to get As and Bs when under my tutelage. Still not satisfied, I earned three certificates in becoming a professional tutor level I & II, then I became a Master Tutor from Clackamas Community College. Also certified twice to be an ASL Evaluator and Mentor. At last, I took an ASLPI test from Gallaudet University and earned an ASL 4 Level rating. I work for Convo Relay evaluating their pre-employment ASL VRI interpreters. Also evaluate for various sign language interpreting agencies nationwide & organizations that hire employees who sign. On the creative side, I've acted in several theaters or Deaf plays such as the demanding leading role of Sarah in Children of a Lesser God and my director stated in her Theater Appreciation class - out of nine other local professional plays in Portland city - her class voted me as the best actress in Portland. I was pleasantly surprised & grateful. That says a lot coming from a hearing audience not fluent in ASL. You may also get a glimpse of me in Mr Holland's Opus movie. With my Deaf ASL Literature teacher's approval & strong encouragement (Patrick Fischer) who loved my homework assignment - you can see me in YouTube for signing an unique ABC story about our environment at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDbBt24dZ6Q My other passion is learning foreign sign languages whenever I travel and meet international Deaf folks. I am also learning to use this great language hunting skills or techniques that is like playing fun games to learn foreign languages from my mentor, Willem Larsen. To read more about it go to: http://languagehunters.org/ ASL is my passion and passing my knowledge to those who honestly thirsts for it gives me the greatest joy.