Wednesday, January 27, 2016

5 Tips for Teaching ASL in Primary

  When I was in Primary, I learned "As I Have Loved You" with ASL (American Sign Language).  I can still sing and sign the whole thing!  Something about combining music with representative actions really helped me retain what I learned.  Now, every year I choose a song to teach in ASL to both my younger and older Primary children, so they can have a similar experience. Here are some tips to consider, if you'd like to teach ASL in your Primary, too.

1.  Choosing a Song

Take a look at the list of songs you want to teach your children this year.  (For tips on how to plan your year, look here.)  Cross off any songs that are very fast, as it would be difficult for the children to sign that quickly.  

For the slower tempo songs that remain, think of the following questions:  Do I want to teach ASL for more than one verse? Do I want to include ASL in a song where I already have a small group or solo planned for the Primary program? (Again, see my previous post on yearly planning and deciding verse assignments early.) Which songs might be harder for the children to learn, so ASL could be a help? Are ASL videos available for these songs? (Find the Church's ASL videos on, here.) 

2. Simplify

Since I'm a music teacher, not an ASL teacher, I've decided to focus on teaching my children the song, rather than on teaching them precise ASL.  I don't change the signs themselves, but I cut out some signs and reorder others, focusing on key words, in order to make it easier to sign in the time the song allows. The result is more like signed English, distinctly different from ASL.  Young children are very literal, and this style of teaching helps them better relate to the signs I present. At the right is a video of me, showing the version of "I Will Follow God's Plan" that I simplified for teaching my Primary this year.  

3.  Teaching Yourself the Signs

Although with any song it's important to know it yourself before attempting to teach it, this principle is especially true with teaching ASL.  The handy part is that you only have to be one step ahead of the kids. When I'm learning a new song in ASL, I teach myself one or two lines at a time--just the portion that I'll be teaching the following Sunday.  That way, I'm not overwhelmed by how much I have to learn. 

To learn the signs, you can either watch a video over and over, signing as you go, or you can work with your stake's ASL interpreter. I've done both. :)

4.  Teaching the Children the Signs

The best idea I ever had about teaching ASL in Primary (inspiration, perhaps?) was to start in the middle.  The main idea is to help the children feel confident in their signing.  Start with a section that has a lot of repetition (the chorus, or a phrase with repetitive words, like "I will work, and I will pray. I will always walk...")  The repetitive signs will help the children feel successful right away. As you add on bits of the song and it's harder for the children to remember everything, the most familiar part will come later on in the song, when they most need help remembering. 

When teaching individual signs, I try to think of ways to explain the motions. For example, I say, "This is the sign for God. Notice how we point up to heaven, where He lives!"  Teaching signs in this way helps the children match their movements to the words.

5.  The Big Picture

I take several weeks to teach a song in ASL, reviewing each small section from the previous week before moving on. After the children know the entire song well, I'll challenge them to close their eyes as they sign, only opening them when they need to check on a sign or two.  Throughout the rest of the year, we'll periodically sing and sign this song for the opening song for Primary, to make sure we--both the children and myself!--don't forget what we've learned. 

I can't say enough good things about using ASL to teach children songs. My younger kids, my older kids, my special needs kids, my inactive kids, even my nursery kids! can learn these signs and the song that goes with them.  If you've never given ASL a try in Primary, then, you know...consider giving it a try. :)

Happy singing!

Looking for more?   ASL is a perfect activity for combined-age Primaries (see my post on combined Primaries, here) or for taking Primary music into the home of children who don't often come on Sundays (read more about this here).  Simple ASL signs can also be a powerful way to teach nursery-aged children (read more about their musical needs here).

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