Sign Languages

Next week is Deaf Awareness Week. I have written before about being deaf aware, and so this week I decided to write about sign languages.

Many people believe that there is one universal sign language used by deaf people all over the world, but this is not the case. Different countries have different sign languages which are mutually unintelligible. French Sign Language is as different from British Sign Language as French is from English.

Just as spoken languages belong to families – eg the Romance family which includes French, Spanish and Italian, and the Germanic family which includes German, Dutch and Swedish – so do sign languages. French Sign Language is related to American Sign Language; British sign language is related to Australian Sign Language.

Another common misconception is that British Sign Language (BSL) is the same as Sign Supported English (SSE).  This is not true…..

BSL is a language in its own right, with a rich vocabulary. There is no one-word-to-one-sign relationship: some words need more than one sign to explain, and some signs can convey concepts which would require a whole sentence in English.  Sign Supported English is, as it sounds, spoken English with accompanying signs. SSE also has signs to indicate prefixes and suffixes. For example, “I will walk to the shops” in BSL would be three signs – shops me walk – whereas in SSE it would be 6 signs – one for each word.

If you fancy having a go at learning BSL, you have lots of options. Many Adult Education Centres offer introductory level up to at least level 3, and there are also lots of private tuition companies. You can’t beat face-to-face learning, but if you really want to learn from your own home you could look for Skype sessions or look at websites such as spreadthesign where you can learn some words.

Another way to learn a few signs would be to purchase a pack of Flashsticks and learn a few each day. It wouldn’t help you to speak fluently, and you wouldn’t learn any grammar, but it would help you to use Sign Supported English.

Whichever route you choose, it’s definitely worth learning some. It’s an extra skill to show off to potential employers, and it could open up a whole new circle of friends to you.

Why MFL is good for children with SEN

A few days ago I read something that made me really angry. It was an article written by a parent about how the education system is letting her children down. At first I was sympathetic, and found myself nodding along with what she was saying. I agree that the education system isn’t perfect. I agree that sometimes, some children slip through the net and don’t get the help they need. But then she used the words that are guaranteed to infuriate me: “What’s the point in making them study French when they can’t even read and write English?”

It’s not the first time I’ve come across this attitude, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it makes me cross and it makes me sad. I’m an MFL specialist so maybe I’m biased, but I can see plenty of reasons not to withdraw children from MFL lessons – including and especially those with learning difficulties. Let me explain….

What do French, Spanish, German, Italian and Dutch have in common? That’s right…they are all languages. So is English, so already we have identified something that English and whatever foreign language the child is studying have in common!

As languages, French, Spanish, German etc use grammar – just like English. And so here is my first reason for not withdrawing a child from their MFL lessons: in MFL we talk about grammar. We use words such as noun, verb, adjective, definite article, preposition….all the words the child is being taught in their English lessons are being reinforced in their MFL lesson. If they didn’t understand it first time, here is a golden opportunity to go over it again, in a different context. In MFL lessons we talk about the fact that verbs change their endings depending on who is doing them, and compare this to English “I look, you look” but “he looks”, so again there is more reinforcement of grammar. We talk about the different tenses and when to use them, and we look at how to structure a sentence and guess what…..we compare all this to English too. We look at similes and alliteration. We practise dictionary skills. In MFL, more than in probably any other lesson, we reinforce what they are learning in their English lessons.

It’s not just grammar that MFL helps with; it’s spelling too. In MFL lessons we look at spelling patterns and we talk about which ones are similar to English and which ones are completely different. More importantly, we think about how to remember the spellings of the words, and these techniques can be transferred to their English lessons.

It’s not just their English that benefits. When we learn how to count in a different language, or how to tell the time, we’re reinforcing their maths. When we look at countries where that language is spoken we are reinforcing their geography. The children study the culture of those countries (PSHE and RE), investigate the rhythm of language (music) and perform role plays (drama).

The other important thing about language – all languages – is that they are a means of communication. It isn’t just about reading and writing. Communication also involves speaking and listening, and we do plenty of that in MFL lessons. Just because a child struggles to spell, or to hold a pencil, doesn’t mean that they can’t excel at speaking, and just because a child finds speaking and listening difficult doesn’t mean they can’t do well with reading and writing. Last year I taught Spanish to a child who had several learning disabilities including dyslexia. He found writing difficult, but he really got the concept of adjective agreement and was able to show his understanding with the way he pronounced words when speaking, and he was really proud of his achievement. I’ve taught French to Deaf children because the school believed that they should have the same opportunities as hearing children. Some of them found it difficult, but some of them did really, really well with it. What a shame it would have been for those children if they’d been pulled out of language lessons because somebody decided it would be too hard for them.

My dream is for more people to take this attitude. To stop saying “What’s the point?” and to start saying “Why not?” Because maybe, just maybe, MFL could be the one subject the child excels at.

Addition 17-08-16
I came across this article recently, which gives a few more reasons: Why foreign languages have a place in autism education

VCOP display

Every classroom in my school has to have a VCOP display. In fact as a supply teacher I’ve been in a lot of classrooms, and every single one of them has had a VCOP display, so I’m assuming it’s something on Ofsted’s ticklist.

Now don’t get me wrong – I like VCOP. I know it has a lot of opponents, but I find it a very useful teaching tool, and like every tool its success depends on how you use it. I’m not a big fan of taking it out of context and treating it as four separate elements that children have to shoehorn into their writing, and to me a VCOP display does that.

My sentence displayThis display is my solution. My children are Deaf and for many of them BSL is their first language. They find English sentence structure difficult, so I have put up this display to demonstrate the structure of a standard English sentence. It would work equally well for EAL and EFL students, and I’m sure it could also be adapted for the MFL classroom, although I haven’t tried that yet.

adjective and subjectI have my Openers at the beginning of the sentence, where they belong, and my Punctuation at the end, also where it belongs. Connectives are underneath punctuation, to show that they are used to join two sentences together. Vocabulary is spread over four panels – Nouns (subject and object), Verbs and Adjectives.

Like everything with teaching, once you’ve done it, you think of a better way to do it, and next time I’ll move the adjective panel to just before the object instead of just before the subject. I think adjectives are probably used more to describe the subject than object, and it means that I could also have a S V A structure (The rose is pink) in the middle of the longer structure. It’s still a work in progress and I do plan to split the subject panel into nouns and pronouns, and the white panel needs an “or number” halfway down. Other than that, I’m quite happy with it so far.

In addition to providing them with a standard structure sentence, it is exposing them to grammatical terms, and already one of the boys in the class has asked what the word “article” means and what it’s for.

So there you have it. Nobody can accuse me of not having a VCOP display in my classroom, but I’ve managed to turn it into something more useful.

Tinnitus Awareness Week

I read on Twitter today that this week is Tinnitus Awareness Week.  An estimated 10% of the population suffers from Tinnitus and yet many people have never heard of it.

To find out more about what it is, how it affects people, how to manage it and who to contact for help if you think you might have it, visit this superb post from Jenny.