Standardizing Sign Language for Teaching Science

By: Dave Byknish Email
By: Dave Byknish Email

STAUNTON, Va. -- Harry Wood is a high school science teacher at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. He said me sometimes it can be tough.

“Some concepts are very concrete. They can be very explicit, very easily explained. Other concepts are very abstract. There's no real iconic representations in sign language. We have to do more detailed descriptions of those concepts,” said Wood.

Deaf scientists and teachers have struggled for decades to find a way to convey those abstract lessons in an easy fashion. Usually for everyday science terms, teachers come up with their own system.

“One great example would be photosynthesis. There's no sign for that term. Oftentimes, I'll spell the word, I'll start explaining the process, maybe I might use a video.”

Thanks to the Internet, a recent project is promising change to American sign language. Many hope standardized signs for terms, like bacteria and nutrients, could start being commonplace.

Wood said he is skeptical about the idea.

“As with any language, there are regional dialects that you see across scenarios. A national standard, I think, might not be successfully implemented. It's a good attempt but I'm not sure it will be successful.”

The problem would be getting scientists and teachers to adopt these new signs and abandon the methods that they've probably used most of their lives.

Wood said it certainly didn't work for one very simple word.

“The sign for birthday. You have this sign, you have this sign, you have this sign, that sign. There's a number of different signs you see across the country. And the same idea would be with any English word that there's a sign, they could have variants across the country.”

Another major hurdle facing the standard signs is the belief that there shouldn't be an official way to teach those terms. Some members of the deaf community believe that their language should be allowed to adapt naturally, rather than be forced. is happy to provide a forum for commenting and discussion. Please respect and abide by the house rules:

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