teaching american sign language with games

To skip my description and go straight to the games, click here.

American Sign Language is an amazing, beautiful, useful and currently popular language.  It is used by the deaf in the US and some other parts of North America, but its use extends much farther even than that.

I’ve been a self-taught learner, a college student, a volunteer interpreter, and a volunteer teacher of ASL.  I recently finished teaching ASL to a tiny class of middle and high school students.  It was great fun and reminded me how much I love ASL.

Something I noticed, though, was how hard it was to find resources, activities, and games for ASL learners.  I ended up creating 95% of my materials.  ASL is a visual language, so most games designed for language learning just don’t work.  I’ve made it my goal to compile the games I’ve played over the years and offer some ideas that can be a framework for other teachers and learners of ASL!

I’m hoping to write a few more blog posts on this topic — probably about resources I recommend, how I taught myself ASL in high school, and tips for using ASL in a hearing classroom.  Stay tuned!


Now for some games!

The Flyswatter Game
preparation: 5-10 minutes
number of students/players: 2 or more
applications: vocab, fingerspelling, or numbers

Before playing this game, the teacher writes words on the board at varying heights and angles.  These can be spelling words, numbers, or vocab — about 30 words fit well on most standard whiteboards.
Students are divided into two teams, and one player from each team goes up to the board at a time.  The teacher stands near the back of the room and faces the students.  The teacher spells or signs a word and the two active players race to find and touch the word.  (Flyswatters can be used for this game, hence the name, but are not necessary.)  Whichever player touches the word first gets a point for their team.  The word can be erased or left on the board — it is more challenging if they are left up.
New players from each team come up to the board and play continues until all the words have been used.

Around the World
preparation: none
number of students/players: 3 or more
applications: vocab, fingerspelling, or numbers

This is a classic game!  One student starts by standing at his seat.  The person to the right also stands.  The teacher gives a problem/word/question and whichever student answers first wins.  The loser sits down in the seat in front of him, while the winner moves to the next spot.  The next player to the right stands.  This continues.  If a player wins against everyone, finally returning to his own original seat, they have gone “around the world”.
Variations for ASL:
– The teachers spells a word.  The first to sign it wins.
– The teacher signs a word.  The first to spell it wins.
– The teacher says a word.  The first to spell it wins.
– The teacher says a number.  The first to sign it wins.

The Sheet Game
preparation: bring a dark-colored or thick sheet
number of students/players: 8 or more
applications: vocab

Each person chooses or is assigned a vocabulary word.  That becomes their sign.  Practice the signs as a whole group and make sure everyone knows what one another’s sign is.

Break the group into two teams, and choose two people (or a teacher and an aide) to hold the sheet up.  (They can switch with someone else later.)  The two teams stand on opposite sides of the sheet.  Everyone should try to crowd in so that the other team can’t see anyone!
One person from each team is silently chosen by popular demand to stand up close to the sheet.  On the count of three, the sheet is dropped.  The two players facing each other must sign the other person’s sign first.  Both players rejoin the faster player’s team.  Play continues until one team has collected all the players.  (Or, after a few turns, switch out the signs and make everyone learn new vocab!)

I’m Going to the Store
preparation: none
number of students/players: 2 or more
applications: fingerspelling or vocab

This is a popular game with many variations.  This version uses the phrase “I’m going to the store and I’m buying…”  Teach students to sign this phrase.  Then going in a circle, a student starts by spelling something that starts with A.  For example, “I’m going to the store and I’m buying a-p-p-l-e-s.”  The next player must remember previous items and add their own as they go through the alphabet. For example, after several turns, a player will have to remember, “I’m going to the story and I’m buying a-p-p-l-e-s, b-a-g-e-l-s, c-l-e-m-e-m-e-n-t-i-n-e-s, d-o-g-f-o-o-d, e-g-g-s, and f-r-u-i-t.”  Play continues through the alphabet.

Advanced signers vocab variation: For students with an extensive vocabulary, use signs instead of words and handshapes instead of letters.  (For this variation, the “store” introduction can be skipped.)  The first student must think of a sign that uses the A handshape.  It does not have to start with the letter A, but the handshape must be used.  [“Help”, “tomorrow”, “wash”, and “patience” all use the A handshape.]  The next player must remember the previous sign and add their own.  [The B handshape is found in “book”, “door”, “table”, “brown”, and more.]  Play continues all the way through the handshapes.

Scattergories
preparation: find or create a list of categories
number of students/players: 2 or more
applications: fingerspelling

The teacher announces a category such as “things that are cold” or “animals”, then chooses a letter (purposely or at random).  Players take turns spelling out words that fit the category and begin with the chosen letter. The first player to draw a blank (after being given 30 seconds or so) is out or loses a point.  Continue changing categories and letters each time someone fails to think of a word.

Chain Letter
preparation: none
number of students/players: 2 or more
applications: fingerspelling

A fairly broad category is chosen, and one student starts by spelling a word in that category.  The next player must take the last letter of that word and think of a word that begins with that letter.  For example: In the category animals, the first student might spell cow.  The next student could spell whale.  The next student could spell eagle.  The next, elephant, tortoise, egrettiger, and so on.

Bingo
preparation: prepare bingo cards and spot markers
number of students/players: 2 or more
applications: vocab, fingerspelling, or numbers

Bingo cards can easily be created in a word processing system; simply create a table (5×5, 7×7, or whatever is most convenient) and fill each square with vocab words, fingerspelling practice words, or numbers.  Vary the cards so that different students have different combinations.
Say, spell, or sign a word and have students place a marker on the correct spot if they have it.  It’s a simple, easy game, but most students find it very engaging!  (Bonus points if the spot markers are edible!)
Many stores sell pre-made bingo sets.  Vocabulary-themed or sight-word bingo sets would work well for an ASL class.

Do you have any ASL games not listed here?  I will add them!

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