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.

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.

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!


my top 5 sub moments

I’ve been subbing for a few months and decided it was time to write about it.

I thought about offering my perspective on education, my detailed explanation of all that’s wrong in our school system, or a sage listing of the things I’ve learned from my students.  (I could write for days on end about what I’ve learned.)  But today I have no wise words.  I’m here to share my top five sub moments, ranging from groan-worthy to hilarious.  I’ll write a serious sub-related post another time.

5. My very first day as a substitute teacher was in a 4th grade classroom.  I stood at the door to greet my shiny new students as I had been told good subs should.  As they filed in, most offered a mumbled “Good morning” while others evaluated me silently.  My day was off to a happy start when one girl responded to my greeting with, “You’re pretty!”

4. One morning I walked into a middle school classroom and noticed right away that the one tissue box was empty.  I looked around for a replacement but there was none.  I didn’t think too much of it and went on with my morning, teaching three or four uneventful periods.  Then the inevitable happened.
“Miss Sub, can I go to the bathroom?”
“Ew, his nose is bleeding!”
“Dude, there’s blood all over the desk!”
Fortunately my next period was a prep and I borrowed wet wipes from the neighboring classroom to clean up.  I will never again underestimate the importance of a box of tissues!

3. I was subbing for a well-behaved 4th grade classroom when a girl spilled her entire water bottle (about 24oz!) over a cluster of 5 desks.  As is typical for that age group, most of the boys laughed and a few girls cried.  Some kids helped clean up in an effort to earn behavior points.  After a few minutes of internal panic and outward efficiency, I thanked the kids for helping and announced that we were going to drop everything and read silently for a bit.
One student nodded knowingly.  “It’s to help us calm down,” he explained to his classmates.

2. Young kids don’t mind asking awkward questions, so I’ve been asked by more than one kindergartener, “Is there a baby in your tummy?”  I always smile and respond with a “Nope!” or “No, thanks for asking so nicely!”  One girl, however, was very persistent.  “Are you sure?”
“Very sure!”
“I think I can see it in there,” she insisted.  I don’t think I ever convinced her that my tummy did not hold a baby.

1. Although my favorite days are spent with kids from K-2, I’ve also subbed for an amazingly fun class of 8th graders.  One of our lesson activities required students to read different parts of a dramatic play.  The boys delighted in trying to read with a voice that would make their sub laugh.  They definitely succeeded!

I said I wasn’t going to share anything serious but I changed my mind.  If there’s just one piece of advice I could give to other substitute teachers, it would be don’t be afraid to smile.  I think many subs are afraid of being too nice, as it is so common for students to take advantage of any perceived weakness.  But here’s my take.

You may be the one bright spot in a student’s day.  You might even be the one bright spot in their life at the time.  Why waste that chance because of fear?

There’s certainly a time to pull out your dead-serious, one-false-move-and-you’re-going-to-the-office face.  It’s also wise not to encourage class clowns unless you’re really, really comfortable with getting control back.  But smile — as much as humanly possible.  Laugh!  Greet students when they come in.  Notice the great things about your students and let them know it.

I may be “just a sub” but I know that I have made students smile, laugh, and feel just a bit better about how they fit into the great big world.  Teachers always have the power to make a difference — even if they’re only there for one day!

teaching is [not] the worst job ever

Recently I’ve seen a plethora of blog posts, humor articles, infographics, and other bits of media discussing a long-ignored topic: the frustrations and unseen stresses of the teaching field.  I decided that it’s my turn to say my piece.

Teaching is a legitimate, professional career choice.  Teachers are underpaid and largely under-appreciated.  Teachers work much longer hours than most people realize.  And if teachers ceased to exist or just stopped caring, the world as we know it would cease to function.  All that is true.

I just fail to see how we as teachers can claim that our job is more important, better, worse, harder, or easier than another person’s job.  Don’t we remind students that everyone is unique?  That some things are hard for some people and easy for others?  That we all have different things we’re good at?

Careers are not just a matter of difficulty, pay, vacation time, and prestige.  They are so much more complex than that.  Flower arranging might be technically easier than classroom teaching, but that doesn’t mean I could do it well.  Emergency room doctors are much better paid than middle school science teachers, but not every middle school science teacher would be comfortable in the ER.  Comparing careers is unfair and narrow-minded — and most of the time, it doesn’t even make sense.


I chose to become a teacher because I wanted to make a difference, I love kids, I love planning lessons, and I know that I can do this job well.  I was willing to accept low pay, long hours, and no prestige.  Nobody twisted my arm, and nobody said it would be easy.  I chose this profession.

And I love it.

How do you feel about teachers who speak up about the negatives of their job?