‘Voice and sign everything’|Gray’s Creek Elementary kindergarten teacher incorporates American Sign Language into learning

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David Gray/The News

DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (The Livingston Parish News) — Like your typical kindergarten class, Olivia Turner’s students recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

Like your typical kindergarten class, Turner’s students repeat the classroom rules.

Like your typical kindergarten class, Turner’s students sound out words such as “cat” and “dog.”

Unlike your typical kindergarten class, they do it all in American Sign Language (ASL).

Turner, with much assistance from interpreter Andrea Baas, has incorporated American Sign Language into her kindergarten class at Gray’s Creek Elementary, and the results have gone viral.

A video of the students sitting in groups and communicating via sign language was uploaded to the school’s Facebook page Jan. 29. In less than a month, it has garnered more than 2.5 million views and more than 32,000 shares.

“It exploded,” said Gray’s Creek Elementary Principal Melissa Dougherty.

In her fourth year teaching, Turner decided to implement ASL when she learned she was getting a special needs student who is deaf. She hasn’t devoted a set time to ASL learning. Rather, it’s incorporated throughout the entire school day.

“We don’t really give them an option — we just voice and sign everything,” Turner said. “When we say the alphabet, we voice and sign. When we learn new sight words, we voice and sign. It’s more co-teaching than anything. It’s one cohesive thing.”

“Andrea interprets everything that comes out of my mouth,” Turner said later. “The kids listen to me and watch her, and they pick up so much. In kindergarten, there’s a lot of repetition. So now they repeat us, both verbally and physically.

Turner’s class started the school year learning common words such as “bathroom” and “water” before moving on to the alphabet. After learning how to say and sign their letters, students began learning the classroom rules — both verbally and physically — and have gradually added more and more to their ASL repertoire.

They’ve recently been studying question words “who,” what,” “where,” “why,” “when,” and “how,” as well as each accompanying sign.

The results have astonished both of their instructors.

“I’ve been an interpreter for 17 years, but I’ve never seen sign language take over a class the way it has here,” Baas said. “There are teachers who are accepting of it, but to them, that’s my thing and my job. No one has embraced it like [Turner] has. She wanted everyone to do it. And now the school wants to learn. Everybody wants to learn.”

Turner and Baas’ students got to show off their knowledge when The News stopped by the classroom on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

After signing the classroom rules and the Pledge of Allegiance, students rattled through the days of the week and alphabet before practicing their blending, which is when children sound out the individual sounds of each letter and link them together to pronounce the word.

Students sounded out words such as “cat,” “dog,” and “can,” all while making the appropriate signs for each letter before the sign for the entire word. Turner said the dual-learning has helped her current students exceed the blending skills of her previous classes, without them even knowing it. 

“This class blends faster than any other class that I’ve taught,” Turner said. “If I’m testing them on their sight words, I’m not necessarily asking them to sign, but they sign naturally. They don’t even realize they’re doing it. Signing and reading combined has helped them read more fluently and blend much quicker.”

After the first viral video in January, the class was recently asked by Facebook to make another. Students were asked to sign different words for the promotional video, which will be uploaded at a later time.

Turner said she plans to continue incorporating ASL in her teaching while gathering data to show how combining reading and signing has helped her students read and blend at a higher level.

After all, she’s now seen the results first-hand.

“Anything they can sound out on paper, they can sound out with their fingerspelling in sign,” Turner said.

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