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Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E556
Author: Gerilee Gustason
What Is Meant by English-based Sign Systems?
Sign language as used by deaf adults may resemble English,
or it may be American Sign Language (ASL), which has a
grammar, syntax, and idioms distinct from English. ASL is
sometimes called a natural language because it evolved through
use by people who were deaf. In contrast, English-based sign
systems were developed by educators. These systems adopted
much of the vocabulary of ASL but added grammatical features of
English such as articles (a, an, the), verb endings (-s, -ing, -ed, -en),
and other markers of English. English-based sign systems
follow English syntax. In some systems English words are
presented literally (e.g., one sign is used for the word "run" no
matter what the meaning). In other systems the signs for English
words may vary depending on the meaning of the word, to more
closely relate to ASL.
One such system that remains close to ASL is Signed English
(Bornstein, Hamilton, & Saulnier, 1983). This system is aimed at
preschool and lower elementary children and includes a limited
number of markers (e.g., -s, -ed, -ly). It retains many conceptual
signs from ASL, such as "hair-yellow" for "blond". A number of
children's storybooks such as Little Red Riding Hood are available
in this system. A system no longer widely used that was extremely
close to English is Seeing Essential English (Anthony, 1971), often
referred to as SEE 1. This system used separate signs for English
morphemes and signed by "root words" such as gene as the root
for genetic, general, generous. The most widely used system that
is close to English is Signing Exact English, or SEE 2. This system
includes many more markers than Signed English (e.g., -ous, -ness,
-ment) and signs by English word rather than by concept. In
SEE 2 one would use the same signs for "is running" whether the
subject is a man, the water, one's nose, or a car. In ASL the sign
for "run" would differ in each of those situations.
Apart from specific vocabulary, all of the sign systems include
the visual features of a signed language that add meaning and
intonation to signing, such as shaking the head with a negative
statement, raising the eyebrows with a yes-no question, placing
signs according to meaning, and using facial expression and body
movement to convey mood and tone.
Many individuals and programs use a mixture of systems.
Because one can speak nearly twice as fast as one can sign, it
takes commitment and practice to sign complete English. Many
individuals sign in English word order but do not include word
endings or markers. Some choose to sign by word meaning;
others choose to follow the SEE 2 principle of signing by English
Who Can Use An English-Based System?
English-based systems are used by many parents of young
children who are deaf. They are also used widely by educators.
Some of the vocabulary developed by these sign systems has
been accepted in widespread use in ASL, but many Deaf adults
have negative attitudes toward the use of such a system. They
view it as a denial of Deaf culture and a failure to accept a child's
deafness. Parents and educators, on the other hand, use it
because they wish to expose the child to English in a clearly visible
modality. In addition, many parents prefer it because English is
their own language, and they wish their children to know the same
language. A number of families and schools use such a system as
one component of a total approach to communication, including
ASL, amplification, speechreading, reading, and writing. Persons
who work with families of young children, or with the children
themselves, should be familiar with the system used in their
What Are the Benefits of an English-Based Sign System?
Children learn the language of their environment when they
perceive it clearly. Use of an English-based sign system provides
them with access to English during the language learning years.
Such a sign system is also useful with older students who have not
yet mastered English, when used with a second language learning
approach. As with any language, the fluency of the child will
depend on the fluency of the language models in his/her
environment. When fluent and complete models are consistently
available, English can be learned in a normal manner. This is a
critical point for English-based sign systems, since English literacy
has been and remains very important and very difficult for many
individuals who are deaf.
What Are the Limitations of an English-Based Sign System?
Because English-based sign systems do differ from ASL in
grammar and in the use of English markers, some Deaf adults do
not like them. They feel it is an attempt by hearing persons to
impose hearing standards on children who are deaf. In addition,
because speech is faster than signs, an individual must be
committed to presenting complete English in signs and to make the
effort to learn and become fluent. Persons who are not wholly
committed may end up signing only part of their spoken message,
presenting incomplete English that does not fit ASL syntax either.
What Are Some Questions to Ask Before Choosing an English-based Sign System?
- Do I believe in the importance of presenting complete English?
- Am I willing to take the time to become fluent?
- What is used in the
schools in the area where I live?
- What materials are available to
help me learn?
- How will I react if I meet negative attitudes from
- How will I ensure the child's involvement with the
Deaf community and his/her self-esteem as a person who is deaf?
References and Additional Resources
Anthony, D. (1971). Seeing Essential English. Anaheim, CA:
Educational Services Division, Anaheim Union High School
Bornstein, H. (Ed.) (1990). Manual communication: Implications
for Education. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Bornstein, J., Hamilton, L., & Saulnier, K. (1983). The
comprehensive Signed English dictionary. Washington, DC:
Gallaudet University Press.
Brasel, K. & Quigley, S. (1977). The influence of certain language
and communication environments in early childhood on the
development of language in deaf individuals. Journal of Speech
and Hearing Research, 20, 95-107.
Gaustad, M.A.G. (1986). Longitudinal effects of manual English
instruction on deaf children's morphological skills. Applied
Psycholinguistics, 7, 101-128.
Luetke-Stahlman, B. (1988). The benefit of oral-English-only as
compared with signed input to hearing impaired students. The
Volta Review, 90(7), 349-361.
Luetke-Stahlman, B. (1993). Three PSE studies: Implications for
educators. In M.P. Moeller (Ed.), Proceedings: Issues in Language
and Deafness. Omaha, NE: Boys Town National Research
The Gallaudet University Bookstore (800 Florida Ave., NE,
Washington DC 20002) carries both Signed English and Signing
Exact English materials. Gallaudet University Press publishes the
Signed English materials, and has published a book, Manual
communication: Implications for education (1990), edited by H.
Bornstein, which provides detailed information on the topic.
Specific questions about Signing Exact English may be referred to
the SEE Center for the Advancement of Deaf Children (10443 Los
Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, CA 90720). SEE 2 materials are
published by Modern Sign Press, Inc., PO Box 1181, Los Alamitos,
Dr. Gustason, who originated the SEE 2 system, is director of
the SEE Center for the Advancement of Deaf Children. She is
fluent in oral English, SEE 2, and ASL.
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ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated,
but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from
the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. RR93002005. The
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions of policies of OERI or
Department of Education.