American Sign Language or Exact Signed English: A Comparison of Student Comprehension

Rebecca Thompson

Paper presented at the College of Education Intern Conference, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1997

Key Words: Deaf Education Information, Deafness Related Issues, Deaf Education


This study focuses on two modes of sign language: American Sign Language and Exact Signed English. Specifically, the researcher compares student comprehension of material presented in ASL to that presented in ESE. The participant is a preschool deaf child enrolled in an oral day school program. The participant attended to stories presented. Comprehension level was determined by participant's ability to answer orally presented questions. A comparison of comprehension levels is made. Findings and implications are discussed.


For the past twenty years, the official communication philosophy for the majority of deaf education programs in the U.S. has been "Total Communication" (Stokoe, 1992). In fact, according to statistics derived from the American Annals for the Deaf, 84% of all U.S. primary and secondary schools that serve deaf children subscribe to this philosophy. Ideally, Total Communication, or TC, is a program for deaf students dedicated to using the language best suited to the child whether it be Oral/Aural (speech reading and voicing only), sign language, or a combination of the two. Of the programs that do choose to use signed communication, a number of signing systems are available. Among the most commonly used in the United States are Exact Signed English (ESE), Seeing Essential English (SEE I), Signing Exact English (SEE II), and American Sign Language (ASL).

ESE, SEE I, and SEE II are examples of "consciously designed" signing systems (Stokoe, 1992). Designers of these systems have either invented signs or borrowed signs from existing sign languages for the purpose of manually encoding spoken English. The purpose for designing such systems is to make spoken English visually accessible to deaf students. American Sign Language, on the other hand, is neither English nor a manual representation of English. ASL is a language with vocabulary and grammatical structures distinct from all other languages. As a language, ASL has developed naturally over time and is the "natural language used by members of the North American Deaf community" (Valli & Lucas, 1992).

In terms of grammatical structure, ASL and English are very different. To an English speaking person, the structure of the question, "Are you going home?" is evident. In addition to word order, when asking the question aloud, a slight inflection at the end of the sentence would further indicate that a question has been asked. If the same question were presented in ASL, it would be signed HOME YOU.* This represents the appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure for either asking or telling this sentence and is marked as a question with a simultaneous head tilt forward and raise of the eyebrows. Either method of asking the question is correct based on grammatical rules of each language.

Current debate among educators of the deaf focuses on the differences between ASL or a designed sign system. Proponents of a designed system may well argue that language is learned and developed through interaction with mature users (Valli & Lucas, 1992). If deaf children, many of whom are primarily visual learners (Reeves, Wallenhaupt, Caccamise, 1995) are expected to achieve English literacy, they must use (signed) English, interact with mature users of that language, and eventually develop literacy skills in the same manner as their hearing peers. Therefore, these systems have been designed for the purpose of creating a system in which a fluent user of English may interact with a deaf child in a modality accessible to that child.

Proponents of the use of ASL in education have a different perspective. For these *Typically, signed expressions are represented in ALL CAPS. individuals, consciously designed signing systems are coding systems NOT linguistic systems. ASL meets all requirements of a language (Lucas & Valli, 1992; Slobin, 1973; Stokoe, 1992). As a language, ASL is visual-gestural in nature and as such, is bound by the principles of visual communication (Gee & Goodhart, 1985; Crystal, 1987; Valli & Lucas, 1992) to which many deaf students are most naturally suited (Reeves, Wallenhaupt, Caccamise, 1995). Conversely, the designed signing systems are codes that are bound by neither the requirements of a language nor the principles of visual communication. Because of this, interaction based on these codes may not represent communication in English and as such may not achieve the English literacy sought by teachers of the deaf.

During the last twenty years, a combination of spoken English and signed English using a designed signing system has been used with deaf students. Paul and Quigley (1994) cite six studies, all of which include that the average deaf high school graduate reads at the fourth grade level. This argues that the designed signing systems, then, may not be successful "when success is defined as empowering deaf students leaving school with literacy and general knowledge at or near the level attained by their hearing peers" (Stokoe, 1992). Indeed, the data suggest that designed systems are not working in educational programs. However, the effectiveness of ASL as an alternative approach for achieving literacy has not been explored as extensively in the literature.

Schick and Gayle (1995) hypothesized that deaf children would show a preference for a "natural visual language" such as ASL if it were used for instruction. To test the hypothesis they presented stories to deaf children in one of three sign systems and examined the "quantity and quality" of the children's participation. They found that twice as many interactions were recorded for the ASL stories than for the Signed English stories. However, their findings were related to the interest level of the students rather than their comprehension level. Andrews, Winnograd, and DeVille (1996) examined comprehension level. The researchers presented written English fables with either an ASL or Signed English preview and evaluated the students' comprehension. Their findings indicate a significant increase in student understanding when the ASL preview was paired with the fable.

In summary, in the studies of ASL and of consciously designed systems, a preponderance of the research focus has been on:

a) Establishing ASL as a language.
b) Establishing one of the designed systems as effective in visually transmitting English to deaf students.
c) Refuting the efficacy of designed systems in visually transmitting English to deaf students.
Few of the studies focused on determining the efficacy of ASL in an educational setting.

Because literacy in the U.S. means the ability to fluently read and write English and because the data suggest that designed sign systems in educational settings have not provided deaf students with that level of literacy, the purpose of this study is to compare ASL to one of the designed systems (Exact Signed English). Specifically, stories (both in ASL and ESE) will be presented to a profoundly deaf, non-signing preschool student. At the end of each story, the student's comprehension will be tested by orally presenting a set of questions at the end of each story. The child's level of comprehension will be used to evaluate each system's ability to convey information.


The participant for this study will be chosen on the basis of three criteria:

  1. Enrollment in an Oral educational program -- so that participant exposure to American Sign Language or Exact Signed English will be minimal.
  2. Preschool age -- late enough that the participant will have some experience with structured reading and comprehension activities but early enough that exposure to sign language will be minimal.
  3. Hearing, non-signing parents and siblings -- to further minimize exposure to sign language exposure

Before any contact is made with the potential participant, parents will be asked to sign an informed consent form (see appendices 1 and 2). The researcher intends to assure that the participant and the parents understand the study, their role in it, that their participation or non-participation carries no penalties, and that they may, without explanation or penalty, withdraw from the study at any time.

Four age appropriate books will be chosen for the study. Only books that are typically used with pre-schoolers will be chosen in an effort to lessen the likelihood that the participant's responses will be colored by disinterest. Four as the number of books was chosen so that two trials of two stories each could be conducted (each trial to include one story presented in Exact Signed English (ESE) and one in ASL). Also four stories, rather than six or more, was chosen in an effort to minimize the effect of sign language exposure. Further, each chosen book will contain both illustrations (because it is age appropriate and because it is expected to aid comprehension) and English text (to provide an exact, invariable script for the story signer). A panel of four deaf adults, fluent in both ASL and written English will be chosen to view the ASL versions of the stories to ensure the purity of the ASL and its accurate representation of the story. Four was chosen for the number of judges so as to include a variety of sign styles that might appeal to children and to provide a system of checks and balances to ensure purity of ASL (without ESE contamination). One person, proficient in both ASL and ESE, will present all stories (ASL and ESE) to the participating child; this will better ensure continuity of signing style, enthusiasm, and expression.

The stories will be presented to the participant over the course of two weeks. The researcher feels that this is a fair and unoppressive schedule for participant, parents, and researcher. For the presentation of each story, the participant, at least one parent, and the researcher will gather in the participant's home. Each story presentation will be video taped and after each presentation, the tapes will be viewed by researcher (for sign/text parallel -- see appendices 3 and 7) and comprehension.

After each story presentation, the participant will participate in a comprehension exercise. The participant will complete the comprehension exercise so that the researcher may determine if this particular child will demonstrate a greater understanding of stories presented in ASL or ESE. The study participant, a parent, and the researcher will work as a group reading and interacting.

The comprehension activity chosen for this study will follow a question/answer format whereby the participant is asked questions concerning the characters and events of the presented story. A question/answer approach to comprehension evaluation (as opposed to picture sequencing or semantic mapping) was chosen based on the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School Preschool Curriculum Packet and developmental check list and the receptive and expressive abilities and developmental stage of typical preschoolers. The questions for each story will be:

  1. "Who was in the story?"
  2. "What happened first?"
  3. "Then what?"
  4. a question specific to each story will be presented to determine the conclusion (e.g.: "Did Mama and Daddy finally find him?" or "What did they do with all the pasta?").

All questions will be presented orally and all responses (voiced or gestured) will be accepted and graphed as follows:

Y Axis: number of correct responses.
X Axis: communication mode and trial number.


The purpose of this study is to determine which communication mode, ASL or ESE, will more clearly convey meaning to a deaf child thus increasing the child's comprehension of the presented material. The data collected as a result of this preliminary study seem to support American Sign Language as the tool more capable of conveying information. As can be seen in Figure 1, the first story, presented in ESE, elicited only two correct responses out of a possible four. The second story, presented in ASL, elicited three correct responses. The third and fourth stories, presented in ESE and ASL respectively, elicited four of four correct responses.

Figure 1 goes here

What that shows on average is that 88% of all questions relating to the ASL stories were answered correctly. Compare that to the 75% of correctly answered questions relating to the ESE stories.

Figure 2 also speaks directly to the question of comprehension. The data here suggest that significantly fewer adult prompts were required to elicit a correct response when the participant was uncertain.

Figure 2 goes here

An average of 4.25 and 3.0 prompts were required for ESE story trials one and three respectively (or 3.6 prompts combined). For the ASL stories, though, only 1.75 prompts were required for the first ASL story and .50 for the second ASL story (or 1.1 combined). More simply stated, these data suggest that nearly 4 prompts were needed to supplement ESE material while only 1 was needed for material presented in ASL.

A number of previous studies, some of which are cited in this study, have shown that participants' interest levels are greater for stories and other materials presented in ASL than they are for materials presented in manual codes such as ESE. As Figure 3 shows, this study is no different.

Figure 3 goes here

During all stories presented, the stepparent and researcher used verbal and nonverbal prompts to draw the participant's attention back to the story when the participant became distracted. For stories 1 and 3 (ESE), 17 and 11 redirections were required; stories 2 and 4 (ASL) required only 7 and 11 redirections. On average, the number of redirections required for ESE stories is almost twice that needed for ASL stories (14 and 8 respectively).

Thus far, the data suggest a slight increase in participant understanding using ASL as mode of communication; this information being primarily drawn from the total number of correctly answered questions and the average number of prompts required for each correct answer. Further support for this position is evident in Figure 4. The total number of participant initiated, story related interactions with either an adult or the book itself were recorded. Assuming that such interactions are desirable and actually relate to participant understanding, a total of 6 interactions with the ESE material compares rather unfavorably with 27 total interactions with the ASL material.

Figure 4 goes here

These interactions are considered to be evidence of comprehension because they are on task, story-related, and appropriate to the material being signed. For example, the participant requested that the pages be turned, copied researcher signs, and located/pointed out characters hiding within the story pictures.


The data collected for and as a result of this study do seem to suggest that American Sign Language is a more capable tool than Exact Signed English for transmitting information to this particular participant. The total number of correctly answered questions is higher, the number of prompts and redirections is lower, and the total number of participant initiated interactions is much higher. Despite the apparent support of ASL that these data suggest, it is clear that more research is needed. As this is an oral child enrolled in an oral educational program, there was considerable concern that too many stories could be detrimental. Respecting the wishes of the parents, only four stories were presented to the participant. Theirs are perfectly valid concerns. However, in future studies, a greater number of stories presented may lessen the affects of the newness of the activity and unfamiliarity of the researcher. Also, a larger pool of participants would increase data and allow for further comparisons. Clearly, more research is needed to determine whether these results can be generalized to larger populations of deaf students. Further research should also be performed to determine the broader implications of this study and others like it.


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Paul, P. V., & Quigley, S. (1994). Language and deafness. San Diego, CA: Singularity Publishing Group.

Reeves, J. B., Wollenhaupt, P., & Caccamise, F. (1995, July 16-20). Address. Paper presented at the 18th International Congress on Education of the Deaf, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Schick, B., & Gale, E. (1995). Preschool deaf and hard of hearing students' interactions during ASL and English storytelling. American Annals of the Deaf, 40(4), 363-370.

Slobin, D. (1973). Cognitive prerequisites for the development of grammar. In Ferguson and Slobin (Eds.), Studies of child development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

Stokoe, W. (1992). Preface: Three kinds of sign communication. In Stokoe, W. (Ed.). Simultaneous communication, ASL, and other classroom communication modes, (pp. 1- 9), Burtonsville, MD: Linstok Press.

Valli, C., & Lucas, C. (1992). Linguistics of American sign language: A resource text for ASL users. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Uploaded By: Jessica Soltesz/KSU/Deaf Education Major