By Colleen Brunetti, M.Ed.

One of the biggest messages I find myself repeating to people is that signing with children can go well beyond the pre-verbal months of development. Indeed, if we keep signing with kids after they have started to talk, we begin to reap huge benefits in early literacy, from language development, to learning to read, to early spelling skills.

Let’s talk about how sign language can help with something like spelling.  Signing has shown to be a great memory aid because it is both a visual and a tactile (feeling) cue. Children absolutely thrive on movement and play, and it is very natural that you can incorporate both when using finger spelling to teach spelling words and sound out letters and words. In other words, we are going beyond spelling lists and sounding things out orally, and really tapping into the multi-sensory learning that works so well with children.

How to Fingerspell

The first thing you want to do when using sign language for spelling is to learn the manual alphabet – or the sign for each letter in the alphabet. Teach letters with an ABC chart, and some mnemonic devices, which turns learning the ABCs and later words into a game. After children have learned the name and hand shape for each letter, move on to teaching the sound.

Steps for Fingerspelling

  • Hold hand to the side of your chest, not in front of your face
  • Move the hand slightly from your left to the right as you form each letter
    • Left-handed people reverse this!
    • Do not bounce your hand or arm – keep elbow “glued” to your side, and smoothly slide hand as you spell.
    • Mentally pronounce the sounds of the letters as you go, not the name of the letter (why?)

    Click on the image below for a video demonstration!

Using Fingerspelling
Make it a game! Perhaps start with having children learn to finger spell their own name, and then the names of classmates. Then move to spelling simple sight words, or labeled objects around the room (reinforcing the concept that print has meaning!).  Older children can move on to an “I Spy” type game where you spell an item in the environment and have the children guess what you spy, then reverse roles. Really, the possibilities are endless!


Happy signing! Happy spelling!



Signing in School: Enrich the Classroom Experience Through Sign By, Leslie Parrish Briggs

Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy By, Dr. Marilyn Daniels