Dennis Posey, 6, thinks he is learning sign language so he can communicate with deaf people. The Lansdowne Elementary School student is only partly right.
Although the first grader will be able to communicate with hearing-impaired people, the primary reason he is learning sign language is to improve his reading skills.
In a world where interest in the printed word is dwindling among young people and their elders alike, educators are searching out new methods to make reading an enjoyable experience. Dennis is among a growing number of elementary school students in Baltimore County and elsewhere who are being taught sign language to help them read.
"The kids love it," said Cindy Bowen, the reading supervisor for the school system. "They get excited about it. They think it's a secret code."
It also teaches them to remember words, she said.
Teaching young children sign language to reinforce vocabulary skills was a technique developed by educators in the mid-1980s.
In a 1985 study by Dr. Robert Wilson, a professor emeritus from the University of Maryland, and Judy Hoyer, a Prince George's County school administrator, teachers in Prince George's taught sign language to a group of first-grade children who were having difficulty remembering words.
Teachers found that if a child could not recall a word when he saw it in print, signing the word for the child would jog his memory.
The results were "fantastic," Dr. Wilson said. It helps that a signed word often resembles the meaning of the word, he said. For instance, the word "glove" is signed by a person making a gesture as if a glove is being put on.
Dr. Wilson said signing is used in other school systems around the state and nation, although he is not sure how many.
"I was amazed," said Kathy Powell, a first-grade teacher at Lansdowne. "It really does help them retain vocabulary."
This is the third year Baltimore County teachers have used signing, Ms. Bowen said. Teachers are given the option of teaching sign language. When they do, it is generally to kindergartners and first-, second- and third-graders, Ms. Bowen said.
The school system offers a class in signing, and some teachers learn it on their own from books.
Of Baltimore County's 92 elementary schools, 51 have reported using signing among the ways they teach words, Ms. Bowen said.
The staff at Lansdowne, which has about 400 students, is enthusiastic about the program, teachers said. The school's reading specialist, Jean Mattheiss, and most of the teachers teach signing.
Recently, Ms. Mattheiss stood before a first-grade class reading from a book. She, teacher Mozelle Fisher and the children signed the words as they read.
"It is a visionary approach that really does help to reinforce vocabulary," Ms. Fisher said.
It also is a good way to maintain discipline in the class, she said, adding, signing the word "quiet" can be more effective than saying it.
Children often pick up signing faster than the adults, Ms. Fisher said. "They don't forget a thing," she said. "And they are very good at reminding you when you forget."
The children go home and demonstrate to their parents what they learn, said Sandy Fuller, whose 6-year-old daughter attends the school. "It amazed me how quickly she picked it up," she said.
Still, many educators have not heard of using sign language as a reading tool.
Robert Slavin, director of elementary school programs for the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University, said he was not aware of using signing as an aid to teaching vocabulary.
"I've never heard of it before, although I will say I am in favor of experiments. Involving the hands or arms in some ways may be beneficial to some kids," he said.
To the children, learning sign language is almost like a game.
Dennis, the first-grader at Lansdowne, will get a chance to try talking with a hearing-impaired person.
"We are doing this so they can increase their sight vocabulary," said Ms. Mattheiss. "But at the end of the year, we do bring in a deaf person so they can talk."