Why Fingerspelling Helps Children Learn to Spell and Read

I have been asked to discuss why fingerspelling helps children learn to read. During my graduate school experiences, I studied how children learn… the process for language acquisition, what happens in the brain as children develop, the cognitive development associated with learning, and how muscle memory contributes to learning and retention of knowledge.  Most of us don't think that our tongue, lips, breathing, and vocal mechanism depend on muscles and the muscle memory needed to recreate the sounds that form our various global languages. However, the muscles we use for any activity can retain the specific memory for that specific activity. Practicing an instrument will offer muscles many opportunities to remember the movements that create music. Thus, musicians can stop relying on the various fingerings they have practiced and can rely on their muscle memory to perform the basic motions while they concentrate on the dynamics of the motions rather than just the motions themselves.

When I first discovered the contribution the Deaf Community has made to our society through its American Sign Language, the practical applications fingerspelling had when introducing reading to young children was a hidden gem. When you tell preschoolers or kindergarteners that they can make—with their fingers—the sounds that come out of their mouths, they get pretty excited.  I considered the learning dynamics involved that affect young learners and saw the potential to include fingerspelling to the developmental learning process. Voila! What an amazing tool that turns part of the learn-to-read process into a finger game.  English, being a combination of Latin, French, German, and other global languages, has many words that are difficult to spell. For example, words with “tion,” “sion,” “ough,” “ph” for an “f” sound, and other elements can be difficult to spell. Fingerspelling and its muscle memory aspect can help children navigate some of the difficulty in spelling words in the English language.

Child and Mother fingerspelling

By adding that muscle memory element through fingerspelling, many children benefited from the physical support fingerspelling provides. At one kindergarten where we tested Dr. Joseph’s Fingerspelling Book, the teachers commented that the students would go outside during recess, sit across from each other, and spell words back and forth. Although a learning skill was being developed, the important thing was that the children were having fun. The teachers also commented that the young children were spelling many words in the book as well as their names and just random words. A take-away from this experience is that these kindergarten children were learning to spell words while participating in a game-like activity. There was no stress involved­—no expectations or demands that they learn to spell. Many of the children in this class had competency in spelling and reading first-and second-grade words while they were still in kindergarten.

I designed Dr. Joseph’s Fingerspelling Book based on my understanding of learning styles, children’s dexterity, and the love they have for being challenged at an appropriate level. It is intentionally constructed to address the learning dynamics of young first-time readers. The book challenges children incrementally. Parents and teachers are encouraged to start with the practice section. It starts with two-letter words then progresses to three-letter words and moves up to five-letter words. By the time children have gone through the practice exercises, they have learned all the letters of the alphabet. Then, the challenge is to follow along the book’s story line, through the five days of the week, spelling the words that are shown on the characters’ hands. This way, children learn the letters as they actually appear in words. There is no word spelled abcdefghijklmnop…etc. As the children connect the finger movements with their speech, the fascination with this new skill is self-motivating.

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