Standard Lesson

Using American Sign Language to Improve Comprehension and Vocabulary

1 - 3
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
One 60-minute session (or two 30-minute sessions)
  • Preview
  • |
  • Standards
  • |
  • Resources & Preparation
  • |
  • Instructional Plan
  • |
  • Related Resources
  • |
  • Comments


Eight vocabulary words, all of which appear in the humorous picture book Sam's Sandwich, are introduced through American Sign Language (ASL). First the sign for each word is presented, emphasizing the connection between the word's meaning and the visual depiction of the concept. Then the text is read aloud, and students sign the vocabulary words when they hear them in the text. Students continue to practice the signs as they engage in a choral reading activity, which reinforces both comprehension and vocabulary. Extension activities increase students' understanding of the vocabulary words and encourage them to learn additional ASL signs.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Sign language increases sight word acquisition because it involves multiple modalities: kinesthetic, visual, and auditory.

  • Sign language links abstract concepts with pictorial symbols to increase schema for vocabulary acquisition.

  • Sign language is highly motivational, engaging, and interactive.
Learning vocabulary, especially sight vocabulary, can be enhanced by using sign language as part of the reading process.
Learning is enhanced when more than one modality is incorporated in the learning task.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Materials and Technology

  • Classroom computer with Internet access and projection capability
  • Document camera or overhead projector (optional)
  • Sam’s Sandwich by David Pelham (Dutton Juvenile Publishers, 1991)
  • American Sign Language: Unabridged Edition by Martin L. Sternberg (Collins Reference, 1998) or The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language edited by Clayton Valli (Gallaudet University Press, 2006)




  1. Use the attached Before Reading—ASL Sign Sheet and Vocabulary Sign Sheet—Sam’s Sandwich to review and practice the vocabulary words for Sam’s Sandwich. Also visit the ASL Dictionary Portal and Signing Savvy to access any available videos of the signs, and bookmark the video clips on your classroom computer. Set up and test the computer and projector.

    Note: Because there is not a sign for every word in the English language, some of the vocabulary words have signs that are synonyms, or consist of two words that, when put together, depict the concept behind the word. The eight vocabulary words have been chosen to include examples of both of these situations. It is essential that you use facial expressions to reinforce the word’s meaning. For example, if you’re signing slimy, make a face to show this is something unpleasant. The vocabulary words to practice are

    • sandwich
    • shriek (shout)

    • drool

    • slimy (wet and dirty)

    • smirk (bad smile)

    • zesty (delicious)

    • snatch

    • wail (cry)
    The procedure for teaching the ASL sign that goes with each word is to SEE–SIGN–SAY three to five times. In other words, as you present the word, show the sign and say the word out loud as you are signing it.

  2. Make a copy for each student of the handouts Before Reading—ASL Sign Sheet and Vocabulary Sign Sheet—Sam’s Sandwich.

  3. Make a PowerPoint slide, overhead transparency, or chart paper copy of the Before Reading Motivator cloze activity (omitting the word miss, of course).

  4. Make one copy of the Choral Reading printout. Review this printout and decide on one or two choral reading techniques that you think would work well for Sam’s Sandwich.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Increase their understanding and recall of identified vocabulary words by learning American Sign Language (ASL) signs for those words

  • Demonstrate an understanding of text by planning, practicing, and presenting a choral reading, using appropriate pacing, volume, and expression for each phrase

Before Reading

  1. Using the PowerPoint slide (or overhead projector or chart paper), read aloud and have students complete the Before Reading Motivator cloze activity.

  2. Have students identify the rhyme pattern and rhyming words.

  3. Tell students that the story they’re going to read will follow this rhyming cloze pattern and will be full of funny phrases.

  4. Explain that students will be learning the American Sign Language (ASL) signs for some of the special vocabulary words in Sam’s Sandwich. Ask if anyone knows sign language and have them share their experiences with ASL. Point out to students that using ASL signs for words can help them remember what the words mean, because when they sign they will

    • Make a picture of the word using their hands

    • Incorporate various sensations and forms of perception: seeing, hearing, moving, speaking

    • Provide a link between the abstract and concrete

    • Have fun!
  5. Use the Before Reading—ASL Sign Sheet or access Signing Savvy to introduce the following words:

    • sandwich
      • Ask if anyone can explain why this is a good sign for sandwich. Demonstrate how the motion looks like someone eating two pieces of bread, and point out that this will help students remember the word.
      • SEE–SIGN–SAY sandwich.
    • smirk
      • Demonstrate the sign and ask what it could be showing
      • Tell students what the word smirk means. Explain that some words use two or more signs to represent the word. For example, a smirk is a kind of bad or mean smile, so it is made up of the sign for bad and the sign for smile together.
      • SEE–SIGN–SAY smirk
    • zesty
      • Explain that some words do not have an exact sign and instead use the sign for a synonym. An example is the word zesty.
      • Demonstrate the sign for delicious and explain that it will be used for zesty.
      • Ask whether anyone can explain why the sign for delicious can also be used for zesty. (Because something zesty is delicious.)
      • SEE–SIGN–SAY zesty.
  6. Introduce the remaining vocabulary words for the story, using the Vocabulary Sign Sheet—Sam’s Sandwich. You can also use bookmarked video clips for some of the words on the ASL Dictionary Portal or Signing Savvy. Explain that these words will be used in the story students are going to read and that signing the words will help students remember and understand them.

  7. SEE–SIGN–SAY each word with students three to five times. As you introduce each word, use the word in a sentence. Use a think-aloud technique, describing how the sign reinforces the definition by creating a “hand picture,” to help students understand and remember the word’s meaning.

  8. First review the three words already introduced (sandwich, smirk, and zesty), then present the other five

    • shriek
      Explain that there is no exact sign for shriek, so the sign for shout is used as a synonym. Think aloud how a loud shout is like a shriek.
    • drool
      Demonstrate how the motion looks like liquid dripping or drooling from your mouth, and point out that this will help students remember the word.
    • slimy
      Explain that the sign for slimy is a combination of two signs, wet and dirty. Think aloud how something slimy can be wet and dirty.
    • snatch
      Demonstrate how the motion shows someone grabbing or snatching something, and point out that this will help students remember the word.
    • wail
      Explain that there is no exact sign for wail, so a synonym sign is used. Think aloud how a wail is a kind of cry, so ASL uses the sign for cry as a synonym for wail.
  9. Display the book cover for Sam’s Sandwich. Ask students what they think the story may be about. You can keep this as an oral response, or jot down responses using a white board, transparency, or document camera.

During Reading

  1. Read Sam’s Sandwich. If you have a document camera you can use it to display each page.

  2. Instruct students to make the sign for each vocabulary word as they hear it in the story.

  3. When you get to a word that is hidden beneath a flap, stop and use the cloze technique. Ask students to think of a rhyming word that makes sense in the context and have them offer possible answers. Open the flap to verify.

After Reading

  1. Have students reread Sam’s Sandwich using choral reading. Follow the procedures outlined in the Choral Reading printout. You may choose to have each section read by different groups or individuals.

  2. During the choral reading, direct students to sign each of the five vocabulary words as it occurs in the text. Alternatively, you can have a “solo” signer step to the front and sign as each vocabulary word is heard.


  • Explore the ASL websites ASL Dictionary Portal and Signing Savvy for further vocabulary word acquisition. Two additional sites worth exploring are
    • American Sign Language Browser, which instructs the participant to click on the desired letter to open an index of words and then to click on a word to obtain its sign.
    •, a subscription-based website that consists of an ASL online dictionary, lessons, and resources

  • Use the supplemental vocabulary activity, Front-Load the Words [from Beers, S. & Howell, L. (2003). Reading strategies for the content areas. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development]. To “frontload” vocabulary, tell students you will “load up” each of the eight vocabulary words from the lesson by doing several activities. Have students first write one of the vocabulary words in the oval. Then have them write the definition in the first of the four boxes and identify some key characteristics of the word in the next box. In the examples box, students should provide an example that shows what the word means and then illustrate the example in the picture box.

  • As a family extension, have students teach their family members the ASL signs for their new vocabulary words.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Observe student participation in discussions and activities.

  • Evaluate students’ comprehension and recall of vocabulary words learned through ASL through your customary vocabulary assessment methods. Compare students’ understanding of these vocabulary words with vocabulary learned without ASL.

  • Note if students independently use the ASL signs in other situations; examples include recess, reading activities, or in conversation.

  • Provide an opportunity for students to reflect on the benefits of using ASL signs for vocabulary comprehension.

Add new comment