A brief history of signing

13th October 1995 at 01:00
MOVING TO ENGLISH Age group: 8-11 BBC 2, Wednesdays, 11.40am.

Teacher's notes, Pounds 3.

BBC Education, 0181-746 1111.

LEARN SIGN LANGUAGE Age group: 7-16 Channel 4, Mondays, 10.15am. Video, Pounds 9.99. "Signs Make Sense" pupils book, Pounds 9.99. Poster pack, Pounds 2. Educational Television Company, 01926 433333

There is growing evidence that the most effective path to learning for profoundly deaf children is a bi-lingual approach, which is to say one that uses both sign and spoken language. Moving to English embraces this philosophy wholeheartedly, using British Sign Language as its main language for delivering the curriculum, with a spoken voice-over and sections to help in the development of written English skills.

Along the way the series aims to teach about deaf culture, introduces pupils to deaf role models and helps to make deaf children feel part of the wider community. It sounds like a heavy remit, but Moving to English is fast paced and fun, as well as being richly educational. Most importantly, it values the children's own world, using it as a starting point.

At its centre is a female Dr Who-ish figure called Noelle (played magnetically by Caroline Parker) who introduces a group of deaf children to famous historical figures. Noelle is accompanied by her "minicom", Uno, a device for getting the children to key in English words which appear on its screen. The deafness of many famous historical figures is often overlooked by the history books, but is obviously of prime importance to deaf people.

Take Thomas Edison, probably the most prolific inventor of all time. Deaf from the age of 12 after a bizarre accident, he attributed much of his drive to his deafness, especially in his attempts to improve the telephone. He never learned sign language, but could communicate in Morse code, a system which is also introduced to pupils. In the first two programmes, played by an actor, he explains his invention of the light bulb and his contribution to telephone technology. Later Noelle presents different sorts of phones, including the minicom, fax and videophone and asks pupils to decide which is best for them, or to design another. Also included is a sequence in which we watch a deaf pupil and his family celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, and explain its meaning.

In the third programme, pupils are introduced to Victorian society through Queen Alexandra, herself deaf. Daughter of a Danish king, and the wife of Edward VII, she had a deaf mother and was taught finger spelling by Queen Victoria, a patron of deaf charities. Alexandra's first son was deaf but died in his twenties, depriving Britain of a deaf monarch.

Historical evidence on Victorian times is examined in the fourth programme which explores the archives of the Royal School for Deaf Children for records and photos.

The final programme is devoted to Dorothy Miles, playwright and poet, who inspired the deaf arts scene in the Seventies and Eighties and includes a signing workshop in which the young people explore the creative possibilities of British Sign Language and construct poems and plays.

Dorothy Miles composed her work in English and then translated it into sign language, but, as is pointed out, there is no reason why the reverse can't be done as a way of encouraging deaf children to develop written English skills.

Children of all ages are usually enthralled by the novelty and expressiveness of sign language and enthusiastically learn signs.

Learn Sign Language is a series of short programmes that employs a galaxy of stars from soap operas, films and news programmes to encourage them, as the title suggests, to learn sign language so that they can communicate with deaf friends or family members. Each item introduces some simple signs and then uses this vocabulary in a mini-drama, acted by both professionals actors and schoolchildren.

It's a pity the dramas are often insubstantial and the plots hard to follow, because the idea is good and the willingness of so many television personalities to take part testifies to a fund of goodwill.

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