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SIGNING NATURALLY: NOTES ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ASL CURRICULUM PROJECT AT VISTA COLLEGE Cheri Smith Vista College This paper outlines the procedures used to identify, analyze, and organize components of an American Sign Language (ASL) curriculum. This curriculum encourages students to develop communicative competence and cultural awareness in a classroom environment that allows for natural language learning. Why did you decide to write an ASL curriculum? We had several reasons. In recent years there has been an increased demand for instruction in American Sign Language. It has been estimated that in California alone over 10,000 students enroll in sign language courses each year. We knew that this increased demand was a mixed blessing. While ASL is well over 200 years old and is America's fourth most commonly used language, it has only recently been widely taught in schools and colleges. As a result, there is a dearth of instructional materials. New linguistic research has yet to be analyzed for its applications to teaching ASL in the classroom. ASL programs often select teachers for their language fluency rather than their background in language teaching. These teachers, in turn, base their classes on student textbooks or try to develop their own instructional materials. There is no overall curricular idea which can help teachers (1) establish a cultural context for language instruction, (2) make decisions about how to sequence course materials, and (3) develop activities which allow students to progress from one-word responses to spontaneous expression of thoughts and feelings on a discourse level. @1988 by Linstok Press, Inc. 171 ISSN 0302-1475 See note inside front cover. Signing Naturally At Vista, we experienced all these problems, and tried to overcome them by developing instruction materials as needed. In 1978, we received funds to develop a legal interpreting guide. In 1980, we developed a guide to medical interpreting, focusing on pregnancy. In 1981, we developed ASL course syllabi for beginning and intermediate levels. In 1982, we developed videotapes for teaching classifiers. In 1983, we developed a series of interactive videotapes to be used in the language lab. After field testing these materials, we realized we were on the right track but knew that the materials alone were not enough. What was missing? The syllabi were not comprehensive enough. They were based on what individual instructors had done in class. There was not an overall structure, or a sequenced plan governing why, when, and how to introduce concepts. There were not enough supporting activities and materials to help teachers implement the syllabi. When we assessed student performance, we found that they seemed to use the grammar structures correctly yet were not able to converse naturally. Moreover. very little attention had been given to cross-cultural interactions. We needed a curriculum that addressed these issues and mapped out a twoyear course of study that would help students develop proficient use of the language. We needed to teach proficiency in crosscultural communication between deaf and hearing people. How did you get started? That was tough. We did not have the expertise. None of us had designed a curriculum before. We were not familiar with current research in the field. We wrote to different ASL programs around the country and found that others, like us, had individual course outlines and materials, but nothing comprehensive or compiled in a form SLS 59 Summer 1988 accessible to other ASL instructors. Most programs based their curriculum on two or three existing ASL textbooks. The books are excellent as far as they go. One is organized according to grammatical points. From our experience, this is not the most effective way of designing a language course. Even though students master grammatical structures, they do not learn natural conversational skills. The other book is organized according to culturally relevant topics accompanied by supplemental grammar points. This text was a giant step forward because it dealt with language on a discourse level using videotapes of native signers in actual conversations. However, because the tapes were a "slice of life," they sometimes incorporated complex grammar and advanced vocabulary and there was often a gap between what was expressed on the tape and what students could comprehend. As a result, teachers could...