The Signed Systems By John Walker

The response to 'oral failures': the introduction of signed systems.

What are signed systems?

Signed Systems are manual communication methods used for the purpose to teach English. A signed system is often used with spoken English or with lipreading, and the manual representation of English exist to aid learning and comprehension of English.

Examples of signed systems include: Paget Gorman (a visual representation of English where its grammar exists in the signs), Signed Exact English (every word has a corresponding sign in SEE), MaKaTon (borrowing of BSL signs and presented in a frozen format and used with spoken English - principally used for children with learning disabilities), Cued Speech (each phoneme has a corresponding handshape and the cuer would speak and cue at the same time), and Sign Supported English (a pidgin between BSL and English, which is respectful and disrespectful to the grammar structures of English and BSL).

There is evidence that schools changed the mode of communication from the pure oral method to a signed system. Elmsfield School, in Bristol, suddenly switched to Cued Speech in 1977. It was reported that the children and teachers struggled with the change. In the case of this exhibition, only Hamilton Lodge School adopted Signed Exact English at a much later stage. The system was established by Miss Moore. The current Head Teacher, Mr. Sheppard, was around when this change took place.

More on signed systems from Frances Elton

Francis Elton on Signed Systems

Transcript for 'Francis Elton on Signed Systems':

BSL is the natural language of the Deaf community. We have no idea when sign language was first formed because video is only a recent invention and it was impossible to record sign language otherwise. There is a record of the Great Fire of London, in 1666, when deaf people were alerted of the fire in sign language. As well as, a school in the 17th century, where there was an explosion of British Sign Language.

Teachers [in the 1970s] wanted to find a way to teach English and resorted to creating an artificial system to help them to do this. Such as, Sign Support English (which was used by many), where signs followed the English word order. There was Signed English, which, like SSE, helped the learner to access English. There was also Paget Gorman - there was nothing to say that one system was better than another. Cued Speech helped to facilitate speech. MaKaTon was really suitable for people with learning difficulties. And there was Total Communication, which was used in those time and has changed since.

There were several artificial systems used in school and the teachers evaluated which system was the best to used in their educational institution. Most gave emphasis to acquiring speech, which is why Cued Speech was popular. It was impossible for a lipreader to see inside the mouth and it helps to make sounds visible. Alternatively, Paget Gorman aimed to give children better structure of English and use it more fluently. Signed English helped the children to learn English and become aware of grammatical rules, such as post fixes (-ed, -s). MaKaTon was not created for the purpose of education, it was actually used for people with learning disabilities or people who have brain injury. MaKaTon actually borrows signs from BSL and uses them to make spoken communication easier; for children who have Down Syndrome or similar. It has been mistakenly used as an alternative to BSL.

Most teachers of the time used Sign Supported English to work with children who already have BSL. There were pressures to help these children learn English and they thought to teach English through SSE and give the child a choice. While SSE gave children more access to English, it needs to be reminded that BSL has a different grammar to that of English (or SSE for that matter).

When these children left school, many resorted to using BSL. If they didn't, it is more likely they became more isolated. Rarely and in one case, a fluent BSL users was actually exposed to a full range of signed systems and still has fluent BSL today; she is a teacher of BSL. But it has affected other children, who have found it difficult to communicate with other Deaf people; the MaKaTon they use at school is not what every other deaf person use outside of school. As a consequence, these individuals have become more isolated in society.

There is a question of whether it was a wise move to introduce signed systems, because the people to ultimately benefitted from signed systems were hearing people, it didn't really benefit deaf people themselves. Within the Deaf community, it was particularly disruptive. But there were a lucky few who got through ok.

This page was added on 26/09/2012.

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