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Fingerspelling 7: 
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Anna Miller

April 22, 2003 

 "Fingerspelling Phobia"

            The field of psychology defines "phobia" as a fear of a particular situation or phenomenon.  Research has proven that a frequent occurrence of "fingerspelling phobia" exists among deaf education teachers and parents of those children who are deaf (Grushkin, 1998).  In the following paragraphs, we will explore several questions related to this fear of fingerspelling.  These questions include:  (1)  What is so scary about fingerspelling anyway?   (2) So, why do we even have to use fingerspelling?  (3) If we have to use fingerspelling, how in the world do we use it?

            "Fingerspelling" is a form of using your fingers to represent letters of the alphabet.  It does not sound very scary.  So, what is so scary about fingerspelling anyway?  One possibility lies within the lack of skill among teachers and parents.  They feel uncomfortable and feel they are not fluent enough to apply it in their teaching.  Furthermore, lack of practice exists continuing the declination of their fingerspelling ability.   During five separate teacher observations done by Akamatsu and Stewart, the lack of fluency was denoted as they recorded several common fingerspelling mistakes.  First of all, the error of "elision" was denoted as the teachers neglected to include all of the letters in the word such as, F-V-E for "five" and T-P-E for "tape."  An additional error observed was the unconscious use of substitution.  For example, the word "code" was fingerspelled as C-S-D-E.  Also exemplified during the observation was the incorrect doubling of letters adjacent to each other and the deletion of letters that are suppose to be doubled.  For instance, one teacher used incorrect doubling when fingerspelling V-A-L-E-E-Y for "valley."  Another teacher failed to double the letter "l" in the work "collie (Akamatsu & Stewart, 1989)."  Another possibility for the reluctance of using fingerspelling is the incorrect perception that fingerspelling is too difficult for deaf children to acquire or understand, especially the younger children who may be behind in the area of communication.   These teachers and parents, who hold this perception, believe that it would be more beneficial to utilize signs only on the grounds that their English skills are far too poor to incorporate fingerspelling as a mode of learning. 

            Why do we even have to use fingerspelling?  Fingerspelling serves as a visual linguistic link between sign language and the acquisition of English.  In other words, fingerspelling is the bridge that aids in the connection of the child's natural language to English.  Furthermore, the letters manually signed through fingerspelling represent the English lexicon and graphemes, which is a wonderful example of "language contact (Lucus & Valli, 1992) between American Sign Language and English.  Therefore, one can see the importance of utilizing fingerspelling frequently in order to achieve the educational goal of successful English acquisition. 

            If we have to use fingerspelling, how in the world do we use it?  First of all, teachers and parents can use fingerspelling for the development of new vocabulary.  This is accomplished by utilizing the techniques shared by Padden, which include:  framing, distancing, and linking equivalences (Padden, 1996b).  For example, a teacher or parent may want to introduce the word, "ball."  Step one, fingerspell "ball", B-A-L-L; step two, discuss what a ball looks like and what it does (linking); and step three, write the word on the board (English) and fingerspell B-A-L-L while pointing to the word (framing equivalences).  These techniques developed by Padden can be incorporated into the learning of any new vocabulary.  An additional way Padden suggests teachers and parents utilize fingerspelling is by representing words as a unit as they are fingerspelled and not as individual letters (Padden, 1996a).  His research proves that reception of the entire word in best achieved by fingerspelling words as a whole and that understanding is lost when fingerspelling is performed at an unnaturally slow rate.  

It is imperative that teachers and parents of those children who are deaf become fluent in both receptive and expressive fingerspelling.  We must put aside any related phobia in order to help build that bridge between American Sign Language and English Acquisition. 



Akamatsu, C.T., & Stewart, D.A. (1989).  The role of fingerspelling in simultaneous communication.  Sign Language Studies, 65, 361-373.

Gushkin, Donald. (1998).  Lexidactylophobia:  The (irrational) fear of fingerspelling.  American Annals of the Deaf, 143, 1-12.

Paden, C.A. (1996a).  Early bilingual lives of deaf children.  Cultural and language diversity and the Deaf experience (pp.99-116).  New York:  Cambridge University Press. 

Paden, C.A. (1996b).  From the cultural to the bicultural:  The modem Deaf community. Cultural and language diversity and the Deaf experience (pp.79-98).  New York:  Cambridge University Press. 






In a message dated 8/31/2002 7:23:39 AM Central Daylight Time, "Ed" writes:

<<One final question for now if you don't mind........How do I "erase/backspace" (like that explanation?) when I fingerspell and make an error? i.e.) sign "e" when I meant "t"?>>


Hello Ed,

There are several approaches to managing errors while fingerspelling.

Approach # 1. Totally ignore the error. The other person "knows what you mean." Compare the situation to someone pronouncing a word a little bit wrong. Do you correct that person? Maybe if he or she is your child, yes, but in adult-level conversation you just let it slide and instead focus on the content of the message.

Approach # 2. Simply respell the word.

Approach # 3. When you spell the "incorrect letter" immediately use a very small side to side waving motion of a relaxed "5-hand" then use the correct letter and go on.

Approach #4. When you spell the "incorrect letter" respell the word but emphasize the correct letter by using a very small forward thrust of the hand and holding the correct letter just a tiny fraction of a second longer than the other letters in the word.

Approach #5. Only spell a portion of the word -- then wiggle your fingers and move your hand to the right a couple inches. (Assuming you are right handed.) This is a common technique in the Deaf Community for spelling words that you don't know how to spell.

So, there you have it. A whole bunch of "correct" ways to correct yourself. I wouldn't get hung up on it though. After a while it becomes no big deal and you just focus on the message, not the spelling.

Good luck with your studies.


Fingerspelling Introduction 
Fingerspelling 2
Fingerspelling 3
Fingerspelling 4
Fingerspelling 5
Fingerspelling 6
Fingerspelling 7

Fingerspelling 8

Fingerspelling:  Lexicalized

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