Language: Dr. Bill's RPM Teaching Method
A teacher writes:
<< Dr. Vicars,
I've been looking at your website for inspiration on how to teach an
ASL class. I've been learning ASL for years, and I
have recently started offering a basic ASL class at my church. I was hoping that
you could give me some advice on a particular issue I'm facing.
I want to have the class converse and use the vocabulary that they have
learned, but I'm not sure as to the best time to introduce the new
vocabulary. For example, there are 23 words in the first vocabulary list,
should I present them at the beginning of class and have the students
on using them in conversation, or should I present the words during a
class and use the words during the next class meeting as a type of
I'm trying to cut down on as much homework as possible (this is not a
class for credit or anything official, they just want to learn and most
them are older adults).
If you have any professional advice to offer me, I would be most
Thanks, T.M. >>
When I teach "in a classroom" I use an
LCD (computer projector) and PowerPoint
slides. If the site doesn't have an LCD
projector, I use an overhead projector. If
there is no overhead projector, I use a flip
chart. If I don't have my flip chart...well
then, I use the "board." Prior to class I
create twenty questions from each day's
vocabulary. For example, " YOU FROM?" (Where
are you from?)
I type them into the PowerPoint presentation
format. Then I make quarter sheet handouts
with ten questions on each and label them
with the lesson number and an "A" or "B." If
you are going to teach without voice it is
very helpful that all of your students know
the following signs:
HEY (fluttering of the hand to get
attention), SLOW, AGAIN, SPELL
I write these on the board and review them
prior to teaching new vocabulary.
I sign a question to one of the students. He
uses signs like, "slow, again, and spell" to
figure out what I'm signing. Then he answers
my question. Then I ask a few other students
the same question and give them a chance to
Every once in a while a student freezes up
and doesn't have a clue what I'm signing. I
point to the board to remind the student to
use the signs "slow, again, and spell."
Quite often I will turn to a random student
and ask, "HE (where)-FROM?" Meaning, after I
ask student "A" where he is from I turn to
student "B" and ask where student "A" is
from. This encourages all of the students to
stay awake and watch the other students'
answers in case I ask them what the other
students said. If I ask the second student,
"HE [pointing to first student] FROM?" and
the second student doesn't know, I sign,
"ASK HIM" and require the second student to
find out personally where the first student
After the various ASL interchanges, I
"flash" the question on the screen so they
can all read in English what we recently
covered. This helps any stragglers clue into
the meanings of the recently introduced
signs. If an you don't have an LCD projector
or overhead projector you can make a flip
chart with large letters showing the
Of course, you can write the sentences on
the board. I think is "okay" but it takes
time away from your students whenever you
turn your back to write a sentence on the
board. While it is possible to write the
sentences on the board prior to class, I
think doing so is less effective for
encouraging students to pay attention to
your teaching. If students know ahead of
time what sentences you will be
signing--they disengage their brains.
However, suppose there is a "pull down"
screen or map in the room--you can write the
sentences on the board then use the screen
to reveal the sentences at the right time.
The "right time" to reveal a sentence is
after the majority of class has figured it
out. Don't give in at the first sign of
difficulty, but do give enough support to
allow for student success.
For example suppose the following exchanges
Teacher: "YOU (where)-FROM?"
You know that the student is not
understanding. At that point rather than
prolong the student's suffering I hold up an
index finger to indicate "Wait a minute,
hold that." Then I show or type on the
overhead the words:
FROM vs "(where)-FROM" and I model the
different facial expressions
Then I have another student sign "WHERE."
And have yet another student sign "FROM."
Then I go back to the first student and ask
him again, "YOU (where)-FROM?" Whereupon he
(usually) answers correctly. This helps to
protect the student's self esteem by
providing them just enough context to figure
out the meaning of the sentence.
After I've covered three or four sentences
and gotten answers from the students-- I
press the "back" key to display a recently
taught question. I choose individual
students and have them sign selected
vocabulary back to me.
Also, every once in a while I’ll spell the word I want signed. I spell
it very quickly, but students can see the sentence behind me on the screen.
All the students have to do is glance at the screen to pick from amongst the
four or five words in the sentence. This helps them to focus on figuring out
and movement of the word--recognizing it as a whole--and not the individual
letters. If they don't catch it the first time I spell it again, slower. The
third time I spell it while holding my hand underneath the word on the
screen. The student makes the connection and signs the word back to
Having the sentence available
provides enough of a clue that the students almost always figure out or
guess which word I spelled.
After going through ten questions, I hand out the practice sheets (with
the questions written in both ASL gloss and English) to half the class and
instruct them to find a partner and ask that partner all ten questions. Then
when they get done once, they switch and the other partner asks the
questions of the first partner. If they get done before everyone else they
are to select vocabulary from the sheet and spell it to their partner who
signs the words back to them.
When I see that four or five pairs are
spelling to each other I know that the vast majority of students have had
sufficient time to make it through the dialog sheets at least once and it is
time to move on. Then I teach ten more sentences using the same method. When
it comes time to hand out the second set of practice sheets, (suppose there
are 20 students in class), I hand ten sheets to half of the pairs of
students. For example suppose John and Bob were partners in round one. Mary
and Fred were also partners. For round two I hand practice sheets to both
John and Bob but I don't hand practice sheets to Mary and Fred. This
requires John and Bob to have to change partners. John goes and sits with
Mary. Fred comes over and sits with Bob.
Why don't I give practice sheets to both partners at the same time? I
don't want the receptive partner looking off a piece of paper to figure out
what the expressive partner is signing. I want the receptive partner to
interact with the expressive partner through signing, gesture, mime, or
fingerspelling to figure out what the question is and then answer it.
At the beginning of the next class period I give a quiz by signing 10
questions from previously covered practice sheets. I give these quizzes
"daily" (or each time class meets). I make them worth one percent
of the students total grade. One percent is a low enough number that
students don't get stressed, but it does encourage them to study, and it
does add up over the semester to about 20 percent of their grade.
The things I like about this approach:
The Vicars Method is
1. Highly interactive.
2. Engaging. No more than a few seconds go by in class before the
students have to engage their brains and either respond or be ready to
3. Personal. The questions elicit real answers about peoples life
4. Fast. Computer-based overheads are available at the push of
a button. They can be hyperlinked for non-linear access. (Which is to say,
you can't jump right to a certain portion of your presentation from any
other place in your presentation.)
5. Bilingual. The overheads supply "L1" (Native
Language) support which makes use of the student's existing language
foundation to expedite second language acquisition.
6. Informative. Students are constantly required to
provide comprehensible answers. You are highly aware of whether
students understand what is going on or not. If a student answers a question
incorrectly you know immediately that you need to clarify certain
7. It is low maintenance. After creating the initial question sets,
handout format, and PowerPoint template for unit one, it is an easy matter
to plug in new content.
8. It is backward compatible. If you don't have a computer you can just
use overhead transparencies or even a large flip chart.
9. The regular quizzes help making grading more reflective of student
performance. The quizzes promote good attendance without bribing the
students. Rather than giving students points for "good attendance"
--they have to "work for their grade" by earning points on the
quizzes rather than just warming a seat.
Remember, before using this method you need to teach them fingerspelling,
and how to use signs like "HEY," "SLOW,"
"AGAIN," and "SPELL." So that they can control the
learning environment. Also remember, I write the words "slow, again, and spell"
on the board so that if a student becomes confused and is just sitting there
looking stressed I can point to the each word to remind the student to use
his "tools" to get information from me.
-- Dr. Bill
The "Responses Per Minute" (RPM)
In a message dated 10/10/2006 1:51:26 PM
Pacific Daylight Time, an instructor writes:
I have been using your curriculum for
the past 8 semesters or so at our
community college for beginning ASL 1
and 2 and LOVE it. Therefore, we
get through 40 of your lessons.
At that time, the students, if they are
continuing on, go to Intermediate ASL 1,
and their instructor begins them on [a
different curriculum], lesson 1.
These students are very frustrated
because they know all the vocabulary and
feel they are not being challenged at
all. I have approached this
instructor about this and am told that
the students I give to her have NO
conversational skills whatsoever.
These students, and I, completely
disagree. We just went through 40
of your lessons together, practiced with
your sentences and created dialogs for
tests and in class work among other
things. I feel I can't get my
point across because this instructor and
our Dean feel that vocabulary should not
be taught, only learned naturally
through conversation. I found on
your website your points showing the
differences between these two
curriculum's, but I need more. My
department needs more. I don't
want to be told that we can no longer
use your curriculum. I send
students from ASL 101 able to
communicate with the Deaf (in a small
way but they can communicate). Can
you help me here?
Is there also a way that you can just
respond back to me and not put my email
in your newsletter? Or, leave my
name and email out?
Thank you so much,
(name on file)
Dear (name on file),
Road Safety experts
will tell you that the main cause of automobile
accidents is because someone "glanced" when they
should have "looked." Some people "glance"
quickly at something and turn away without
having seen what was really there.
the way some instructors are regarding the
They look at it for a
few minutes and think they understand it when
they really have no idea what it involves or how
it works in the classroom.
they "glance" at one of my "lesson pages" and
see what they think is a list of vocabulary,
followed by a list of sentences. Then they
think, "Oh, I've seen this before. That is
how we used to teach ASL back in the 1960's--a
list of vocabulary and some practice sentences."
What this person fails to realize is that what
they are seeing is not a list of vocabulary, but
rather it is a list of hyperlinks that lead to
in-depth explanations of each concept.
it is pointed out to them that these are
hyperlinks and not printed words on paper, they
then glance again and say, "Oh, right, that is
the 'grammar-translation' method where you learn
about the language but you don't really use it."
Thus we see such people managing to crash twice
in the span of a few minutes.
Curriculum is a discourse-based curriculum that
is taught in-person via modeling and
conversation and then followed up via homework
in a bilingual-bicultural computer-assisted
language learning (CALL) online environment.
New concepts are introduced in the target
language mode (visually/gesturally) via direct
association (pictures and graphics) and
embedding (placement of new concepts within the
context of previously learned material).
big words aside, let's look at an example.
lesson 3, one of the target vocabulary items is
In the classroom the teacher shows a
PowerPoint slide of a house. The sign
HOUSE is then modeled by the instructor.
teacher then shows a PowerPoint slide of a a
city. The sign "CITY" is modeled by the
instructor. Then a different slide is shown
showing a different CITY and the sign is modeled
again. Next the student is shown a slide
representing a house then the teacher, using
ASL, asks a specific student, "What is that?"
(Student responds: "house") Then the
teacher shows another slide representing a city
and asks a different student, "What is that?"
The student signs "CITY."
At this point the
students have (partially) learned two concepts
via "direct association."
Next the instructor
will embed the concept of CITY into a question
utilizing previously learned material. In
the previous lesson the students learned the
sign "LIVE/address." They have also learned that
furrowed eyebrows are often interpreted as being
a "Wh"-type question.
The chooses a third
student and signs, "CITY YOU LIVE?" (using
appropriate facial expression).
responds by fingerspelling where he lives or by
asking for clarification. Note: All of
this is taking place in the target mode without
Then the teacher selects a fourth
student and asks, "CITY HE/SHE LIVE?" (referring
to the student who recently answered). The
fourth student responds by telling where the
third student lives. The instructor asks a
fifth student, "HE RIGHT?" (regarding the forth
students answer). Note: five students have been
directly engaged in discourse and all of the
students have had to pay attention throughout
the whole process because they might be called
upon to answer at any stage of the process.
Next the instructor shows a PowerPoint slide of
the phrase "What city do you live in?" along
with the gloss "CITY YOU LIVE?"
instructor models it one more time then directs
a sixth student to "ASK-me "that question"
(referring to the phrase on the board).
The student asks the teacher the phrase and the
teacher responds. (Sometimes accurately,
sometimes giving false information to check for
This process is repeated four
more times to introduce a total of at least five
vocabulary concepts and five phrases which
comprises a "set" or "card." Within a span of 10
minutes the instructor engages up to 30 students
in personal, interactive discourse in a target
mode (visual/gestural) environment.
instructor places the students in pairs and
distributes cards containing the recently
learned five questions to one person in each
pair. To the second person in each pair the
instructor hands a review card containing
questions from the previous class session or a
previously covered lesson. The students then
take turns asking each other questions in the
target language and responding. Thus in less
than 15 minutes all of the students have moved
from not knowing those five signs, to
recognizing the signs in both isolation and in
context and then using the signs in meaningful
discourse with a communication partner. For as
much as a full third of the class every student
is engaged in conversational discourse in ASL. I
have coined the phrase "responses per minute" or
RPM to describe the Lifeprint method of
teaching. This method is a combination of
the natural method, the bilingual-bicultural
approach. Using this method an average
instructor can easily cover three sets (or
"cards") in 45 minutes.
This is a "high RPM environment" and leads to
rapid acquisition of demonstrated conversation
skills because the students are using the
language to learn the language.
Remember earlier I said that the students had
only "partially" learned the sign "CITY?" That
is because the "natural" method has a major
weakness. It doesn't support rapid
acquisition of multiple meanings of words or
expansion of semantic range. Many students will
walk out of such a class with very limited
concept of the sign "CITY" – not knowing that it
also means "community" and can be used in such
phrases as "the Deaf community." The Lifeprint
method of instruction solves this problem
(truncation of semantic range) by including (in
the student's native language) a synonym list
when appropriate. For example, such a list can
be included at the bottom of the slide that is
shown to the sixth student. This is where
a bilingual-bicultural approach is superior to a
"target language limited" or so called "natural"
approach. Students who learn ASL via
target language only approaches often report
that they "understand" what a person is signing,
but they can't put it into "words." Students who
have learned ASL via the RPM method tend to
become excellent interpreters because in
addition to understanding what is being signed
to them, they also have excellent back and forth
conversational skills, and the semantic range
required to interpret between their native
language and the target language.
In addition to the RPM (Responses Per Minute)
method, the Lifeprint curriculum utilizes
Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL).
From the convenience of home the student is able
to access the online lessons. Upon
clicking the "HOUSE" link, the student is showed
two versions of house and the related sign CITY.
Upon clicking on the CITY link, the student is
shown two versions of the sign for CITY and is
instructed that this sign also can be used to
Most "immersion"-labeled courses cannot by any
stretch of the imagination be considered to
provide an experience similar to that of "living
in the environment of the native users of the
target language." A couple hours a week sitting
in a classroom provides only limited exposure.
At best a "target language only" course should
be called "the slow drip method."
This enables students to
easily reinforce their learning at home and thus
experience more success in the classroom.
William Vicars, Ed.D.
Online and Immersion Programs
State, College of Continuing Education
6000 J St. - Eureka Hall, Room 308
Sacramento, CA 95819-6079
ASL.ms * ASLpah.com
In a message dated 5/10/2004 6:44:34 AM Pacific Daylight Time, Eric-Kollar@smh.com
were teaching in a more traditional environment how long would you
have the class working on each lesson?
Thanks in advance!
I've found that it depends on how you teach the class.
In general it takes 45 to 50 contact hours to teach 20 lessons from Level 1.
If you teach no voice, and introduce the material via embedding it into
sentences and the students have not "pre-studied" the material from the
website, it takes 40 minutes to an hour to introduce the vocabulary material
in one lesson. Then you need 15 minutes to a half hour for "guided
practice." If you have an LCD projector and PowerPoint slides you can cut
your vocabulary instruction time down considerably.
If you assign and require the students to study the vocabulary on their own
from the website then use the class time for review and to focus on grammar
and conversational skills development instead of teaching vocabulary, you
can teach a lesson (including practice time) in an hour.
Now...if you are just going to go into class and do something lame like show a list of 20 signs
(written on the board in English) and demonstrate how to sign those 20
signs, you can get through the list in about 6 minutes (allowing for
occasional questions). But that isn't
really "teaching" now is it? The students might develop "vocabularies" but
they don't learn how to sign ASL...they end up signing in English on the
- Dr. Bill
I recently attended a workshop regarding "how to teach ASL."
The method of second language instruction promoted at that workshop seemed
Strongly discourage linking ASL signs with English words
Strongly discourage use of fingerspelling to introduce new vocabulary
Strongly discourage any student use of gloss
Outlaw voicing in the classroom by either student or instructor
Claim that their text and materials are the "next" generation of language
instruction and better than all other curricula out there.
Personally, I see such an approach as being a silent version of the worst
aspects of the audio-lingual method combined with the direct-method and a
bit of vengeance (for years of oppression) thrown in for flavor. That
isn't new at all. Well, maybe the "vengeance" part.
It is the "vengeance" part that concerns me.
When I ask other (Deaf) instructors about it they shrug and reply, "We've
struggled all our lives, it's the Hearing student's turn."
That is so not me.
After teaching for many years and then spending three years learning
bilingual/bicultural methodology in graduate school at Lamar University (as it related to
teaching literacy to deaf children) I found myself seriously wanting to apply
"bi/bi" (bilingual / bicultural) and CALL (computer assisted language
learning) to ASL-L2 (ASL as a second language) instruction
I'm sure I have been influenced by Jim Cummins' Cognitive Underlying
Proficiency (CUP) model as applied to second language acquisition.
To be exposed to powerful teaching models such the "bilingual/bicultural
approach" and then sit through the
aforementioned workshop was indeed disturbing.
An adult hearing second language (L2) learner is not a "tabula rasa" (blank
Our student's native languages (L1) are not poorly drawn pictures that
need to be erased and redrawn. To ignore or actively work against the native
language of adult learners leads to frustrated students and high attrition
A truly modern and effective ASL curriculum is one that capitalizes on the
underlying cognitive proficiency of our students.
- William Vicars, Ed.D.