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American Sign 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 work 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 review? 

     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 of them are older adults).   If you have any professional advice to offer me, I would be most appreciative.   

Thanks, T.M. >>

Dear 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 respond.

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 is from.

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 sentences.

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 takes place:
Teacher: "YOU (where)-FROM?"
Student: "YES"

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 Ill 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 the shape 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 me. 

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 respond. 

3. Personal. The questions elicit real answers about peoples life circumstances. 

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 concepts.  

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) Teaching Methodology

In a message dated 10/10/2006 1:51:26 PM Pacific Daylight Time, an instructor writes:

HI Bill-
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.
That is the way some instructors are regarding the Lifeprint Curriculum.
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.
For example, 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.
When 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.
The Lifeprint 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).
The big words aside, let's look at an example.
In lesson 3, one of the target vocabulary items is "CITY."
In the classroom the teacher shows a PowerPoint slide of a house.  The sign HOUSE is then modeled by the instructor.
The 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).
The student responds by fingerspelling where he lives or by asking for clarification.  Note: All of this is taking place in the target mode without voice.
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?"
The 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 understanding.)
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.
Next the 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.   
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."

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 mean "Community."
This enables students to easily reinforce their learning at home and thus experience more success in the classroom.
William Vicars, Ed.D.
Director, ASL Online and Immersion Programs
Sacramento State, College of Continuing Education
6000 J St. - Eureka Hall, Room 308
Sacramento, CA 95819-6079 * *


In a message dated 5/10/2004 6:44:34 AM Pacific Daylight Time, writes:

If you 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 hands.
- Dr. Bill

I recently attended a workshop regarding "how to teach ASL."

The method of second language instruction promoted at that workshop seemed to:

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 methodology.

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 slate).
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 rates.

A truly modern and effective ASL curriculum is one that capitalizes on the underlying cognitive proficiency of our students.

- William Vicars, Ed.D.