A Paper on SignWriting by Shiela Urso

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Sat Nov 15 19:23:43 UTC 2003

SignWriting List
November 15, 2003

Thank you, Shiela, for this excellent paper on SignWriting. I enjoyed 
our interview on the phone! I will post your paper on our web site...I 
will tell you when that happens....smile.....Val ;-)

A Paper by Shiela Urso
StevenUrso at aol.com
New York State
ED772, Fall 2003
Interview About SignWriting

American Sign Language (ASL) is a visually distinctive language with 
its own set of linguistic and grammatical rules. The structure of ASL 
is very different from the structure for English, making more 
challenges for deaf children to become literate. My first teaching job 
was with a first through third grade deaf and hard of hearing class. To 
try to increase their independent reading, I used to translate stories 
into ASL, copy the signs from the dictionary, and glue them under their 
prospective words or phrases. Many times, however, phrases consisted of 
one sign, and the important aspects of facial expressions and body 
language could not be written symbolically. Until recently, there has 
never been a written language to symbolize the nuances of 
ASL. SignWriting is … “a set of visually designed symbols that records 
how people sign. SignWriting captures on paper the visual subtleties of 
any signed language in the world, because it records body movement.” ( 
http://www.signwriting.org/lessons/lessonsw/lessonsw.html ) 

I had the great fortune to interview Valerie Sutton, the inventor of 
this unique written language, over the phone for one hour! She is also 
the founder and director of the Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting 
(the DAC). This non-profit organization receives small grants from 
private foundations to fund the Literacy Project. I wanted to interview 
the creator and promoter of this awesome writing system, that I think 
will really increase literacy skills for people who are deaf and hard 
of hearing; but, I was doubtful that I could contact such an important 
person directly. I was pleasantly surprised at how easily accessible 
she was, all I did was get her e-mail address from the 
(http://www.signwriting.org) web site. I sent her an e-mail and we set 
a day and time for the interview. My goals for this interview were 
simple: to find out how she got the idea for SignWriting, how many 
countries are using it now, and how one set of symbols can be 
understood by people who speak so many different languages; both signed 
and written. I was also interested to find out if any research had been 
done on its effectiveness in increasing literacy (reading and writing), 
and what other teachers had found successful and/or challenging about 
using SignWriting. Finally, I wanted to know what people in the deaf 
community thought of this new addition to their language, would it 
empower them? As I do not want to torture you with a “play by play” 
account of our extended interview, I will summarize our conversation, 
which was based on the following questions:

•     How did you come up with such a unique written language, which could 
be translated, into any signed language?
•     How many different countries use SignWriting?
•     Is the SignWriting based on that language’s signs or is it only 
based on ASL?
•     How does learning SignWriting increase the student’s ability to 
comprehend and express the English language?
•     When I look at the pictures without the paired English word next to 
the symbol, I have difficulty understanding the word, how do young 
students know what its saying?
•     What kind of research has been done on the effectiveness of 
•     It says you can navigate SignWriting in twelve different 
languages. Does the program automatically translate it into another 
language, signed and written?
•     How long does it take to learn SignWriting?
•     Is there any sort of training that is required before learning to 
sign- write?
•     Can SignWriting be done easily by hand?
•     What do people in the deaf community think about SignWriting?


SignWriting’s popularity has been on the rise, particularly with 
international countries, since its creation in 1974. For example, “in 
1997, SignWriting had become the ‘written form’ for signed languages in 
14 countries.” Valerie said that there are 27 countries researching, 
testing, and using SignWriting! SignWriting was “born” at the 
University of Copenhagen at the request of Lars von der Lieth, and 
through the creativity of Valerie Sutton. Ms. Sutton was a dancer who, 
when became too ill to dance, first developed a ‘movement writing 
system.’ “DanceWriting is a way to read and write any kind of dance 
movement, using stick figures to represent the dancers.” (Valerie 
Sutton) As we were talking, I was online and she would direct me to 
specific web sites with all the information to answer my questions. For 
instance, information about DanceWriting, the forerunner to 
SignWriting, is described in detail at    


             “A stick figure is written on a five-lined staff. 

              Each line of the staff represents a specific

              level… When the figure bends its knees or

              jumps in the air, it is lowered or raised

              accordingly on the staff. The five-lined staff

              acts as a level guide. Figures and symbols

              are written from left to right, notating

              movement position by position, as if stopping

              a film frame by frame.”

There have been many other forms of notation systems, but SignWriting 
can be understood by many different signed languages. Many of the 
numerous research projects that have been done emphasize the ease with 
which deaf students are able to read the SignWriting. For example, a 
research project at Salk Institute is using SignWriting to record 
classifiers because English gloss is not adequate. There are many 
schools that are testing SignWriting's effectiveness in Deaf Education, 
such as the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project. The students usually have 
a wide-range of signed vocabulary, so they can quickly understand 
SignWriting, as it is based on movement instead of sound. “Reading and 
writing makes it easier to learn other languages, it preserves the 
history and traditions of the culture, and it has a profound influence 
on the rest of the world. When a language is written, it places it on 
an equal footing with other written languages, which brings the 
language attention and respect. Through this process, those who use the 
language learn about their own culture, and view themselves 
positively.” (Valerie Sutton)

The symbols that make up SignWriting can be learned in the same way 
that an alphabet is learned, in any language. SignWriting is not a 
language just as alphabets are not languages themselves. “SignWriting 
symbols have no meaning by themselves. SignWriting is a set of visually 
designed symbols used to record the movements of any signed 
language. SignWriting records exactly how people sign, without changing 
the signed language being recorded.” (Valerie Sutton) Now, deaf people 
from all countries can have more pride in their language and culture, 
and can communicate in the same written language. The deaf community 
can now grow to include 27 countries, all communication via the same 
writing method. This positive feeling about reading and writing 
encourages students to want to read and write other languages. Once 
they have the concepts and experience of reading and writing using 
SignWriting, the skills for learning literacy transfer to the other 
forms of written language. The most exciting part is that the students 
learn it quickly, can create a larger deaf community through their 
communications in SignWriting. Understanding how people with different 
language can read the same written language was confusing to me, so she 
spent a lot of time explaining it and showing me related web sites.

Another reason that SignWriting has been more frequently used is due to 
the SignWriting Literacy Project. This project, which is free to 
schools using ASL, donates Sign Language Literature to classrooms with 
Deaf students. “Some teachers use the SignWriting materials to teach 
ASL, and others use them to teach English. In other words, SignWriting 
can be applied differently in each classroom, depending on the 

(http://www.signwriting.org/about/questions/quest0003.html) Whatever 
way the teachers decide to use SignWriting, it will help deaf students 
in learning the local written language. The SignWriting vocabulary can 
be written right next to the spoken language’s equivalent, allowing 
them to learn the English word by association. In other words, it is 
like having the language you know with the language you don’t know to 
help you understand and remember them more efficiently. “It is my guess 
that people learn their second language faster, if they have a written 
form for it, and the reverse is true too…people learn their second 
language faster, if their native language has a written for. Perhaps 
this is because both languages need an equal foundation so that the 
learner can compare both languages equally.” (Valerie Sutton) The 
teacher’s job, in return, is to write three public Web Reports, which 
would be posted to the SignWriting List and to the SignWriting Web 
Site. All of the training materials are found online along with 
comments and suggestions from teachers who are using SignWriting with 
their classes. Many times, she says, the students pick up on it faster 
than the adults and they teach them! How’s that experience of 
empowerment? Valerie is sending me all of the materials to try out with 
a classJ This is something that I can definitely see happening in my 
future. As I do not have a deaf class at the moment (I am working with 
one hard of hearing student that does not sign and students with 
learning disabilities), I am going to ask one of my teacher of the deaf 
friends if they want to try it out. (I am sure at least two or three of 
them will be interested!)

SignWriting was invented in 1974 but has only recently been used more 
in the United States because Deaf people opposed its use. This is what 
Valerie had to say, “The pattern is this: The majority language rules, 
not because people want to hurt each other, but because most people 
speak the majority language. It is only natural. That is the language 
of commerce. The minority group feels insecure. They are afraid they 
will not be accepted by the majority. They are afraid that if they 
‘make waves’ that is ‘if they bring attention to their differences’ 
that the majority will not approve.”

She feels as though SignWriting was 20 years ahead of its time and the 
deaf community is finally getting more pride in themselves and their 
differences that they now see the value in having their own written 
language. There are many more deaf people now who are positive about 
SignWriting than ever before; however, the children who are using it 
right will have the most experience with it in the future. The adults 
who are deaf are just now hearing more about it. Valerie says that, at 
first, the Deaf people discount it because it was written by a hearing 
woman, then the second time they read it, and finally the third time; 
they want to learn how to write their own language.

In conclusion, I found this interview quite exciting, motivating, and 
definitely relevant to my future. I believe this will benefit 
bilingual/ bicultural classrooms and total communication classrooms, 
which is where I see myself as being most effective. The way that 
Valerie’s organization donates the Literacy Project will increase the 
amount of users drastically. It will be interesting to see 
SignWriting’s evolution, as well, because written languages are 
constantly changing. Only time will tell if the use of SignWriting will 
be effective in teaching people who are deaf and hard how to read and 
write their native written languages; but, so much research is being 
done in various countries that, with time, it will only get better! One 
thing is for sure, it empowers the deaf to have a creation in written 
form of their unique and beautiful language. “Little seed groups around 
the world are researching, testing, and introducing SignWriting into 
the schools, that it’s bound to grow, leading to enhanced lives.” 
(Valerie Sutton)

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