Storytelling with sign language

Using sign language really brings stories to life – it’s like drawing a picture in the air to illustrate meaning.

Sign language is all about using visual techniques: facial expression, body movement and eye contact. It’s enormously helpful for children learning language, and learning to understand concepts and meanings – and it’s great fun!

Hands, body language and facial expressions add interest, emotion and expression to a story and they actively engage children with stories rather than them simply being passive listeners.

Don’t worry if you’re a novice to sign language. Start by choosing the keywords from the text that you want to learn, then watch how our storytellers sign it. Look at how they use their hands, body and face to convey the sign.

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Facial expressions

Young children will draw more meaning from the way you say or sign a word than the word itself. And facial expressions are really important for conveying meaning.

Children respond positively to animated faces and gestures and they help keep their attention. They also teach children about emotion and expressing themselves non-verbally.

The most important thing to remember is to match your face to the mood of the story – try practising in front of the mirror!

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Body movement

Body language is key when using sign language – and not just so the signs can be seen clearly, although of course this is important. Deaf people use body language and movement to enhance their signed language, to add emotion and to keep it attention-grabbing.

  • You can lean forward to add intimacy
  • Use exaggerated signs to be more dramatic
  • Folded arms might show concentration, or nonchalance

Thankfully most body movement comes naturally and conveys emotion without us really needing to think about it. The only difference is that if you really want to get across a particular emotion, you may need to exaggerate the body language – so even more slouched if you are reluctant about something or bouncing around if you are happy!

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Eye contact

Sign language is a visual language and eye contact is important – not only to understand the conversation but also in Deaf culture to show that you are listening and are interested.

Eye contact also helps bring children into the story, as if they’re a part of the story being told.

And it’s a powerful tool for getting and maintaining attention, especially when you’re storytelling to a group of children. It gives you a way to gauge the response of the children - are they enjoying it, or are they bored or confused?

View the signed video explaining this text