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The sign of a good story

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By Garry Slack — Author of the Learn to Sign with Olli series of books

Using sign language to tell a story can have wide-ranging benefits – and not just for deaf or hearing impaired children – Garry Slack explains.


Traditionally, story time in the classroom has clearly defined roles: the storyteller reads aloud from the book and the children listen passively to the tale. But imagine if there was a way to create a story time session that combined elements from another language – not a spoken language, but one that uses the hands, body and facial expressions to add interest, emotion and expression to the story. Imagine how this could change the children from being passive listeners to active participants.

Well, there is such a way. Using sign language to sign the keywords in the text of a story can transform an ordinary story session into an exciting, interactive experience that stimulates the children’s interest in both the story and the signs being used. It can also raise their awareness of alternative forms of communication.

And anyone can have a go!

Not just monkeying around!

To help you teach sign language in an easy and fun way, Garry Slack has developed Learn to Sign with Olli, featuring a little monkey, called Olli, who prefers to communicate by using his hands rather than his voice. The signs featured in the book are all sourced directly from British Sign Language and have been specially selected to be relevant to teachers, parents and children. A second book, Learn to Sign and Cook with Olli, teaches the signs associated with food and its preparation and lets the children put those skills into practice by preparing the mouth-watering fun dishes that Olli and his family have chosen from the family cook book – from Crocodile Crunchies and Monkey Macaroons to Olli’s lollies and Iggi’s Indian Pizza. A third title, Learn to Sign About Nature with Olli is due for release this autumn. The books cost £12.99 each plus postage and are available from

How to begin

Don’t worry if you are a complete novice to sign language, nobody is expecting you to become an interpreter! There is lots of help available and anyone can take some simple steps to get started. Just select a few keywords from your chosen text then research the signs for those words using books or websites that specialise in British Sign Language.

Popular keywords to choose are things like the names of different types of animals, the weather, colours or the signs for food.

Many benefits

By using sign language within your story time you will not only be introducing the children to a valuable second language but also making the session much more inclusive for any children who may be deaf, hearing impaired or who may not use English as their first language.

Because sign language is a visual rather than a spoken language, many children find it very easy to learn, too, and are able to quickly acquire quite a large vocabulary of signs. Signing helps children to improve their memory, concentration and fine motor skills because it requires them to focus their attention to watch how the signs are formed, then use their hands to reproduce the signs for themselves.

Learning a few signs can also be a starting point for discussion within the classroom about the different ways in which people communicate.

A good performance

Good storytelling, like acting, is about putting on a performance that captivates the listener and makes them feel a part of the action. A story read by somebody in a monotone, expressionless voice makes a story feel flat and dull. The same is true about sign language. If the signer simply produces the signs without any emotion, then they have the same effect as the monotone voice and fail to express the feeling and meaning behind the signs.

Because all of us use gestures, body language and facial expressions in our day-to-day communications with one another, we are all familiar with non-verbal communication. Sign language helps children to build upon that natural skill and to think and express themselves in a more pictorial way.

Introducing signs into a story can help children who may have difficulty in articulating things verbally to put across the mood and atmosphere of the story. For example, just by using different strengths of a downward movement of the arms, it is possible to indicate whether rain is falling as a light shower or a full blown rainstorm!

Looking forward to Christmas

Garry Slack has recently completed a nativity play for primary schools and accompanying music CD, called The Shining Signing Star. The rhyming script can be signed by the children taking part and is accompanied by a Teachers’ Pack.

Through using sign language, children can be encouraged to think in pictures and movement rather than words. Try asking them to demonstrate – using just their hands, bodies and faces – how a proud cat might groom itself or show the expression a bad dog might have when being scolded by its owner. All of this is possible without the use of words!