American Sign Language (ASL)

Introduction to American Sign Language

The American Sign Language (ASL) as a Second Language curriculum presents what students are expected to know, do, and understand in Grades 5 through 12. It provides teachers with a framework for immersing students in learning experiences through which they can gain new perspectives, engage with D/deaf communities, and become proficient users of ASL. 

Features of the ASL curriculum

Integration of components

The ASL curriculum represents an integrated approach to language acquisition. With this approach, the following components of language acquisition are viewed as interconnected rather than as existing in isolation:

  • Receptive and expressive reciprocal communication skills – These essential competencies are the foundation of language acquisition. As they rarely exist in isolation in authentic communication contexts, they are integrated throughout the curriculum. Each element of the curriculum supports the simultaneous development of multiple competencies.
  • Grammar – With a focus on the purposeful use of language to communicate meaning, grammatical instruction plays a supportive role. ASL has its own grammatical rules and syntax, which are not based on, or derived from, any other language.
  • Culture – Language is inextricably bound to culture. Culture is a vehicle for acquiring a deeper understanding of a given language, of others, and of oneself. Authentic communication always takes place in a cultural context, and language acquisition activities in the classroom must therefore be situated within such a context. As students explore American Sign Language and the D/deaf world, they simultaneously acquire both the language and an understanding of the diversity of D/deaf culture and the relationships between the two. This contributes to their appreciation of other cultures as well as their own.
  • Language-learning strategies – Language-learning strategies are seen as a vehicle for helping students succeed in their language acquisition journey and are integrated throughout the curriculum.

Flexible teaching and learning

The ASL curriculum allows for instructional flexibility. For example, the curriculum components can be combined in different ways to provide a diverse range of learning opportunities. Within each grade, there are multiple ways to combine Content and Curricular Competencies in creating lessons, units, and learning experiences to lead students to discovery of the generalizations and principles of the Big Ideas. The curriculum encourages the use of a range of approaches that both support language instruction and acquisition and support students’ learning in a manner best suited to their diverse abilities.

Use of a wide variety of text types

The ASL curriculum encourages the use of a wide variety of text types. “Text” in the ASL curriculum refers to all forms of visual, written, and digital communication.         

Teachers are encouraged to use a wide range of grade-appropriate text types in their classrooms to encourage:

  • student comprehension
  • student exposure to target vocabulary and patterns
  • the saliency of high-frequency vocabulary and patterns

Integrating First Peoples content and perspectives

The Ministry of Education is dedicated to ensuring that the cultures and contributions of First Peoples in British Columbia are reflected in all provincial curricula.

The First Peoples Principles of Learning have been affirmed within First Peoples societies to guide the teaching and learning of provincial curricula. Because these principles of learning represent an attempt to identify common elements in the varied teaching and learning approaches that prevail within particular First Peoples societies, it must be recognized that they do not capture the full reality of the approach used in any single First Peoples society.

The First Peoples Principles of Learning are woven throughout and greatly influence the ASL curriculum. They lend themselves well to language learning, as they promote experiential and reflexive learning, as well as self-advocacy and personal responsibility in students. They help create classroom experiences based on the concepts of community, shared learning, and trust, all of which are vital to language acquisition.

Design of the ASL curriculum

The ASL curriculum follows the same format as is used in all other curricular areas and is based on the Know-Do-Understand model of learning. Students learn through Content (Know), Curricular Competencies (Do), and Big Ideas (Understand). More information on the curriculum model is available at

Big Ideas

The Big Ideas are generalizations and principles discovered through experiencing the Content and Curricular Competencies of the curriculum – the “Understand” component of the Know-Do-Understand model of learning. Big Ideas represent the “aha!” and the “so what?” of the curriculum – the deeper learning.

From year to year, students discover new Big Ideas and also build on the Big Ideas from previous years. The example below from the ASL curriculum illustrates how the theme of non-verbal cues grows with students and expands the scope and depth of learning as they progress through the grades.







Big Ideas

Non-verbal cues contribute meaning in language.

Non-verbal cues are integral to communicating meaning.

Conversing about things we care about can motivate our learning of a new language.

The communicative context determines how we express ourselves.

Curricular Competencies

Curricular Competencies are what students should be able to “Do” with their Content knowledge. Language acquisition is very process-driven, and “Doing” plays an important role. Since the goal is proficiency in using the language rather than learning about the language, more elements are included in the Curricular Competencies column of the ASL curriculum than in the Content column. Through purposeful communication in class, students develop competencies in viewing to understand, communicating effectively, presenting their ideas in ASL with confidence and fluency, and understanding the connections between language and culture.

Students also build on their application of the Curricular Competencies from year to year. The example below illustrates how the curriculum grows with students and expands the scope and depth of learning.







Curricular Competencies

Recognize the relationship between gestures, common facial expression and meaning

Recognize the relationship between common hand shapes and location of signs and how they make meaning

Recognize the relationship between common hand shapes, movement and location of signs to make different meanings

Recognize how choice of signs affects meaning


Content represents the core knowledge students will have – what they are expected to “Know.” In language acquisition, Content represents the pieces students must have to be able to use the language at a given grade level (i.e., to apply the Curricular Competencies). In each grade, each of the Content learning standards supports multiple Curricular Competencies (the “Do” component of the curriculum).

Students build on their Content knowledge from year to year. Some Content learning standards bridge more than one year because they may take longer to fully acquire or they may support increasingly complex Curricular Competencies. When identical Content learning standards appear across multiple grades, elaborations further clarify how deeply the Content learning standard is expected to be covered at each grade. The examples below illustrate how the curriculum grows with students and expands the scope and depth of learning.








Information about themselves and others

People, objects, and personal interests

Situations, activities, sequence of events

Needs and emotions

Complex questions and opinions


Elaborations have been provided in many places throughout the curriculum. They offer additional clarification and support for teachers, including definitions, examples, and information regarding the depth and breadth to which topics should be covered at a given grade. Examples provided in the elaborations are not intended to be comprehensive lists of what must be covered in a given grade; they are simply examples. Elaborations may be particularly useful to teachers who are new to teaching ASL.


Big Idea

Curricular Competency


Grade 8

Creative works are an expression of language and culture.

Narrate and retell stories

cultural aspects of Deaf communities


Creative works:  represent the experience of the people from whose culture they are drawn (e.g., books, dance, paintings, pictures, poems, songs, architecture)

Narrate and retell:
  • using common expressions of time and transitional words to show logical progression
  • using past, present, and future time frames
  • in ASL or written language

cultural aspects: Deaf communities and culture tend to be collectivistic (i.e., focused on the group and its interests) in nature.


Important considerations

Diverse contexts

Throughout British Columbia, students learn ASL in many contexts. Schools where ASL is offered are organized in different ways, resources and support available to teachers and students vary among different schools, and ASL teachers range from beginning generalists to highly experienced specialists. While these diverse factors may result in variations in instruction, the flexibility of the ASL curriculum is purposefully designed to support teachers and students in a wide range of contexts.

Language of instruction

It is important that ASL be used as the language of instruction for the ASL curriculum. As ASL is a minority language in British Columbia, opportunities for students to use the language outside the classroom may be limited. Research shows that increasing exposure to and use of the target language is essential to increasing proficiency. Therefore, while it is also understood that students at times may need some discussions or examples in the prevailing language of the school, both teachers and students are encouraged to use ASL at every opportunity.

Benefits beyond linguistic ability

The ASL curriculum supports the principle that ASL language learners gain not only the ability to communicate effectively in ASL but also experience many other benefits, including:

  • improved overall cognitive development and creative thinking
  • the development of cultural awareness and understanding
  • a deepened understanding of their own identity
  • an enhanced understanding of their first language
  • language-learning strategies that can be transferred to additional languages

Engaging with the D/deaf community

In language education, all aspects of learning are enriched when students engage with members of the target language community. Engagement with the wider D/deaf community and people can mean different things in different contexts. It may include, for example:

  • inviting community members into the classroom (in person or virtually)
  • making connections with other ASL classes and schools
  • attending festivals, films, concerts, plays, and other cultural and community events
  • frequenting locales where ASL is used
  • interacting with the pre-approved and secured online ASL community through blogs, visual “chats”, and other forms of social media

Teachers are encouraged to provide a variety of these experiences for their students. Students, particularly in the upper grades, are also encouraged to seek and initiate engagement with ASL communities and people, to help build their identity as ASL users and to foster opportunities to continue their acquisition of ASL beyond graduation.

Links to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

The Ministry of Education remains supportive of teachers who wish to make use of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as a supporting tool in their classroom. The Ministry recognizes that the CEFR can be a valuable assessment tool and that a number of language teachers in the province are currently using it with their students and would like to continue to do so. While the CEFR does not explicitly include ASL, other European-based sign languages are included, and as a result there may be value in this tool for some teachers.

Working with First Peoples communities

To address First Peoples content and perspectives in the classroom in a way that is accurate and that respectfully reflects First Peoples concepts of teaching and learning, teachers are strongly encouraged to seek the advice and support of members of local First Peoples communities. As First Peoples communities are diverse in terms of language, culture, and available resources, each community will have its own unique protocol to gain support for integration of local knowledge and expertise. Permission for the use or translation of cultural materials or practices should be obtained through consultation with individuals, families, and other community members. This authorization should be obtained prior to the use of any educational plans or materials.

To begin discussion about possible instructional and assessment activities, teachers should first contact First Peoples education coordinators, teachers, support workers, and counsellors in their district who will be able to facilitate the identification of local resources and contacts, such as Elders, chiefs, First Nations tribal or band councils, First Peoples cultural centres, First Peoples friendship centres, and Métis or Inuit organizations. In addition, teachers may wish to consult the various Ministry of Education publications available, including the “Planning Your Program” section of the resource Shared Learnings. This resource was developed to help all teachers provide students with knowledge of, and opportunities to share experiences with, First Peoples in B.C. For more information about these documents, consult the Aboriginal Education website:

Authentic First Peoples texts and resources

In order to present authentic First Peoples content and worldviews, it is important to draw from First Peoples learning and teaching resources. Authentic First Peoples texts and resources are those that:

  • present authentic First Peoples voices (i.e., historical and contemporary texts created by First Peoples or through the substantial contributions of First Peoples)
  • depict themes and issues important to First Peoples cultures (e.g., loss of identity and affirmation of identity, tradition, healing, role of family, importance of Elders, connection with the land, the nature and place of spirituality as an aspect of wisdom, the relationships between individual and community, the importance of oral tradition, the experience of colonization and decolonization)
  • incorporate First Peoples story-telling techniques and features as applicable (e.g., circular structure, repetition, weaving in of spirituality, humour)

Because of the diversity of First Peoples communities in B.C. and Canada and indigenous peoples in the rest of the world, and the need to provide a relevant context for classroom instruction and assessment, it is suggested that resource selection focus primarily on First Peoples texts and resources from the local community wherever possible.