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Using British Sign Language (BSL) in science education

Posted by on June 11, 2013

Guest blog by Jon Hickman, teacher – science teacher at Ferndown Upper School in Dorset

Learning the BSL sign for Cell

I have been using British Sign Language (BSL) as a visual learning tool in my science classes for the past year. As a kinaesthetic process it is excellent for visual and tactile learners to reinforce key concepts. The majority of signs are very logical and can be used as part of a sequence of vocabulary such as cell, nucleus, cell wall, cell membrane. The signs are part of a glossary created by the Scottish Sensory Centre based at the University of Edinburgh.

Recall of signs is a useful prompt for vocabulary terms and as a visual cue to assist with an explanation. I have been filmed by a deaf production company called Remark for part of a program on how BSL is used in science education.

BSL allows students to express themselves and grow in confidence through an alternative form of communication, and to learn an important lifelong skill where they are able to communicate successfully with hearing impaired and deaf people.

I also use it to aid literacy by working on spellings with students.

The feedback I have received from students is very positive as they feel it helps consolidate their knowledge of scientific processes and allows them to explore ideas through a visual means. Students are always very engaged when learning new signs and using ones they have previously learned.

BSL maintains longer levels of attention as it is a new skill and students are generally fascinated by it. It is fully inclusive and caters for all abilities. I have raised attainment in students with dyslexia and students who are on the autistic spectrum through the use of BSL in lessons.

I have successfully worked with a colleague on delivery of a lesson about waves in physics using the science signs for frequency, wavelength and amplitude. The students in the class were shown the signs and asked what they thought the sign represented. Due to the visual and logical nature of the signs the students were easily able to decipher the context and vocabulary of what each sign represented.  Through sharing ideas and teaching BSL to other staff the trend has taken off and it allows for a greater creativity in lessons.


The Society of Biology is a core member of the  STEM Disability Committee, which has supported the Scottish Sensory Centre to launch 116 new British Sign Language signs for Physics and Engineering terms. The glossary accompanies existing Chemistry and Biology signs developed by the team; a project that has been on-going since 2007. The signs were created to ensure students with hearing difficulties are not deterred from engaging in science, for which complex terms have previously acted as a barrier for some. You can find short video clips for the signs and their definitions on the Scottish Sensory Centre’s website.

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