BUILDING BLOCKS OF AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE STORYTELLING
Brenda Liebman Aron
A. History of American Sign Language Storytelling:
In our generation there were no TV or captioned TV so stories were often told “orally” from older
deaf students in deaf schools: to teach, to give advice, and often older students are left to
supervise younger kids, they are to keep younger kids busy- to keep them entertained. Also
often deaf family members and friends share stories such as folklores with younger members.
B. The Importance of Telling a Story: ASL storytelling is just another form of the dramatic
arts-no! It is not just that, it is also to teach language, that is why there is the word LANGUAGE
after the word, sign. It is also to teach. It can be a moral lesson, to teach about our world, to
preserve our history and culture, or to teach about rhythm appreciation.
C. Objective/Goal: Before we discuss storytelling techniques, we must first ask ourselves:
What do we want to share with our listeners? What is our purpose of telling a tale?
1. Is it to entertain?
2. To teach a moral lesson?
3. To make them think?
4. To encourage appreciation of reading and literature?
D. Intonation = Visual Imagery: Now with visual listeners, storytelling should be done through
the visual medium. Just like voice intonations- we use our hands, arms, facial expressions and
body movements to convey what we want to share. Again that is to teach language. I call this
VISUAL IMAGERY. To visually provide language through the eyes.
II. Pre-planning Stage: We must first ask ourselves before we select a story:
A. What do we wish to impart to our audience/listeners?
B. Who are the audience/listeners? i.e.; High School students, preschools, or deaf club members
1. General age of audience: stories should be age appropriate
2. Gender of audience: i.e.; 8-10 years old boys in the dormitory
3. Check for local dialect: regional signs, signs specific to school
4. Culture of Audience: specific cultural groups or diverse cultures represented
C. What is the purpose ? i.e., holiday theme, moral value: i.e.; someone stole somebody’s
money, to put them to sleep
III. Basic Techniques of American Sign Language Storytelling:
A. Signing Space: wider use of arms, hands, and signing area. Storytellers must remember to
sign according to characters in the story.
B. Setting the Scene or “Stage”: relevant to the story if the story elaborates on the setting of a
story, such as the village in “A Christmas in Wales” or to provide a background- we should also
provide a visual picture prior to telling the story
C. Characterization Set-Up(s): (absent referents) Get into the role of the characters in the
story-first by describing the characters in the story and then acting out the characteristics of the
character, i.e.; snotty, timid, nervous, proud, happy etc.
D. Period of Time: Period of story, lapse of time, etc. Establish the period of time-explain if it is
set in the 1860’s to provide examples and what is not available or what is available-at that time
period- i.e., using a washboard or a wringer versus a washing machine.
E. Role Shifting: Exaggerated than in normal conversation, show the difference in character
shifts by moving to a new area of floor space. Body movements are also exaggerated.
F. Changing Perspectives:
1. From narrator to a character in the story to another character. be sure to show difference in height by looking down to a smaller person/animal (i.e. Hare and Tortoise) and vice versa. Looking up at a large tree, looking sideways etc.
2. Another example of changing perspectives is when the storyteller acts out a character such as a duck and then uses classifiers to describe how a duck walks. This is a change from personification of a duck to describing the behavior of a duck. There is often a switching between these two perspectives: personification and description in a tale.
G. Inanimate Objects: acting out of inanimate objects i.e., in Beauty and the Beast: The mother
teapot and baby cup... We can act out the shape of the objects through use of classifiers,
personification, facial expression, body movements etc. The use of signing can also show
differences such as the form of speech, register, and language
H. The 4 “E’s”: Elaboration, Enhancement, Embroiderment and Expression
1. Elaboration: To show a visual image of each character-or to provide a
clear visual picture-i.e., a tall and large tree trunk to a small boy, steps to the Lincoln
2. Enhancement: enhance the characters way of speaking or acting, from
very timid to very bold-to show emotions i.e. fear or anger. To highlight the character’s
3. Embroiderment: To weave a good tale-you need to embroider the struggle, conflict, good vs. bad, or the beauty of the tale. To digress if it would help them better understand the story. Use contrastive structure for opposites.
4. Expression: Use your expression to enhance characterization as well as character shifting, to show emotions, to show through body language
1. To show relative time: Use of facial expressions and temporal aspects for long, long time ago, far into the future, etc.
2. Pacing of story: slow and leisurely i.e. strolling down the street,
suspense-someone is coming closer and closer or according to the period, character,
and region of the story i.e. Country Mouse visits City Mouse-hustle and bustle of city
life compared to pastoral countryside
J. Audience Involvement:
1. Constant awareness of audience’s response by facial expression and body language for mood
2. Consultative register: ask audience questions from the story to check for understanding i.e., Who took Farmer Jones’ pig?
A. Folklore: traditional “orally” transmitted beliefs, practices and tales of a people. *from
Reader’s Digest Illustrated Dictionary, 1987
1. The purpose of ASL folklores is to provide a moral lesson and to share values and beliefs of our culture. Stories are best told by native users of ASL storytelling.
B. Folktale: a story or legend forming part of an oral tradition and passed on
from generation to generation. Stories can be general such as regional stories, multicultural
stories, or from our deaf history.
C. Mystery/Whodunit/Scary stories: storyteller must be careful to select stories
appropriate for age and readiness of audience
D. Romance: Light romance for younger age: i.e. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty,
teen romance tend to be “crushes”, infatuation, first love etc. Teens and older have more involved
and sometimes convoluted romances
E. Repetitive Story-Lines: excellent in teaching turn-taking, sense of rhythm, and to teach
language. Usually good with younger children.
F. Rhythmic Repetition: Rhythmic beats or handclapping and visual
onomatopeia is our way of explaining sounds and rhythm appreciation
G. Soliloquoy: Most difficult of storytelling characterization. Must have good grounding in
American Sign Language storytelling techniques.
V. Some Suggestions in Getting Started for the Storyteller:
A. Always pre-read and practice in front of a mirror
B. Important for Storyteller to become familiar in applying ASL linguistics
C. Focus first on the larger setting down to smaller details
D. Try out with friends or colleagues skilled in ASL
E. Start with wordless comic strips and storybooks: Focus on the surroundings in the story
and characters as well as characterizations.
F. Short one-two lines children’s books are good stepping stone in the
development of storytelling techniques.
G. Build-up to short stories: i.e., folktales with two or three characters is excellent
H. You are ready for longer stories when you have developed confidence,
mastered the basic storytelling techniques, and have had consistently good audience response
I. Tell stories from different genres to provide you with some practice in using different
J. Fingerspelling in storytelling: Reduce the amount of fingerspelling. Fingerspell only for places,
names, and brand names, etc. Use fingerspelling for emphasis and titles too.
K. Pantomime: Do not pantomime the whole story. Pantomiming is okay if it is
related to the character or the characteristics.
L. Storytelling should be an enjoyable experience so ENJOY!
VI. Carrying on the Tradition to Our Deaf Youth:
It is very important in this age of captioning to share the art of ASL storytelling to our youngsters.
A. Schools for the deaf should take the lead in promoting by role in the classroom and teaching
storytelling skills to parents of deaf children in early intervention and preschool programs, and
likewise parents of deaf children tell stories to their deaf children.
B. Deaf ASL storytellers be matched to families with young deaf children to provide support by
modeling good storytelling techniques
C. ASL Storytellers should use opportunities such as:
1. providing ASL storytelling in local libraries, evening programs at
2. on public access TV
3. during fairs and festivals...
D. We should preserve old movies and videotapes of master storytellers to share...
E. Schools keep a collection of videotapes of excellent storytellers in the library.
1. From the community
2. Purchase from catalogs
F. We should also encourage our deaf children to spread their wings
1. By encouraging and exposing deaf children at a young age to develop good reading habits and eventually enjoy literature in different genres and styles.
2. By encouraging opportunities to develop their imaginations-tell stories in the classroom-start them young.
3. By trying their hand at telling stories themselves... children at a young age are able to re-tell a story from a favorite book their mother read to them even though they can’t read yet.
4. Teaching and providing opportunities for middle-HS deaf students to read to young deaf children
5. Provide opportunities for deaf students to compete in storytelling contests not based on speech skills but on ASL techniques!