Bridging the theory-practice gap in the teaching of sign languages

Chief Investigator: A/Prof Louisa Willoughby

Partner Investigators: Prof Adam Schembri, Ms Catherine Clark, Mr Joe Sabolcec (Melbourne Polytechnic)

Research Assistants: Dr Cathy Sell, Mr Ramas McRae, Dr Sarah Pasfield-Neofitou, Ms Rachel Miers, Ms Stephanie Linder

The aim of this project is to improve our understanding of how to teach sign languages to adults as second/additional languages. Internationally, there is significant demand for sign language classes, but relatively little is known about the processes involved when hearing adults learn a sign language, or similarities  and differences to second language learning of spoken languages.

This project is a partnership with Melbourne Polytechnic’s Auslan program and is supported through an Australian Research Council linkage grant. The project has three strands:

Student study behaviours

This strand of the project looks at how students approach the task of learning Auslan through a two-pronged approach. The first is a large scale quantitative questionnaire exploring students study habits, attitudes and use of language learning strategies. Questionnaire data will be collected from students enrolled in different levels of Auslan to allow quasi-longitudinal comparison of how answers might change as students progress in their learning.

In addition, we are following a select group of students longitudinally through a learning diary study to gather qualitative information about if how and why their attitudes and study behaviours change as they progress in their course.

Insights from this strand of the project will allow sign language teaching programs to better understand the sorts of out-of-class learning their students undertake, and give an evidence-base from which they can recommend effective learning strategies to their students.

Our first article from this strand of the project has been accepted by Sign Language Studies, was published in 2019. You can download a pre-print here or watch the following video (in Auslan and spoken English) to get a taste of the findings.

Curriculum/ resource development

This strand of the project is working with Melbourne Polytechnic to revise and update their approach to Auslan teaching, including the writing of a brand-new textbook for teaching Auslan at the Certificate II level. The project has reviewed sign language teaching frameworks internationally and has played a key role in the development of a national Training Package for Auslan (i.e. a national curriculum for Auslan in the TAFE sector) that is aligned to the PRO-sign Common European Framework of Reference.

Resources developed as part of this arm of the project will be available for the use of Auslan programs around Australia through a resource portal hosted by Melbourne Polytechnic


Proficiency development and Assessment

This strand of the project aims to better understand the sequence and rate at which students develop proficiency in different aspects of Auslan.

We are  benchmarking Auslan students to track the grammatical skills that they develop in Auslan across the Certificate and Diploma courses in order to understand more about the relative order and pace of their development of these skills.

We are also exploring the ways in which students’ phonological skills develop in the early stages of enrolment in the Melbourne Polytechnic Auslan program, and the implications of this for teaching and assessment.