British Sign Language and Science Vocabulary

Colleagues of mine at Old Ford Primary Academy in London have been using science specific gestures for some time in their science teaching to support the learning of subject specific vocabulary, not because they have any deaf pupils in their classes, but because gestures support learning. These gestures were very representational – for example, orbit and rotate are easily confused by learners. Teaching relevant gestures alongside the vocabulary seemed to make a significant difference to pupils accuracy in using these words. I’ve seen pupils surreptitiously use the relevant gesture while writing to help them remember the right word.

It didn’t take my colleagues long to realise that British Sign Language (BSL) has a great vocabulary of gestures which do the job really well – and there are online video dictionaries (e.g. here)

Rotate (
Orbit (

My colleagues teach the sign at the same time as the spoken and written word with lots of repetition, both on the day of teaching, and subsequently – just as you’d teach any vocabulary.

Choose your signs carefully

My Trust has a deaf support unit in one of our schools. We shared what we were doing with them. Colleagues there have been very supportive, however, we hadn’t realised that BSL has many regional differences. We had chosen signs based on how well they represented the word we were teaching. We didn’t want to confuse our deaf students with signs common in other areas but not London. We are now building a bank of London specific key vocabulary videos based on our curriculum.

I’ve written previously about gestures and science teaching here and here.

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