Body Language for Signers of American Sign Language (ASL)

Learning American Sign Language (ASL) or Signed English (SE):
Body Language for Signers
By Elaine Ernst Schneider 

Communicating in sign language can be distinguished from speaking a language in that one must be cognizant of visual factors as well as auditory ones. Naturally, the interpreter or signer will want to be assured that he or she can hear what is to be signed. But there are other concerns. Let’s discuss a few:


Whether you are signing for yourself as you “talk,” or interpreting in signs what a speaking person is saying, it is important that your hands be clearly seen. Wearing clothing with a “busy” design is not recommended. Solid colored clothing in contrast to the skin tones of the hands provides a background for signing that allows the deaf person or audience the opportunity to clearly see the interpreter’s signs.

In the same vein, a signer should position him/herself in a physical arrangement (furniture, lighting, draperies, backdrops, etc.) that – to the extent possible – provides the least distracting background. Blinds or draperies may have to be adjusted to avoid glare or shadows. Or the interpreter may want to move to a position less in the line of traffic. For instance, the signer might stand away from the aisle in a large public building so that people are not continually passing by. In some situations, the background is beyond the interpreter’s control. A portable blackboard can sometimes be moved behind the interpreter to block out distractions. Where there are visual cues that the deaf will want to enjoy – drama presentations, slide shows, overhead projections – the interpreter should stand close by so that the deaf audience can see both the visual aid and the interpreter.

When the signer is called upon to interpret in one-on-one situations – doctors’ offices, attorney/client meetings, school classrooms, job interviews, etc. – the interpreter should stand or sit near the speaker but still in view of the deaf person. That way, the deaf person can see the interpreter’s hands without missing the facial expressions of the speaker.

For small groups, this arrangement should vary a little bit. Chairs should be positioned as nearly in a circle as possible. The interpreter should take care that his or her chair has at least two feet of space on either side so that he/she is not signing directly in the face of the persons sitting on either side of him/her. One should always take care not to invade the space of another person when signing. Signs made too close to the “reader’s” face can be affronting.

Sign Size

It is the responsibility of the interpreter to assess the size of the deaf audience and adjust his or her signing accordingly. If the signer is to stand on a platform and sign to a sizable group, his or her signs should be large so that they are easily distinguished from the audience. In direct contrast, conversational signing can be smaller. When signing one-on-one or in a group, there is no need for overly emphasizing a given sign except to convey excitement or emphasis of a particular point.

Music, poetry, or drama may also be delivered with larger, more pronounced signs to add emotion or direction to the presentation. In Robert Frost’s poem, The Death of the Hired Man, for example, signs used to describe the agitation of the hired man’s boss might be exaggerated while signs conveying the silent private grief of the family would be smaller.
Position of Hands to Body

In general, signing should be in the area in front of the signer’s body. In most situations, the interpreter/signer should strive to execute signs in an area above the waist. However, for platform signing to larger audiences, the signer might want to raise the signing “zone” or fulcrum closer to the shoulders (but not at face level) so that signs are more easily seen from far away. Conversational signing in small groups or one-on-one situations may afford the opportunity for signing more around the elbow fulcrum, as the visual field is closer. The “rule of thumb” is to remember that the chest area provides the most solid background for the hands.

Body Movement and Facial Expression

Because the deaf do not generally hear loud/soft or voice inflection, they rely on body movement and facial expression for conveyance of feeling, interest, or focus. The signer must use his or her eyes to exhibit a range of emotion from sadness to excitement. Facial expressions can transmit interest, enthusiasm, or cheerfulness, depending on the subject matter of the presentation. For example, when a joke or humorous story is being interpreted, it is certainly acceptable – and even expected – that the interpreter smile. A deadpan, expressionless face is usually considered undesirable as this can be received by the deaf as indication that the interpreter is bored.

Body movement can be used in much the same way. When an interpreter wishes to convey that the speaker is whispering, for example, the interpreter can lean forward to create a mood of intimacy. On the other hand, if the speaker is shouting, the interpreter may wish to use a larger fulcrum for bigger, more exaggerated signs. A grimaced facial expression would also aid in conveying the “presence” of an agitated speaker.

Knowledge of the Audience

It is extremely helpful to be knowledgeable of the deaf person’s or persons’ preferences when signing. For instance, some hearing impaired individuals read lips and may appreciate the interpreter “mouthing” the words as he or she signs, especially in conversational settings where this is more feasible. Other deaf persons may communicate solely in signs and have no oral preferences. In situations where the audience is comprised of persons not known to the interpreter, many signers would suggest using Total Communication, i.e. signing, mouthing when possible, using facial expressions, gestures, and body movement – selecting the best combination to convey the message to an audience of mixed preferences and needs. Do keep in mind that in “straight” interpreting settings – especially when the oral delivery is quite rapid – mouthing will most likely be impossible.

A Final Word

The goal of every signer should be understanding on the part of that person who is “reading” the signs.  If one method of interpretation doesn’t work, the interpreter/signer must be willing to try another approach. While to some interpreters, speed is important, and to other signers, expression is the crux of presentation, or to still others, exact accuracy is the measurement of personal success, the ultimate goal must be that the deaf person have the opportunity to grasp the meaning of the thoughts presented. To do that, the signer must care. Signing is not for the disinterested.  A “good” signer/interpreter is one who is flexible, i.e. willing to try several means of conveying the message, and someone who cares about the deaf person.

Submitted by:  Elaine Ernst Schneider  is a curriculum author for multiple educational publishers and is the managing editor of Lesson Tutor, a lesson plan website found at Her most recent books, 52 Children’s Moments (Synergy Publications) and Taking Hearing Impairment to School (JayJo Books and the Guidance Channel) can be found at She is currently working on a project with Pearson Prentice Hall as an author of an on-line teacher’s professional development course for the Council for Exceptional Children

I am currently learning ASL because as a social worker I feel it will be important to be able to provide services to as many people as possible.  I just have one question which has not yet been answered in the books.  When signing ASL, to you mouth full sentences as in english grammar, or do you only mouth the words for which you are signing, ie me feel good versus I am feeling well?”

The answer is that you talk normally. And you don’t over-pronounce either because then your lips/face can look distorted. You want to keep things as natural as possible so that the hearing impaired person has the benefit of lip-read clues as well as the signs. Elaine Ernst Schneider

More Articles by this author, Click Here
More lessons in American Sign Language,  Click Here
For even more ASL Teaching and Learning Resources Shop@LT Click Here