Sign Language Interpreting Program

Effective study habits | Study Hints for ASL Students
| Hints for Interpreting Students


"Learning is doing. It is an active process in which you must be involved. You do not learn effectively by sitting on the sidelines; you must be involved and participating in what you are trying to learn."

Your high school learning experience took place in a "teaching environment." How much you learned depended largely on the knowledge and skills of your teacher. Now you are in college – in a "learning environment." The responsibility for what you learn is yours, NOT the instructor’s. You are expected to be an independent learner.

You know you need to study. You know it is important. But, maybe it has been a while since you were in classes in high school or college. And very few people have studied a visual language before. So, while you are committed to doing whatever it takes to be successful in learning sign language and interpreting, you wish you had a better idea of exactly what it takes.

This guide was developed to help you succeed and achieve your goals of language fluency and interpreting knowledge and skill.

We start with a basic overview of general tips for effective studying. The second section focuses on specific activities you can do when studying American Sign Language. The last section describes activities to help you practice and develop interpreting skills.

We hope these hints and suggestions will help you on your learning path.

Back to the top

Hints for Effective Study Habits

1.    GOALS:  Establish your goals. What is it you want to do? What is it you want to become? Why is it important to you? Without specific goals how do you know where you are going or when you get there? The goals you set will provide meaning and direction to your studies.

One of the important reasons Tiger Woods has become great is because of the goals he has set for himself and his dedication and focus on those goals.  Check out this website or more information.

So, how do you set effective goals?

a.    Try making short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals. Make goals for one course. Make goals for one year in school. Make goals for three years in the future.

b.    State your goals clearly and positively.

c.     Make your goals specific and observable/measurable.

d.    Set a time frame for your goal. This helps you keep moving and working.

e.    Aim high. A challenging goal will be much more rewarding than one that takes little effort.

f.      Write your goals down. Post them on the refrigerator or bulletin board. Make them visible.

g.    Compare your goals with the goals the instructor has for the course, and the goals of the interpreter preparation program. Do these goals match? Dovetail? Or conflict? If you notice that your goals and the instructor's or the program's are not the same, make an appointment with the instructor or program advisor to discuss the differences.

h.    Periodically review your goals. They may have been accomplished, they may have changed, they may need revision, or they may no longer be necessary. Rewrite them as necessary.

2.    SCHEDULING: Organize and plan your study schedule. The expectation in college is that students spend two hours studying for every hour spent in class. For a class that meets 2.5 hours a week that means five hours of study per week. Students in the interpreter preparation program spend eight hours a week in class and can expect to spend AT LEAST sixteen hours a week outside of class studying.

But we all lead such hectic lives. Where can you find the time to study? It takes organizing and planning.

a.    For one week, keep a time inventory. Record everything you do during a day. Then, look for patterns in how you use your time. Consider your priorities in your life.  Where can you cut back? Where can you insert a study session? What things are you spending the most time on? When are you most productive? Are you spending the majority of your time on the priorities? Are you scheduling the priorities at your most productive times?

b.    Make a calendar to record events, deadlines, tests and other important dates coming up during the semester. For the crucial items, go back one and two weeks before and put warnings on the date. "One week until Mom and Dad’s anniversary." "Two weeks until the portfolio is due."

c.     Design a study schedule. Then, keep it! Don’t wait for inspiration to strike – it usually doesn’t. Practice self-discipline. Many times you will find that once you have gotten into the activity or study, it really is interesting, challenging, and enjoyable.

d.    Most people work better with shorter, more frequent study periods or with breaks during longer sessions. Think of it like interpreting, a complex task requiring alertness, multiple-tasking and processing, and physical strength and stamina. It is common for assignments over two hours to be shared by a team. This is because we acknowledge that our effectiveness as interpreters is compromised after long periods of work. Most teams rotate every twenty to thirty minutes. This is based on research about the effectiveness of interpreting over time. The twenty to thirty minute rule might be a good one to try in your study schedule.

e.    Don’t procrastinate. Do it now! Research has shown that without review, after two weeks the average student forgets approximately 80% of what was covered in class. Cramming is not real learning. It is only trying to remember a large amount of material for a short period of time. You cannot "cram" for a language or a skill. If you wait until the night before basketball try-outs to start practicing your free throws, you will not make the team.

f.      When doing a long-term assignment, plan out the steps and assign them deadlines. Break it into doable pieces, and complete them according to your time line.

3.    OVERLEARN: Continue past the point where you can just barely recall or do something. Continue past the point where you can do that thing without struggling. Continue to the point where you can do it without thinking about it. Then you know the language lives inside of you.

4.    STUDY ENVIRONMENT: Control your study environment. Select a place. Stock it with the necessary materials and equipment. Make sure there are no distractions or routine interruptions that could give you an excuse to stop studying.

5.    JOIN STUDY GROUPS: This gives you the practice and feedback you need to develop better language skills. It also gives you a broader perspective on the subject, a support system when you need it and a gentle kick in the behind if you start dragging your feet.

6.    WELLBEING: Maintain your overall physical and mental health. 

Back to the top

Study Hints for Sign Language Students

  1. Interact with the Deaf community!!! There is nothing that can substitute for seeing the language in use by fluent signers. Immersion in the language setting is acknowledged by all as the best way to learn a language. Take advantage of every opportunity you can.
  2. Review your course DVD and workbook.
    1. The purpose of your DVD is to provide experience with the language in natural settings.  Follow the directions in the workbook to complete the exercises. Remember, your purpose is to exercise your eyes and mind, not to understand every sign and nuance the first time. Recognize the familiar and use context to fill in the blanks.
    2. After completing the workbook, review the DVD several more times. Sign along with the video or stop the video at the end of a sentence and sign what you have just seen. Practice not only the hand shapes, but the posture, facial expressions, and phrasing. Or, after seeing a sentence or dialogue, stop the video and invent one of your own following the same format just observed. These are good partner activities, where you can get feedback on your accuracy.
  3. Practice fingerspelling and numbers.

a.    Do not go straight through the alphabet, or say the letters as you spell. Practice spelling letter or word combinations: bat, cat, sat, mat, hat, attic. Many games can be played with fingerspelling rather than spoken or written words: Boggle, Password, Scattegories, etc.

b.    Make sure that you work with a partner to practice reading fingerspelling, which is much more challenging than producing the letters yourself. As you improve, begin fingerspelling within phrases and sentences.

c.     To practice numbers, play bingo or math drill games. Look up phone numbers in the yellow pages. List birthdates. Fingerspelling and number comprehension are among the most difficult skills for the sign language learner. To become proficient you must practice with others routinely.

(Hint: If it is impossible to get together with a partner on a regular enough basis, consider making recordings for each other. For example, fingerspell the names of restaurants, movies, streets in Atlanta, the 50 state capitals, the names of people at the Oscar broadcast, etc. These categories make it easier to think of items to add to the list, and give the reader context in which to comprehend the word that is fingerspelled. A study group could easily make enough recordings to rotate and practice with all semester. Then, the tapes could be donated to the department for use by future students.)

  1. View sign language recordings. The Clarkston campus library has a large collection of sign language and interpreting videotapes for viewing and checkout. Public libraries may be another source.  There are many sources on the internet these days – check out YouTube.

a.    Watch the recording and note new vocabulary items.

b.    Notice the natural "accent" of ASL. What is the signing space? What expressions and body movements are used? Try to copy what you see on the screen. First the expressions and movements, then the signs, then the two in combination.

c.     Notice the sentence structure. You may want to take notes and see how the word order in ASL differs and resembles English.

d.    Watch a selection, signing along with it, until you feel familiar and comfortable with it. Then, record yourself signing the material, and compare your production to that of the original video.

e.    Look for one specific feature of ASL while viewing a selection. For example, you might want to find instances where the verb is modified to show who is acting and what is being acted upon (directionality). Or, find instances where a classifier is used to describe a thing or an activity. Note use of a specific classifier (for example, the vehicle classifier) and list how it is used. Watch the signer's mouth movements and note what movements accompany what signs, and for what purpose. Select features you have discussed in class.

f.      Retell the story you have watched. Recording it for completeness and accuracy.

Remember: you are training your brain to new ways of thinking and your body to new ways of communicating. It takes time, repetition and concentration. But, you can do it! And the rewards are tremendous, when you find yourself communicating with a new friend in a new language.

Back to the top

Hints for Interpreting Students

Many of the hints previously mentioned apply to interpreting students as well as sign language students. The following are additional things you can practice.

SOURCE LANGUAGE – ENGLISH: Use audio and video recordings as source material for practice.  Libraries are a good source for audio and video recordings in English.  However, often those are read from a script or "canned" and they do not simulate the real pace, register, and grammar of spontaneous spoken English. You may find it more beneficial to make your own recordings. Talk about things you know. Describe a personal experience. Retell the lecture you recently heard at work or school. Summarize the news headlines. Record a staff discussion at work.   Or check out the many sources on the internet.  You can exchange these resources with study partners to get more variety. When you are finished with them, donate them to the interpreting lab at your school.

SOURCE LANGUAGE – ASL: Finding source materials in ASL used to be problematic, but these days there are numerous internet resources.  Many Deaf folks have vlogs (video blogs).  There are several ASL news reporting sites.  The SLIP website has a partial list of URLs.  There are commercial producers of ASL videos, including Sign Enhancers, Dawnsign Press, and Sign Media Incorporated. Harris Communications is a major resource for all types of deafness and interpreting related products.  ( )   Also, you can use your videos from your basic ASL classes.  You are already familiar with the materials, so you can focus on the interpreting task. 

If materials are not available at your college you might consider buying some together with study partners. Or, make your own source materials. Get permission to bring your camcorder to the Deaf softball game, the Silent Dinner, or the Sunday school. Ask people to tell you about their home, family, health, job, or school. Share these recordings with others.

Now that you have sufficient source material from a variety of situations, here are some ways to practice.

1.    Shadow the recording. Copy what the speaker is doing. Make sure that you include not only the signs/words, but also the affect, tone, non-manual markers, and intonation. You might want to record yourself doing this, and play it back to see how accurate and complete your rendition is.

2.    Create a concept map or outline of the source material.  Identify the main ideas and the supporting details.  Or, draw a cartoon strip of the source. 

3.    Summarize and rephrase recordings. Listen to (watch) a section of the recording. Then, turn it off, and re-tell it in the same language. Your summary should contain all the main points. See how many of the details you can also remember. Can you rephrase it and give an equivalent message?

4.    Simultaneous rephrasing. When you can comfortably do the above, you are ready to do the exercise without stopping the recording.  Do NOT repeat the same words you see/hear, but rephrase them. Work on giving yourself a long enough time lag to hear or watch an entire thought or phrase before producing your version. NOTE: In this exercise you are NOT interpreting. You are working with only one language. However, you are working on some of the mental processing skills necessary to interpret.

5.    Practice translation of short stories and speeches. Listen to/watch a recording. Get the main points and relevant details. Absorb the speaker’s delivery style and register. Make notes to organize yourself. Then, try to retell the story or speech in the target language. For English to ASL interpreting, read a news article and then retell it to a friend. Listen to a self-help recording and tell it. For ASL to English interpreting use videos for source materials.

6.    Practice consecutive interpreting. Using your recordings, listen to/watch thirty to sixty seconds of tape. Turn off the machine at a natural pausing place. Then sign/voice the information in the target language. Continue on through the tape.

7.    Practice simultaneous interpreting. Use you materials again, but interpret while they are playing. Develop a processing time that allows you to see/hear the entire phrase or thought before giving the interpretation.

8.    Role-play with study partners. Set up mock interpreting situations: a doctor’s office, a phone call, a job interview, or any conversation. Practice the skills of interpreting and the proper etiquette for getting clarification when necessary. Practice both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting. When possible, ask a deaf person to practice with you.

9.    Record yourself. We all hate those cameras rolling! But how else can you monitor your own performance? With spoken language, you can hear the message coming out of your mouth. But, in a visual language, you cannot see yourself signing, so you cannot give yourself feedback. On video you can notice signs produced incorrectly, portions of the message omitted or skewed, and mannerisms which detract from intelligibility. If you are really brave, you can swap recordings with partners for feedback, or ask a qualified interpreter to comment on your interpretation.

  1. When asking for feedback, be specific. What things do you want to person to look for? Remember, they will not be able to comment about everything at once. Help them focus on what you need. For example, ask them to watch for classifier use and places where classifiers could have been used to clarify the message.  Or ask them to watch for your identification of the subject/object/agents in the passage.  Was it clear who was doing what to whom? 

Jean Kelly, an interpreter educator, suggests the following: Ask a partner to critique the work. The critique sheet has three columns:

1. • = You did this, and it was great

2. Ö = You did this, but I would have done this

3. s = You did this, I don’t think it is right, but I don’t know the answer, let’s talk.

11. Back-translate. Video yourself doing an English to ASL interpretation. Wait a week for the source material to fade from your mind a bit. Then, watch your interpretation (without sound) and voice what you see. Where is the original interpretation confusing? How can it be made clearer? Watch the recording again with the volume turned up, and note what parts of the work are accurate and which are skewed or missing.

12. Check up on your voicing. Record the video screen (rather than yourself) as it is showing the source material. Render the target language from off screen. Your voice should come through on the audio track. Play back just the audio and assess if it sounds natural, grammatically correct and articulate. Where did you stumble? Then, playback both audio and visual and analyze the work for accuracy.

13. Practice "covert" interpreting. We often find ourselves in situations where one or more people are speaking and we are watching/listening. You can mentally practice interpreting without lifting a finger or opening your mouth. Visualize how you would interpret each thought. Make a note of concepts you did not know how to interpret. Later, pose the question to your partners or your instructor.

These are just a few of the techniques students have used to improve and refine their signing and interpreting skills. By planning your study time and following your plan, you will make great strides toward achieving your goal of proficiency in the exciting language of ASL. Good luck!

Back to the top


The College Success Book: Whole student approach to academic excellence. Groccia, James E. Glenbridge Publishing Ltd., Lakewood, CO 80232. 1992

Learn to be the Master Student. Rooney, Robert and Lipume, Anthony. Mayble Publishing Company, Inc. Silver Spring, MD. 1992

Reed, William. Study Skills: The Key to Student Success; Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, IA. 1996

Apps, Jerold. Study Skills for Adults Returning to School. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, 1982