By CELA on 31 Aug, 2020

Auslan is short for Australian sign language. It’s a visual form of communication that uses hand, arm and body movements to convey meaning.

While it was originally created for the hearing impaired, its incorporation in an early learning environment creates many exciting opportunities for engagement, inclusion and a richer shared culture.

Christine Tsang, Director of Inaburra Preschool in NSW, shares how it has challenged and rewarded both children and educators at her centre.

By Christine Tsang

“I can talk in three ways; how many can you do?”

This question was asked of me by a chatty 3-year-old girl as we drew in the sand with sticks. I admit I was a little unsure what direction the conversation was going in as we had been talking about our Mums up to this point.

I was saved from showing my ignorance as she continued to tell me that she speaks; “….what we are saying now, Spanish talking like my Mummy and the quiet talking”.

Now I knew where the conversation was going, and how my heart leapt for joy at the meaning behind her words!

Many of the children and some staff in our preschool speak a language other than English. While we always try to include these spoken languages in the program it is the use of Auslan (and some keyword signing) that this girl was referring to when she identified “quiet talking”.

In some services across Australia, you may see Educators using keyword signing with children. It is an absolutely vital way to communicate with all children, not only those children who are continuing to develop their spoken language skills. It is also invaluable for those children who really respond well to visual information in conjunction with spoken language.

Reflecting on visual language use

One of our Educators, after attending a 10 week Auslan evening course, challenged us to reflect on our use of visual language and consider how we could further embed our skills and knowledge into every aspect of the program moving to more complex vocabulary for ourselves and the children.

It was at this time that we also asked Dr Scott Avery, a proud Worimi man, to visit the preschool. Scott is an Auslan speaker and researcher from Western Sydney University. He shared his research and writing of Indigenous stories around disability, NDIS access and the Federal Government’s ‘Closing the Gap’ Initiative.

We now had a direction; we wanted to not only show respect for spoken languages but also non-spoken and visual languages, which are such an important part of the culture of many Australians.

Language emphasis opens up an exciting new role

In 2020 we made a huge step forward with the instigation of a shared leadership program; we have created the ‘Language Liaison’ role.

The goal of this role is to:

  • oversee embedding of Auslan and signing into all areas of the preschool,
  • encourage Educators in their use of the language regularly throughout the day,
  • research-related readings and lead the team in critical reflection on these, and;
  • continue to create visual prompts in signs, keychains and other ways to support language use for children, parents and staff.

What would you see or hear if you visited us?

If you joined in a morning gathering you would see everyone signing good morning to each other (sometimes spoken in Mandarin or other languages too).

You would see and hear singing and signing for the ‘Acknowledgement of Country”.

If you visited the preschool at a time when we are speaking Auslan you would see children involved in play with few spoken sounds. You would see a child ask another child if they can play by pointing to themselves followed by the sign for play or another child asking to go outside by using the appropriate sign.

You would see deep concentrated involvement in play as well as shared thinking and co-operation among small groups of children all while using hand signs, facial expressions and body language.

A year of continual learning leads to endless rewards

This year has seen us extend our vocabulary with relevant words such as; sick, soap and Covid19 – yes, there is a sign for Covid19.

It has also been a year to learn egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly and metamorphosis as we celebrated the life and birth of beautiful Monarch butterflies at preschool.

So I hope you can see why I was excited to have this little girl share her thinking with me and the way in which she proudly identified the quiet talking as an integral part of herself and her abilities.

It is not easy; when spoken language is your first language, when we are tempted to use spoken words because it will get the job done faster or you just can’t recall that sign to say what you want – but we guarantee that once you begin it will get easier.

When we are driven by the desire to create opportunities for all children, family members, the staff and the community to communicate effectively in whatever language is comfortable for them, spoken or non-spoken, principles around inclusion and culture are reflected.

The EYLF says; “When early childhood educators respect the diversity of families and communities, and the aspirations they hold for children, they are able to foster children’s motivation to learn and reinforce their sense of themselves as competent learners. They make curriculum decisions that uphold all children’s rights to have their cultures, identities, abilities and strengths acknowledged and valued, and respond to the complexity of children’s and families’ lives” (EYLF Principle 4; Respect for Diversity, page 14).

2020 has been unprecedented and challenging but how wonderful to see a child secure and confident in their identity with skills that will support them in showing respect for others in our world – no wonder I felt joy!


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About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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