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Blog Articles by: John Miller

Help! I want to share the love of reading with my little one, but how???

Help! I want to share the love of reading with my little one, but how???

Learning Tips   |  Friday, November 30, 2018

By John Miller

Recently, I was contacted by a young hearing mother of a 10-month old, deaf child. This mother had two other children that are hearing, she works full time outside of the home, and now her third child was born profoundly deaf. She has tried her best to read and learn everything she can about deafness and educational options. She and her husband have decided they will be using sign language with their family. She was taking formal classes and then acting as the "teacher" for the rest of her family. She felt that so far, the family had been doing a pretty good job trying to learn ASL. She spoke of how sweet it was to see the older siblings doing their best to try and communicate with their new baby brother, who will be using sign language as his primary source of communication.

This mother did share one thing she was feeling very guilty about though; something  she knew she did with her hearing children, that she was NOT doing for her deaf child… reading and sharing literacy with him on a nightly basis. Being an educated woman, she knows the importance of reading to young children, but struggled with her own sign language skills keeping up with the vocabulary presented in the children’s books. She also noted how many "no-nonsense words" show up in children's books and wanted advice on how to handle those kinds of words.  

The family had all the classic books and her older children had their favorites that they would ask to be read (and signed) with their baby brother, but how in the world would she begin to tackle words like CHICKA, CHICKA, BOOM BOOM and many of the other words that show up in children's books?

These were many of the same issues I remember dealing with as a teacher of young deaf children much of my career. In my own classroom, I would carefully choose the books I shared with my students, but what about when my students brought books from the library or home? Or when I was acting as the interpreter in another classroom that was having a Dr. Seuss marathon of zummers, nizzards, fifer-feffer-feff, yekko, jogg-oons, zatz-it, etc…

So upon reflection of how to help this mother, I decided that I want to highlight a feature we currently have on Signing Savvy, WORD LISTS!!! Word Lists are a feature where members can create a list of signs they use, in this case, for books they read (whether in their classrooms or in their homes) and SHARE them with other members so that we can learn from each other and cut down on the prep time needed.

To this end, I am beginning a series of blog articles titled "Signing Children’s Books."  Each week I will highlight a children's book to share with your little ones and the signs that go along with them. Hopefully this will help parents, teachers, and families, so that we can find more comfort in sharing literacy with our young deaf children.

If you aren’t already following Signing Savvy on Facebook, please do! That is a great place to get reminders when new articles are posted and carry on conversations about each article.


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Common Fingerspelling Mistakes New Signers Make

Learning Tips   |  Friday, September 14, 2018

By John Miller

One of the first concepts covered in beginning or basic sign language classes is fingerspelling. There are a few common mistakes that are made by many beginner signers related to fingerspelling. Hopefully you can recognize them in your own practice and avoid making bad habits that are difficult to break.

Signing Space When Fingerspelling

First of all, the misuse of sign space is a common mistake, specifically as it is related to fingerspelling. Yes, we have an imaginary box around us, almost like a television set that is just inches above our heads and goes off to either sides of our bodies, and then ends around our waists.

However, that does not mean that all that space is fair game for fingerspelling. For right handed signers (right dominant), fingerspelling should be done in the area to the right of center of the chest. For left handed signers (left dominant), fingerspelling should be done in the area to the left of center. It should be out away from the body about 6-8 inches (not too far and not too close) and your letters should not be "thrown forward" or bounced up and down within that area.


Example of fingerspelling A-V-O-C-A-D-O.

The Directional Movement While Fingerspelling

When spelling double letters or starting a new word, you should slide away from the center of your body. That is, if you are right dominant, move outward from left to right just like you were reading a book. If you are left dominant, move outward from right to left which is actually backwards from the way you read. In both cases, DON'T move back towards the center of the body. Many new signers do this and it looks so awkward to seasoned signers, they can see the mistake immediately.


Example fingerspelling A-R-M-A-D-I-L-L-O.
Notice how the double L-L slides away from the body.

Common Formation Mistakes When Fingerspelling

There are several common letter formation mistakes that new signers make. Here are a few examples to watch out for.

The letter Z is produced with the index finger NOT the little finger.

This seems to be a misconception that started with incorrect information and then caught hold with some people, but it is INCORRECT! The letter Z is produced with the index finger.


Example "Z" handshape.

Use a closed E, instead of an open or "screaming" E.

Fingerspelling Example: E

The letter E should be closed (as shown below) with the finger tips tight against the hand, not opened. An open E is sometimes called a “screaming E” because it looks like an open mouth that is screaming. This is not horrible, but it is something native signers will notice as sloppy form.

The screaming E has a tighter grip at the top of the fingers with the tips pulled back very tight against the lower part of the fingers, where the correct E (with the tips resting just over the horizontal thumb) are much loser of a grip and much more comfortable.
Because you have to pull the fingertips back much tighter to make the screaming E, it slows down the flow of the signing.


Example "E" handshape.

Point your fingers straight out over the thumb for letters M and N.

Other letters that can slow you down when fingerspelling if done too “tight” are the letters M and N.  You will often see the fingers on the M and N folded over tight over the thumb.  Again, this isn’t really wrong, as much as unnecessary.  If your fingers are this tight over the thumb, it slows you down in your fingerspelling as you become more fluent.  Leaving the fingers pointing straight out over the thumb frees up the hand to make faster movements while fingerspelling.


Example "M" handshape.

Example "N" handshape.

Do not use a flat hand when signing the letter O.

Fingerspelling Example: O

Fingerspelling Example: O

When signing the letter O, use a rounded O shape and do not make a flat O.


The letters O and C should face forward.

Fingerspelling Example: O

Fingerspelling Example: C

Another common mistake is that the letters O and C are turned to the side rather than facing outward like they should be. I think because many books will show a side or slightly turned angle of the hand in order for people to get the correct hand shape, people think that the turned O and C are the way to actually sign them. This is not correct. See the proper way below.


Example "O" handshape.

Example "C" handshape.

The letters K and P should face forward.

Fingerspelling Example: P

The letters K and P also run into that same issue. New signers want to turn them as they see them presented in books and they end up looking very awkward and uncomfortable to sign. Get the K-hand as it should be, facing forward, and then to go to the P-hand, just drop the wrist. The change from a K to a P is all wrist, nothing else.


Example "K" handshape.

Example "P" handshape.

The letters G and H should be turned sideways (so the palm faces the body).

Fingerspelling Example: H

Many books will show these letters from a different angle in an attempt to show the handshapes better. The letters G and H should be turned sideways (so the palm faces the body). See the examples below.


Example "G" handshape.

Example "H" handshape.

Don’t Read the Letter Names, Sound It Out

Whether it is you signing the letters yourself (expressive skills), or you reading others fingerspelling (receptive skills), you need to think of the sounds that are connected to those letters, and NOT the letter name itself. This will help you to be able to figure out the words better down the road as you are trying to read bigger and bigger words. You may miss a letter, but if you have been saying the sounds in your head, you will more than likely be able to figure out the word.

Try it! In the example below, don’t spell out each letter as they are signed, sound out the word.


Reference Sheets to Help you with Fingerspelling

Alphabet Letters in American Sign Language (ASL)

Signing Savvy Member Feature: Download this image / flyer as a printable PDF page.

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Raising Deaf Children From a Foreign Land

Raising Deaf Children From a Foreign Land

Deaf Culture   |  Wednesday, May 2, 2018

By John Miller

The DNA heredity companies are very popular right now. Every time you turn on the television you see a new touching commercial of how people’s lives have been changed. While watching a recent commercial, there was a woman who, all her life, thought she was primarily from one genetic background and her ancestors came from one place and lived her life accordingly. However, after getting the results of her DNA test, she realized her ancestry really was from a totally different part of the world. The commercial ends showing her standing in front of a mirror wearing the ancestral clothing of her "new" native country and embracing and celebrating her new found information about herself.  

This got me thinking about deafness. I wish more people could have this reaction when they first find out that their child is deaf. Unfortunately, many in the medical field approach deafness from what is known as the Medical Model and see it as a disability that needs to be fixed, rather than a part of an ancestry that needs to be explored, learned and cultivated. 

This may stem from the often unknown fact that over 90% of deaf and hard of hearing children are born into families that are NOT deaf themselves. This is not common knowledge to many people. When I have posed the question to my sign language students and families I’ve worked with over my career as an educator, many believe that the percentage of deaf children that are born to hearing families is low, like 3-5%. I think their thought process is that the hereditary gene of deafness is the major factor in determining a child’s deafness. That is not, however, accurate. 

The families that make up this over 90% are busy with their lives and most likely have many other things going on like work, schooling, raising other children, etc.. so when a child with a different "genetic background" enters their family, it can seem like an unexpected challenge. Often times this child requires another language to be brought into the home. Things may have to be taught and communicated in a way that is different from what has traditionally been done in this home. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  It just means that extra time and effort and systems are going to have to be put in place so this uniquely different child can still be a part of their biological family, as well as the child’s "ancestral Deaf family."

Many of these hearing families aren’t familiar or educated on Deaf culture and don’t realize it has a rich history, customs, and community. Just as the woman in the DNA commercial put on her "new" ancestral clothing at the end of the commercial, families can education themselves on Deaf culture and choose to embrace and celebrate it.


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Teaching Language Through Play: Lessons Learned While Playing Restaurant and Getting Started with Introducing Food

Teaching Language Through Play: Lessons Learned While Playing Restaurant and Getting Started with Introducing Food

Teaching Tips   |  Wednesday, November 1, 2017

By John Miller

Kids naturally learn while they are playing. Introducing activities that allow them to learn through play lets them explore their curiosity, have new experiences, and better connect and retain what they have learned.

Lessons Learned While Playing "Restaurant"

One great example of a learning through play activity is setting up an area to play “restaurant” in the classroom (or at home). Playing restaurant is a very successful way to cover several areas all at the same time – vocabulary, health and nutrition, math, time, professions, and manners.

Think about a restaurant experience, including:

  • Choosing a restaurant
  • Getting to the restaurant
  • Parking the car
  • Talking to a hostess
  • Being seated or seating yourself
  • Looking through the menu and deciding what to eat
  • Ordering
  • Setting the table
  • Where the food comes from and cooking the meal
  • The people working in the restaurant and what they do
  • Serving the meal
  • Table manners and eating
  • How much things cost and paying
  • Taking payment and giving change
  • Feeling thankful and showing appreciation

Many lessons can all be taught through fun and interesting role play that involve tons and tons of lessons and vocabulary. These are all concepts that not only provide education related to curriculum goals, but allow the child to experiment in a safe environment and experience through play, which can help them be better prepared for real world situations.

One example of this is confidence building when ordering at a restaurant. It is not unusual to see young deaf teens that don’t feel comfortable enough in a restaurant environment to make their own order. Often their parents jump in and “rescue” them because they naturally want to protect their child from an uncomfortable situation. That is part of what this activity and lesson is all about. The more you educate and familiarize your students with these situations, the more prepared they will be to handle real world situations.

Through a series of blog articles, I will provide example lessons and activities related to playing restaurant. To get started, this article will discuss the first step of introducing food.

Lesson: Introducing Food

Take the time to introduce food through a formal lesson. I like to introduce real food and pretend food together. Allow the students to touch and taste the real food before they interact with the play food. Show them how to prepare it (do you have to peel it? remove seeds? cook it first?), ways to eat it, and examples of how to use it in dishes. You can share nutritional information and health benefits about the food. Anything you can do to expand their experience with the food will help them to remember both the signs and also any facts you teach about the food. 

This is a fun activity that students will be excited to share with their parents. Letting parents know the signs used in this lesson will encourage them to keep the discussion through signing going on at home. If you are a member on Signing Savvy, you can create your own word list for this lesson or you can use one of our pre-built word lists (this can help outline your lesson plan also!). Then send the link to the word list(s) home to parents so that they can easily access them and learn them for themselves, or support the learning that happens at school (they don’t have to be a Signing Savvy member to view the signs in your word lists). Additionally, Signing Savvy members can use word lists to practice vocabulary through quizzes and digital flash cards.

Below are some posters and word lists to get you started.

Vegetables in ASL

Vegetables in American Sign Language (ASL)

Signing Savvy Member Feature: Download this image / flyer as a printable PDF page.
Corresponding Wordlist: Vegetables in ASL poster wordlist

Fruit in ASL

Fruit in American Sign Language (ASL)

Signing Savvy Member Feature: Download this image / flyer as a printable PDF page.
Corresponding Wordlist: Fruit in ASL poster wordlist

Supplies Needed

Unfortunately, we can’t always have access to a variety of real food to taste test in the classroom! To get students engaged in this activity and to prepare for future restaurant play-based lessons, it is important to establish a good supply of pretend foods that would cover not only the food groups, but also be able to make up meals that would cover breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is good to have a variety of pretend foods, even if there is some overlap, to be able to show your students that the food they consume can come in different colors and sizes (a cut up carrot as opposed to a whole carrot or even a shredded carrot; OR the fact that a whole peach looks much different than a sliced, peeled, or canned peach).

Below is a list of many great options you can purchase directly off Amazon to get you started.  Some of them even come with different lesson suggestions and activities you can do with your children as well. We’ve also created pre-built wordlists of signs to accompany each set of play food.

Peel N' Play Veggies Playset (By Small World Toys)

View word list of ASL signs for Play Veggies Playset

Farmers Market Color Sorting Set (By Learning Resources)

View word list of ASL signs for farmers market color sorting set

Cutting Food & Fruit Sets (By Melissa and Doug)

View word list of ASL signs for cutting food and fruit sets

Tote with Fruit & Veggies (By New Sprouts)

View word list of ASL signs for tote with fruit and vegetables

Healthy Dinner Set (By New Sprouts)

View word list of ASL signs for healthy dinner set

Grocery Basket with Fruit & Veggies (By Casdon)

View word list of ASL signs for grocery basket fruit and vegetables

Large Variety Pack of Food (By Liberty Imports)

View word list of ASL signs for large variety pack of food

Fast Food & Dessert Play Food (By Liberty Imports)

View word list of ASL signs for fast food and dessert play food

Burger, Hot Dog, Chips, & Onion Rings Food Set (By Liberty Imports)

View word list of ASL signs for fast burger, hot dog, chips, and onion rings food

Introduce your children to food and establish a good supply of pretend food, then watch for future blogs discussing other play-based lessons for your classroom restaurant.


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5 Tips for Overwhelmed Parents of Deaf Children

5 Tips for Overwhelmed Parents of Deaf Children

Learning Tips   |  Tuesday, May 16, 2017

By John Miller

Overwhelmed… The look on the faces, or the words that came out of the mouths of almost every parent of a deaf child I’ve ever met with during a home visit. The first thing I want to say is, “Move over because you aren’t alone on that bench,” and secondly, “Stop feeling guilty about anything and everything and lets make a commitment and move forward now, looking in the rearview mirror is only good to learn from, NOT to see your future.”

Many parents seem to carry this tremendous amount of guilt about the way things are going with their parenting of their deaf child. They know that it’s a bit of a different “play book” than with their hearing children, and the fact that their deaf child’s native language isn’t even their own, causes great confusion and frustration. The fact that they have to now adapt into this whole new culture and community in order to gain a greater understanding of their deaf child’s identity can be very… overwhelming!

My first suggestion is to acquaint yourself with someone who has a good (nonbiased) understanding and connections with the Deaf Community in your area (if there is one). Contacting the school systems and the interpreting population or County offices can be a helpful resource to begin.

There are so many slippery slopes that hearing parents of newly identified deaf children can encounter. I once had a mother come into my classroom in tears because she referred to her daughter as “hearing impaired” in a setting that included many people from the Deaf Community and she was pretty much attacked by them and had no idea why. I had to explain to her that although both the medical and educational systems have used that terminology, it is NOT the accepted, preferred terminology of the Deaf Community and she needs to avoid the use of the word “impaired” if she wants to be on good terms with the community. Instead of using the term "hearing impaired," simply say "deaf" or "hard of hearing." 

I had another set of hearing parents mortified at a suggestion that was said to them – it was said to them that because their child was deaf, they should give them up for adoption to a deaf family so that they could be “properly raised in a home where sign is their first language.” I had to explain to them also that although that is pretty extreme, it shows how strongly some deaf people feel about the idea of proper communication and the use of sign language, and also the years of ignorance on the part of the hearing community that shaped the landscape. It is then that I recommend the book Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America by Jack Gannon. This book has been around for a long time, yet gives a pretty clear explanation of Deaf history and why some of these strong feelings still exist today.

I guess the idea I like to get across to parents at this point is this: If you commit to communication with your deaf child that includes sign language as their primary mode of communication, then commit to learning it yourself! No, it’s probably not going to be easy, but what part of parenting is? Here are some tips that can help:

1. Learn sign langauge along with them.

  • Learning sign language as your child is learning it is helpful and, if possible, it is even better if you can keep yourself a few steps ahead of them. This can be easier when your child is very young and just learning to communicate. If your child is older, although it’s going to be more challenging, it’s never too late! Try to learn sign language as they are learning it, even if you aren’t able to keep up with their pace of learning.

2. Tackle things in logical chunks.

  • Starting off, the goal isn’t to know arbitrary vocabulary for a test, or even to be fluent (that’s something to work towards). You just want to be able to communicate with your child, so focusing on the vocabulary you need to do that is what is most important.
  • Start with experiences you share together and work from there.
  • Think about your interactions with them, the language and vocabulary that would be involved in those daily interactions.
  • Create Signing Savvy word lists that focus on key vocabulary and then review those lists and use the digital flash cards and quizzing features to help you become familiar with the vocabulary. 

3. Practice, practice, practice.

  • Sign with your child. You can't learn if you don't try.
  • Along with using word lists to customize vocabulary you want to learn, use of the Signing Savvy Member App on your smart phone to look up signs you don't know while you're on the go. Using the App will allow you to become more fluent.
  • Watch our videos of ASL glosses to see full sentences and phrases signed and to start to get more comforable with ASL syntex.

4. Reach out for help.

  • There are people and programs to help. It takes time and a little research to figure out who the local people and what the local programs are, but it can be worth the investment of effort.
  • The IDEA federal law requires every state to have programs for children with delayed development (such as delayed language development) for both infants and toddlers (birth to 3 years old) and children and youth (3 to 21 years old).
  • Contacting the school systems and the interpreting population or County offices can be a helpful resource to begin.
  • Stay in touch with any teachers, interpreters, or other aides or specialists that work with your child so you can stay in the loop and on the same page. Not only is it helpful to get updates and feedback from these people that work with your child, but communicating about what’s going on at home with them can also help form a better plan to meet their needs.
  • If possible, acquaint yourself with someone who has a good (non-biased) understanding and connections with the Deaf Community in your area (if there is one).

5. Create a support system.

  • In addition to reaching out for help to people who can work with your child (or already do), capitalize on your close social network to create a support system. Encourage others to learn sign language and to use it to communicate with your child, especially close family and friends that are a regular part of you and your child’s life.
  • You can share the Signing Savvy word lists you have already created with family and friends to help them get started with basic vocabulary (they do not need to be Signing Savvy members to view your lists).
  • You can also create special word lists tailored for people like babysitters or substitute teachers, or for specific events, like Thanksgiving dinner and share that list with everyone that will be coming. Sharing word lists gives people an actionable way to learn some vocabulary and, more importantly, is a reminder that communicating with your child is important and that one of the best ways they can help is to support language learning and the use of sign language.

I can guarantee your child will appreciate the effort and the ability to communicate with their parents. Stick with it, nothing happens overnight. You can’t just try it out and then back out. It’s something that has to be worked on and added to daily. The learning never ends, but the rewards can be great!

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