Sarah Lawrence (UK)

Sarah Lawrence (UK)

Sarah Lawrence is Deaf, a fluent signer of BSL from Cardiff. She is a successful businesswoman and owns ‘Deaf-Friendly Solutions’, an in-service training business for deaf and hearing organisations.


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1. What, in your opinion, are the strengths and weaknesses of the current system of BSL teacher training in the UK?

For some years now, I have found myself having to repair poor signing skills from Level 1 and Level 2 classes. The main reasons behind this are

a) the lack of effective teaching of the basic linguistic rules of BSL at those levels; and

b) a lack of teaching passion to teach the language properly.

Training for BSL teachers is scarce, and even where it is available, too much of those events concentrate on talking down to deaf teachers and telling them about the process of teaching rather than a focus on the outcome and student learning. Current teaching provision is usually offered by people who have little or no experience of teaching the introductory levels, where knowledge and application of the basics are essential to the use of BSL and higher level learning. Passion for the maintenance of BSL standards is definitely missing in some of the more influential trainers, and that is slowly undermining the BSL teaching framework across the UK. Friends using friends to put on training events means that the skills and knowledge of some of the most passionate and accomplished BSL teachers in the UK are wasted.

Those courses that are offered are also expensive for self-employed deaf teachers with smaller numbers of students. It represents quite a significant overhead. If we are to get serious about helping qualified deaf teachers to teach and run courses, we need to make sure the courses that are run are affordable and not run for profit.

2. Can you give us examples of ‘best practice’ in your country?

This is a tough one, because of the reasons above. Training content has been stale and stagnant for some time, with too little critical thinking about past events and creative thinking about how BSL teaching can be improved. The teaching community sees an invasion of hearing teachers with low levels of BSL and virtually no linguistic knowledge offering courses, but we do nothing to develop the next breed of deaf teachers and look at new methods to teach. There are no national resources as you would get with Geography/French/Psychology for example, and nothing in the training events that are held, seeks to change that. Best practice in the UK, in my opinion, is limited to teaching practices themselves, not the teaching of the teachers. I also consider this to be a worsening position in the UK, not an improving one.

3. Can you tell us about the accreditation of sign language teachers in the UK?

The problem is that teaching of BSL is unregulated, so virtually anyone can offer to run BSL courses. Teachers in colleges and universities have to be qualified teachers and are subject to the requirement of obtaining CPD, private providers under the registration of the two awarding bodies, do not need to show qualification status or continued fitness to teach. The process for regulation is far too woolly and driven primarily by income, not by the maintenance of teaching standards. For the conscientious, committed and fully qualified deaf BSL teachers, the willingness to register virtually anyone to teach based on a paper application, is highly damaging.

4. Can you tell us something about curriculum development in the UK? Are curricula for training sign language teachers based on the CEFR?

The curriculum has remained virtually the same for many years. I believe when first set, it would have complied with CEFR and probably still does. The primary comprehensive teaching resource has been in existence for many years, and little has changed. If there is a link made between providers of training courses for BSL teachers and the CEFR, it is not made obvious to delegates and none of the paperwork makes any reference to a link being made. To save our language and instil good teaching and training practices, I believe there is an urgent need to professionalise the administration that sits behind BSL.

5.   What, in your opinion, is the way forward for sign language teaching and the training of sign language teachers in the UK and in Europe?

I believe there has to be a far greater focus on standards in respect of training for teachers and teaching itself. This should be underpinned by far greater knowledge and understanding of BSL linguistics, with every teacher and trainer needing to be qualified in linguistics to be able to teach/train.

The BSL teaching community needs to be empowered so that best practices can flourish, with a renewed national focus of all interested bodies concentrating on standards of BSL and signing outcomes of students.

There is far too great a focus on paperwork and written assessments, with many students able to try practical signing assessments time and again until they finally record one they are happy with.

There needs to be in place something that protects and promotes high standards of BSL, so that it is akin to teaching a modern foreign language, not just how people talk in English, French, Italian etc when down the pub or at a rugby club.

Any national process of ownership of the standards involving oversight and influence over the teaching of BSL needs to be removed from the pursuit of income, so that decision making is not influenced by monetary considerations.

Arrogance, selfishness, exploitative attitudes and the pursuit of power, does nothing to help BSL teachers or the maintenance of teaching standards of BSL. 

We need a cradle to grave national/international framework that identifies talent and provides an affordable and deaf-friendly development pathway for deaf teachers from the first day on their road to being a qualified teaching/trainer to the time they retire. The quality of future training should be underpinned by qualification and continuous professional development, and access to all of this should not be restricted by cost.

Date of the interview: April 2017