University of Edinburgh

Signing SQA Exams

Presented on Wednesday 3 February 2010

Evaluating the Science Signs Glossary and an Online Bilingual Resource for Deaf Learners


Dr Audrey Cameron
Science Advisor for the Science Signs Project

Overview of talk

1. The process of producing science signs online

2. Evaluation of the websites with teachers and deaf pupils

Initial project:web development

  • Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA)
  • 250 science signs
  • Intermediate level (ages about 11-14)
  • Chemistry, Biology and Physics
  • Maths pilot by Dr Brennan and G Hughes in 2004
  • Definitions in BSL - very important

Project development


  • Scottish Government: £25,000 for one year
  • Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC) staff - 2 staff one day a week through a year
  • Team developed signs and uploaded to website


  • Evaluation with pupils, participants and teachers
  • Chemistry Show - Manchester Science Festival


  • Chemistry Show - Newcastle ScienceFest 09
  • Chemistry Show - St Vincent's School
  • Chemistry Show - Donaldson's School

Other science vocabulary sources

  • Dundee school website - science signs
  • Wolverhampton University website - science and technology signs
  • Cath Smith books - line drawings
  • American site: Lang et al (2006)
  • No BSL definitions
  • Method not published
  • Deaf people's involvement

Our principles

  • We didn't want to use initialised signs
  • Deaf children's bad experiences with initialised signs across the curriculum

Assembling the team

  • John Brownlie (BSc in Physics): a multimedia specialist working with a Deaf organisation
  • Dr Audrey Cameron (PhD in Chemistry): a school teacher of hearing children
  • John Denerley (Dip SW): owner of a wildlife park, deaf from a deaf family
  • Dr Colin Dunlop (PhD in Physics): an astronomy researcher
  • Gerry Hughes (BSc in Mathematics): involved in the mathematics project and a school teacher of deaf children
  • Dr Mark Fox (PhD in Chemistry): a chemistry researcher
  • Mary Frances Dolan (BSc in Chemistry): a school teacher of deaf children
  • Claire Leiper (BA in Biology and English): a freelance trainer
  • Gary Quinn (MA in Linguistics): sign advisor for the project
  • Derek Rodger (BSc in Chemistry, MEd deaf education): a school teacher of deaf children
  • Eileen Burns (Teacher of Deaf Children and Physics teacher).
  • Rachel O'Neill's previous experience with CD-ROM Project Maths and IT (Microbooks)

Deaf from before the age of 8. Do Deaf people from Deaf families find it easier to create new signs using the productive lexicon?

Method of work

  • First stage:  Collecting English science terms
  • Second stage: Checked existing science signs (Dundee and Wolverhampton)
  • Third stage: Subject group discussed which to keep
  • Fourth stage: Subject group discussed if they had another sign. Creation of new sign if needed.
  • Fifth stage: Creation of draft signs on internet
  • Sixth stage:  Making definitions in BSL
  • Seventh stage:  Signs and definitions on internet to check
  • Eighth stage: Translation of definition to English
  • The Chemistry group: lab videos

Issues that arose about language planning

  • Doing definitions were very difficult and some were filmed several times
  • Large amount of variation in BSL
  • Reasons: 'schoolisation' (Quinn)
  • Should there be variation in technical signs?
  • eg; ELECTRICITY (3 variations)

Issues that arose about language planning

Natural and Prosodic Morphologies and others:



Degree of iconicity between form and meaning

mass weight density

Issues that arose about language planning

  • Children involved in deciding on direction of language
  • Two variants depending on perspecgive: macro or micro

solid liquid gas

Launch Experiment and Plenary in January 2008

  • Children keen on live experiments
  • Marc Marschark Honorary Professor launched project

Evaluation of the project: preliminary results

  • Evaluation funded by Learning Teaching Scotland in 2008
  • Questionnaire for teachers
  • Interviews with deaf children
  • Interviews with project team members

Teachers' comments

  • Teachers who replied
  • Their use of the site
  • Teachers' evaluation of the site
  • Improvements teachers would like

Interviews with deaf children

  • Gary and Audrey visited 4 schools
  • 15 pupils interviewed
  • They were given options - to be filmed or shadowed
  • Pupils were told that they can stop at any time
  • To see what pupils are gaining from the website
  • Shown 2 scientific terms - 'chemical reaction' and 'vertebrate'

Interviews with deaf children

  • All pupils gathered together for a group discussion after all the individual interviews
  • More comments from the group than individuals
  • Most use the website at school to consolidate their learning
  • Signs used spontaneously by pupils - clone, inherited, chromosome, artery, bacteria, virus, acid, air sac, liquid, gas, element.

Deaf children's comments

  • Good and useful website - all in BSL
  • Would like subtitles for the scientific terms
  • Need more science terms
  • More images
  • More examples and lab movies
  • Too many signs to learn
  • Some definitions need more explanation
  • Need explanation for some signs

Interview with Project team members;

  • Members filmed themselves as part of a reflective diary or write notes of how the workshops were going
  • Gary and Audrey visited every member for an interview
  • All interviews were filmed, including the interviewers
  • All members mentioned the exhausting but enjoyable debates about scientific meaning

Project team members' comments

  • Expected that there would be a number of hearing people with a few deaf people
  • Were impressed with the team as they all kept sharing and working together
  • Good balance of expertise
  • Unexpected and shock at first
  • Disappointed at the last minute decisions over new signs

Evaluation of the project: preliminary results

  • Learning Teaching Scotland website: rationale and evaluation
  • Article in BSL by Gary Quinn and Audrey Cameron with English translation
  • What will happen to the signs?

Further expansion of the glossary

  • Further funding
  • Expand to younger age level and see their developing with sign language and science
  • More maths and science to reach Standard Grade, GCSE and above.
  • Pilot centrally produced exam papers with SQA
  • Other subjects, eg; History, Geography


Scottish Sensory Centre science and maths website:

Wolverhampton University Science Signs website:

NTID USA Science and Maths Signs website:


Brennan, M (1992) The visual world of BSL in Dictionary of BSL / English (ed Brien,D) London: Faber & Faber.

Lang, H, Huppa, M, Monte, D, Brown, S, Babb, I & Scheifele, P (2006) A Study of Technical Signs in Science: Implications for Lexical Database Development. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 2007 12(1):65-79.

Quinn, G (to be pressed) Schoolisation: an account of the origins of regional variation in British Sign Language. Sign Language Studies Journal 2010 10(4).

Smith, C & Ingle, C (2008) Let's Sign Science. Cambridge: Widgit.

Our contacts

Dr Audrey Cameron

Gary Quinn

Rachel O'Neill