Revelations Surrounding American Sign Language Storytelling (Guest Post)

Today’s post is written by a friend that I have known since grade school, Nicole Pitt. Nicole is an American Sign Language Instructor with approximately 17 years’ experience in the field. She started signing at 14. Nicole is fluent in American Sign Language, Two Hand Manual, and Signed Exact English.

Note on Feature Image: The hands in front spell out ASL and the sign for “I love you” is in the background.

Revelations Surrounding American Sign Language Storytelling

  • Meta-narrational statements are statements bridging narrated events and storytelling in a phatically supportive approach in the provision of identificational and participatory immediacy to support audience understand.
  • Para-narrational is the execution of a narrator’s presence as themselves outside of the narrative situation by taking on the role of a participant in a socially defined situation of speaker and hearer or in this case ASL storyteller and audience members.
  • Parallelism is a meta-narrational approach with the use of systematic variation in repetition of information that is seen as in the use of combining variants and invariant elements in the construction and production of poetic works.
  • Kinetic movement refers to an additional meta-narrational approach with dynamic use of prosodic ASL features supporting inflections of the signs themselves. This includes the use of grammatical features produced on the face (nonmanual markers) as well as body shifts and movement.
  • Visual vernacular is the complex literary style that exists in ASL with use of cinematic characteristics such as panning landscapes, zooming, long shots, and showing a variety of angles similar to what is seen in movies.

Peter S. Cook’s article Features in American Sign Language Storytelling reveals similarities and variations when comparing devices used in American Sign Language (ASL) storytelling and oral storytelling. While variations occur between these two methods of storytelling this article reveals comparable strategies as well. Oral non-signing storytellers take a similar approach as signing storytellers and this is revealed in the comparison of narrational techniques such as motifs, meta-narrational devices, para-narrational devices, use of repetition, and parallel illustrations. These techniques reveal similarities, however there are features such as visual vernacular and kinetic movement that are specific to a captivating ASL story.

I was surprised to learn that the meta-narrational similarities seen in oral storytelling, when a speaker refers to something outside the realm of the story, are comparable to an ASL story when the storyteller’s kinetic movement allows the speaker to remove themselves from the storyteller role before returning to the original location (Cook, 2011). I was further surprised by the revelation of similarities in para-narrational devices in both oral and ASL storytelling where the speaker adopts the role of a speaking and hearing participant in a socially defined situation (Cook, 2011). Furthermore, I was enlightened by the similarities when comparing para-narrational approaches in oral storytelling with reference to an absent subject and ASL storytelling where visual gestures support audience attentiveness. Parallelism appears in a variety of forms in both oral and ASL such as thematic or phonological while supporting audience understanding by emphasising important aspects that appear later in the story (Cook, 2011). It’s not surprising that repetition presents itself in both oral and ASL storytelling as a cohesive device supporting audience retention.

While there are aspects that appear in relation to one another I was not surprised by features revealed as specific to ASL storytelling. For example, use of body shifting and eye gaze are specific features to ASL storytelling because they support audience understanding of the constructed dialogue (Cook, 2001). Eye gaze has specific features to support storytelling and placement of a character in stories, as well effective use of eye gaze can support audience understanding of the storyteller’s ability to convey variations in characters (Cook, 2001). Another aspect of ASL storytelling includes effective use of cinematic characteristics known as visual vernacular that provide techniques specific to ASL storytelling discourse allowing audience members to understand the story from different character perspectives (Cook, 2001). Visual vernacular techniques are extremely important with the effective use of role shifting techniques while displaying panning landscapes, zooming, close-ups, and long shots, along with a variety of angles to support audience attentiveness (Cook, 2001). Interestingly another important aspect for ASL storytellers is to understand their audience from a personal and cultural perspective (Cook, 2001). It is imperative for ASL storytellers to understand the preferred communication styles of audience members to support the delivery of a clear and captivating story.

While the article Features in American Sign Language Storytelling (2011) reveals many similar approaches when comparing ASL storytelling and oral storytelling I feel approaches specific to ASL storytelling are important to the discourse of an effective story. I feel the revelations of visual vernacular and kinetic movement specific to ASL storytelling provide a deeper understanding to narration approaches specific to ASL storytelling. Overall I feel it is important that an ASL storyteller understands features specific to both oral and signed approaches to ensure the most effective cultural approach.

By Nicole Pitt – 2016

Nicole has worked in social services since 2000 specializing in Snoezelen and sensory introduction therapy. She has the opportunity to educate students in American Sign Language and to work in the field of social services. First introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) at age 14 Nicole began volunteering in the Deaf Community in 1999. Her passion for ASL lead her to enroll in an Interpretation of ASL-English Degree program to further understand linguistic and cultural variables supporting each language.


  • Cook, P., (2001). Features in American Sign Language Storytelling. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group,
  • LLC Storytelling, Self, Society, 7: 36–62.

ASL Storytelling Examples

  1. Brenda Lerner’s rendition of the children’s book Peter Rabbit written by Beatrix Potter https://www.youtube.com/watchv=RCOMxxdhLnk&index=18&list=PLhR7lag5IHU9xsIintb83KYQMtq33SfH0
  2. Brenda Lerner’s rendition of the children’s book Always in Trouble written by Corinne Demas https://www.youtube.com/watchv=Ubwi1kGF6mw&index=19&list=PLhR7lag5IHU9xsIintb83KYQMtq33SfH0
  3. Dack Virnig: The Man in Berkeley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIIUqKmuMd4