Rethinking Literacy Strategies For Deaf Students

Jeff Harrison
Feb. 19, 2001

Three University of Arizona faculty members will be included in a Monday, Feb. 19 symposium (2:45-4:15 p.m.) on the widespread problems deaf students face in learning English. The symposium is part of the larger annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held this year in San Francisco.

The primary language for many deaf children is American Sign Language (ASL). English is learned as a second language, and they learn it via the written form. This creates a formidable, dual learning task -- learning to read a phonetically-based writing system while simultaneously learning a second language, says Cecile McKee, one of the UA scholars in the symposium.

McKee, an associate professor of linguistics, says success or failure in either reading of knowledge of English can dramatically affect academic outcomes. How can this dual task be managed?

"The study of language learning in these circumstances shows that deaf children's learning of English as a second language is influenced by their proficiency in ASL as a first language," McKee says.

"But children's mastery of ASL varies widely. Recognizing this complication is essential to success in educating deaf children. With a first language foundation in ASL, written input can support the acquisition of English."

Most children learn English through the spoke word and visual cues such as gestures long before they read and write. McKee says it is crucial for deaf children to develop reading skills through links to their knowledge of ASL.

The average deaf high school graduate reads at around the 3rd or 4th grade level, a "literacy crisis" that McKee and her UA colleagues suggests needs new strategies. One, which they will present at the AAAS symposium, recognizes that English is written with a sound-based system and that deaf children's mastery of it as a second language is influenced by their proficiency in ASL as a first language. This approach, she says, builds on children's knowledge of ASL to help their mastery of literacy and of English.

Laura Blackburn, a research associate in the UA Cognitive Science program, will present an overview of the history of deaf education to the symposium. Blackburn says schools have addressed reading and English for deaf children in many ways but with limited success. Most have recognized only speech asa form of language, and either resisted or overlooked education via ASL.

"Such practices reflected religious, economic, medical, legal and socio-linguistic influences," Blackburn says.

"It is time to restructure, especially with respect to literacy standards. Speech-based standards point out a deficiency that deaf children can compensate for through ASL. We question how deaf children can be served in a system that defines them as a disability group without considering their linguistic capacity," she says, adding that she will emphasize using ASL as a bridge to literacy.

Samuel Supalla, associate professor of special education, rehabilitation and school psychology, is developing a model for teaching deaf children, using an alphabet with symbols that represent the basic components of ASL signs. Children's understanding of how an alphabet works then supports their learning of the English alphabet and their use of a book with ASL signs and their English equivalents.

"This program also compares ASL and English with an analytic tool called 'glossing.' Cross-linguistic comparison then underlies systematic introduction of English structure to deaf children. A bridge is thus formed between ASL and English, and undue restrictions are removed."


Resources for the media