ERIC Identifier: ED353861
Publication Date: 1992-07-00
Author: Holcomb, Tom - Peyton, Joy Kreeft
Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse
on Literacy Education for Limited-English-Proficient Adults Washington DC.
ESL Literacy for a Linguistic Minority: The Deaf Experience.
Learning to read and write effectively is a challenging task for many adults,
particularly for those who are deaf. (The term "deaf" is used here to refer to
both deaf and hard-of-hearing people.) In spite of concerted efforts by
educators to facilitate the development of literacy skills in deaf individuals,
most deaf high school graduates read English at roughly a third or fourth grade
level as determined by standardized reading assessments (Allen,1986; King &
Quigley, 1985). In their writing, they often make vocabulary and structural
errors that include omitting or confusing articles, prepositions, and verb tense
markers, and they have difficulty with complex structures such as complements
and relative clauses (Swisher, 1989).
Having limited literacy skills acts as a barrier for deaf people in the
workplace. They often have had limited opportunities at school for vocational
training. They also may have difficulties communicating with hearing co-workers
and poor performance on work-related reading and writing tasks. Because of these
factors, deaf adults in the workplace often find themselves confined to
This digest offers possible explanations for these difficulties and describes
new approaches in deaf education that show promise for improving the literacy
skills of deaf adults.
REASSESSING SOURCES OF LITERACY DIFFICULTIES
deafness was considered a pathological condition. Deaf people were considered
mentally and educationally deficient due to their inability to hear and in need
of special education and social services to minimize and correct those
deficiencies (for a summary, see McAnally, Rose, & Quigley, 1987). However,
following the groundbreaking work of William Stokoe (1960)and others, there has
been a growing trend away from a pathological definition of deafness (Wixtrom,
1988; Woodward, 1982). Most educators and researchers in the field of deafness
now believe that deaf people share similar language backgrounds and literacy
challenges with other linguistic minority groups. Their difficulties with
acquiring literacy in English are considered to have linguistic, cultural, and
educational rather than pathological roots (Charrow, 1981; Johnson, Lidell,
& Erting, 1989; Padden & Humphries, 1988).
One of the primary causes of
difficulty with English literacy is that English is a language that deaf people
have not heard or have heard only in a limited way. Thus, for them, American
Sign Language (ASL) or another form of manual communication is the most
accessible language because of its visual properties. As Charrow (1981) points
It is not the inability to hear that causes the most persistent problems of
prelingually deaf persons, but the enormous constraints that that inability puts
upon the learning and use of the societal language. (p. 187)
Because deaf learners do not have access to English in its spoken form, the
challenge for them of developing literacy skills is much greater, in some ways,
than it is for hearing nonnative English speakers.
A growing body of literature brings a
social/cultural perspective to the literacy issues concerning deaf people.
American Sign Language, the primary language of many deaf people, is now
recognized by linguists as a complete, legitimate language with complex
grammatical structures and extensive vocabulary. However, ASL is clearly a
minority language in a majority culture that tends not to understand or respect
sign language. (Swisher, 1989).
Despite the legitimacy of ASL, many deaf people grow up with ambivalent
attitudes toward their own language, often feeling "inferior to hearing persons"
(Kannapell, 1976, p. 11). Padden (1987) reports that deaf people's attitudes
toward ASL vary between "intense pride" and "a great deal of confusion and
shame" (p. 44; quoted in Swisher, 1989). This ambivalence extends to English as
well. Because of the need to communicate with the non-signing public and to
function in an English-literate society, most deaf adults believe that English
literacy is important. Still, many hold an equally strong belief that they are
unable to master it.
Since the early 1500s, when
educators began to realize that the "deaf and dumb" were capable of being
educated, a variety of approaches have been used to develop deaf people's
literacy. (For a summary, see McAnally et al., 1987.) Many educators today,
however, argue that these approaches have been woefully inadequate (e.g.,
Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989). Oral/aural and phonics-based approaches,
for example, have not proven effective, since for deaf learners, printed words
are not connected with sounds. Forms of Manually Coded English such as SEE
(Signing Exact English), developed by educators to represent English on the
hands, are cumbersome to use, do not adequately represent either English or ASL
(Kluwin, 1981), and have had limited success. Remedial approaches, which have
focused on pattern practice, vocabulary lessons, and teaching explicit rules
(Charrow, 1981), break language into parts and do not allow English to be used
in the natural way that it is acquired by hearing individuals. By adulthood,
many deaf learners have had years of failure and frustration with learning to
read and write in English.
CURRENT APPROACHES TO LITERACY DEVELOPMENT
At the same time
that they may experience frustration and failure, most deaf adults understand
the need to be literate in English. As well as being crucial to success in the
work world, written English is often the only way they have to communicate with
a non-signing public. Recent, innovative educational approaches show promise for
reversing the cycle of failure. Space allows only mentioning these approaches
briefly, but the references cited provide ample information about them. Some
have been used so far primarily with children, but may be effective with adults
as well, with appropriate modifications.
* Bilingual/bicultural approaches, which integrate ASL and English and
include using videotaped stories in ASL as a precursor to writing compositions
in English (Humphries, Martin, & Coye, 1989; Mozzer-Mather, 1990; Paul,
1987; Quigley & Paul, 1984)
* Whole language and writing process approaches, which focus on
problem-solving skills needed in the workplace and avoid overt correction of
errors and breaking language into parts (Heald-Taylor, 1989)
* Interactive writing, in which deaf learners and teachers converse in
written English on teletypewriters (Lieberth, 1988; Nash & Nash, 1982), on
local- and wide-area computer networks (Peyton & Batson, 1986; Ward &
Rostron, 1983), and in dialogue journals (Staton, 1990; chapters in Peyton,
* Interactive videodisc, in which computerized ASL video and printed English
text are used simultaneously to help deaf learners develop their English skills
(Copra, 1990; Hanson & Padden, 1989)
* Closed captioned TV programs, which allow extensive exposure to English
through a recreational medium (Bean & Wilson, 1989; Spanos & Smith,
Mastering written English is a lifelong struggle
for many deaf people. Deaf adults develop literacy differently than do their
hearing peers. The above instructional approaches, which (a) are
student-centered, (b) require meaningful use of both ASL and English, (c)
incorporate and build on the language and cultural backgrounds and actual home
and workplace issues facing deaf adults, and (d) use creative visual means to
teach reading and writing, promise to make the educational process more
meaningful, positive, and successful for deaf learners. The use of these
approaches for developing the literacy skills of deaf adults needs to be
carefully documented and the degree of success determined.
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teach reading to adults. "Reading Research and Instruction," 28(4), 27-37.
Charrow, V.R. (1981). The written English of deaf adolescents. In M.F.
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communication. Vol. 1" (pp. 179-187). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Copra, E.R. (1990). Using interactive videodiscs for bilingual education.
"Perspectives," 8(5), 9-11.
Hanson, V. L. & Padden, C.A. (1989). Interactive video for bilingual
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curriculum: Principles for achieving access in deaf education." Washington, DC:
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