Background & Theory

During the last decade, there has been widespread recognition that the academic achievement of deaf and hard-of-hearing students is well below that of their hearing peers (Commission on Education of the Deaf, 1988; Traxler, 1999). School programs, it is claimed, are not making it possible for these students to reach their academic potential. One proposal, supported by an increasing number of educators, researchers, and deaf community members, argues that if deaf and hard-of-hearing students are provided with a visually accessible learning environment and given access to the curriculum through a natural sign language, literacy levels and academic achievement will improve (Israelite, Ewoldt, & Hoffmeister, 1989; Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989; Prinz, 1998). Since 1989, an increasing number of school programs serving deaf and hard-of hearing children in North America have adopted a bilingual/bicultural perspective, introducing American Sign Language (ASL) into classrooms, schools, and homes as a primary language of instruction. Research was recently reported documenting for the first time a significant relationship between students’ proficiency in American Sign Language and their English literacy skills (Strong & Prinz, 1997; Prinz & Strong, 1998; Padden & Ramsey, 2000). However, Strong’s 1995 review of nine developing bilingual/bicultural programs for deaf children revealed that curricula and teaching methods were not well-defined for these programs and most of the programs did not have systematic research efforts underway to document their philosophy, curriculum, pedagogy and the achievement of their students. In a survey of 80% of the residential and day schools listed in the 1998 American Annals of the Deaf, LaSasso (1999) reported that there were sixteen self-described bilingual programs serving approximately 4000 students in the US. Preliminary analysis of these data indicated that there was considerable variability among the programs in the following areas: ASL abilities of teachers and staff, how English is represented and conveyed, formal curricula, the age at which reading instruction is initiated, frameworks for reading instruction and formal program evaluation.

As educators and researchers have become more interested in the potential of a bilingual approach to the education of deaf students, questions have been raised about the ways in which a natural sign language such as ASL might support the acquisition of English literacy. Some writers have challenged the notion that ASL can directly support the learning of English (Mayer & Wells, 1996; Mayer & Akamatsu, 1999). Others are beginning to point to strategies teachers may use to help students understand the relationship between the two languages, including the use of some form of English-like signing, fingerspelling and initialized signs, glossing, sign writing, and phonological and phonemic cueing systems (Bailes, 1999, 2001a, 2001b; Erting, Thumann-Prezioso, & Benedict, 2000; Neuroth-Gimbrone & Logodice, 1992; Padden & Ramsey, 1998; Prinz & Strong, 1998; Singleton, Supalla, Litchfield & Schley, 1998; Supalla, Wix & McKee, 2000.). In a review of research in the area of ASL proficiency and English literacy acquisition, Nelson points out that most deaf children are both language delayed and language deprived since a “...very small minority of deaf children receive year-after-year excellent, processable language learning opportunities and use their excellent first language skills in ASL as the base for full acquisition of English literacy” (1998, p. 75). He argues that future research must demonstrate how to achieve high first-language skills efficiently in ASL for deaf children as well as how to teach individual deaf students, taking into account not only what the child begins with upon entry to formal schooling, but also what happens during instruction and learning, considering social-cultural-motivational factors along with the cognitive-linguistic factors that have been traditionally emphasized.

Theoretical Orientation

Teacher/researchers and researchers analyzing data

The theoretical position taken is that educational practice should be studied and understood within its sociocultural context and that the research should include insider as well as outsider perspectives. Our approach is holistic, qualitative, and specifically ethnographic, examining student achievement within learning contexts at school, and at home. By analyzing empirical data on the nature of everyday interactions among diverse children, their parents, teachers, and peers, we seek to uncover and understand the relationships among physical and demographic characteristics of students, languages of home and school, social identity and cultural knowledge, and academic achievement, especially in emerging reading and writing.

More information about the Signs of Literacy: Case Studies of Deaf Children Becoming Bilingual project

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