Researchers to study how deaf students learn, use English verbs

RIT/NTID research to help students succeed in college and careers

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Mark Benjamin, RIT/NTID

Jerry Berent will study how deaf students acquire English.

Research involving hundreds of students at Rochester Institute of Technology will soon begin as part of a study to explore what makes the English language difficult for many deaf students.

Gerald P. Berent, professor in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf’s Department of Liberal Studies, was awarded a $300,500 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how deaf college students learn and use English verbs.

“One of the biggest challenges in education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students is developing sufficient English language and literacy skills to succeed in college and the workplace,” Berent says. “Deaf infants, for example, don’t have much access to spoken English input. To acquire a language naturally, you need to have access to that language in its medium. Deaf children’s exposure to English is usually delayed, and they have to get English through compensatory means, such as facial expression and lip-reading. It’s often a lifelong struggle to acquire English language knowledge.”

The research, “Deaf Learners’ Lexical Acquisition of English Verbs and Their Component Properties,” will continue through February 2017. About 280 deaf and hard-of-hearing RIT/NTID students will participate as research subjects, as will 280 hearing RIT students who use English as a second language, and 50 hearing RIT students for whom English is their first language.

The students will be given an array of different sentence types and asked to judge the extent to which they think each sentence is acceptable.

The findings will establish an empirical basis on which to develop more effective methods for teaching English to deaf students, with the goal of helping students accelerate their improvement in English areas that are critical to their educational and career success.

“The context of the sentence determines which verb from among a group with similar meanings is appropriate to use. This has been studied in other populations, but never before in the deaf student population,” Berent says. “The extent we can uncover their knowledge or lack of knowledge of some of these subtle but essential properties of verbs, we may find clues that would lead to more successful English language assessment and intervention.”

The research will be based in NTID’s new research center for studies on career success, REACH — Research on Employment and Adapting to Change, and carried out in NTID’s new Sebastian and Lenore Rosica Hall.

Co-principal investigators are REACH Director Ronald Kelly; NTID Liberal Studies faculty member John Albertini; NTID Associate Dean Kathryn Schmitz; and RIT English Language Center Director Stanley Van Horn.