Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Language and Communication

Do DHH students succeed better in academic and other assessments by using ASL or SEE?

Question from L.T., Florida. Posted January 20, 2015.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

I’m afraid (or happy) that it is not quite that simple. There are certainly individuals who will argue that deaf learners will benefit more from ASL (American Sign Language) or SEE (SEE1 – Seeing Essential English or SEE2 – Signing Exact English) than the other, or from other forms of communication. The research, however, indicates that there is no one form of signed or spoken communication that is going to work for all deaf learners.

English-based signing systems (like SEE) were developed on the assumption that they would help deaf children learn to read English, but there is little evidence that they work any better than American Sign Language (ASL), which is a natural language (rather than an artificial sign system) but does not easily map onto English. Regardless of language and modality (signed or spoken), the key to deaf children’s academic success (and other aspects of growth) is early, effective access to language and being surrounded by it consistently. “Effective” is emphasized here because what is effective for one deaf child might not be for another. It is essential that deaf children are evaluated (and regularly re-evaluated) to determine how their language is progressing and whether whatever language(s) they are using is the most appropriate.
Sorry, there are no silver bullets.

For more information on what we know and what we don’t know on this issue, see this eBulletin on the Raising and Educating Deaf Children website.

I currently work as a nanny for a family with small children but previously worked for the school system as a sign language interpreter. I was trying to find some resources on an Early Language Development Curriculum for deaf children and their parents. I would love to be able to offer families a service in which they have their deaf preschool children (0-5 ages) learn cognitive/ fine motor skills/ language development through ASL. I have read some of the previous posts, and found a very interesting link to the NCSD family sign language (FSL) based through the UK. I would however be very much interested in learning if there was a similar program here in the United States.

Question from A.M., North Carolina. Posted January 7, 2015.

There are a number of excellent ASL-related sites available through the website of the American Society for Deaf Children.

I work as a teaching assistant in a primary school and work one to one with a deaf child aged 4. The main educational focus for this child is to develop their understanding and ability to use sign language however I’m not sure which way would be the best way to teach this?

I am able to use a basic level of sign language. The student has picked up some signs on their own like drink, toilet and food; however, this is a very slow process, does anyone have any tips?

Question from L.A., England. Posted December 23, 2014.

Your question which is massively important for the pupil with whom you are working. You clearly recognise that the situation you describe is not working, and you are absolutely right to voice your concern.

For this or any child to acquire a language, accessible, fluent language models are necessary, and consistent use is essential. That means that if sign language is the goal, the child will need to be surrounded by fluent and consistent language at school and at home. This may be a huge challenge for the whole family, but it’s an essential ingredient to long-term success. It would be helpful to have them look into NDCS family sign language curriculum.

It would appear from the description of your situation that both you and this child are being put in an untenable position. It is unreasonable for you to be given the responsibility to teach the child sign language: a highly-skilled sign language user trained to work with young children in an educational setting, ideally a native signer, is needed for the child’s future language, cognitive, and social-emotional development. With only a handful or words/signs at the age of four there should be a clear, focussed and frequently monitored language development programme in place for this pupil. If the child already has had extensive exposure to sign language, it also might be worthwhile requesting a cognitive evaluation just in case there are other factors at play.

The circumstances will of course be more complicated than you are able to express in a few short sentences, and it is important, therefore, that a much more detailed and extensive review of the situation is undertaken. In the first instance, you need to discuss this with the class teacher, SENCo and teacher of the deaf as soon as possible.

I have a seven month old daughter just diagnosed with profound hearing loss. What are the main things I should be doing with her immediately (apart from starting sign language, which we did before she was officially diagnosed) to promote her language and literacy acquisition down the track?

Question from M.W., Switzerland. Posted November 16, 2014.

You are already doing the most important thing: asking questions. Next, but not unrelated, you should look into family-centered early intervention programs. Descriptions of these, the issues you need to be aware of, and the questions you should be asking can be found in two articles recently published and available from the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. Click on “Read Highlighted Articles for FREE.”

Meanwhile, enjoy your daughter and engage in as much communication as possible by talking to her, signing to her, and through touch. Just remember to get her (visual) attention before communicating. You will do great!

I am needing help with explaining how an 11th grade student who is deaf with ASL as his first language and English as his second language and uses an ASL interpreter in class is struggling with learning Latin IV. He uses a CI and hearing aid.

Question from A.D., Ohio. Posted October 30, 2014.

Research on deaf signers who have ASL as their first/preferred language has clearly shown that their skills in using spoken/written English vary enormously. Those who acquire ASL earliest tend to be better at English overall than those who learn ASL later, but many do struggle with English as it is for them a second language (just as learning say French would be for a native English speaker). Learning then additional spoken/written languages beyond English is even more challenging for the deaf student, particularly when they are being taught alongside hearing students via interpreters. This would be like a native English speaker who can read and write French as a foreign language trying to learn Latin as an additional language in a class full of monolingual French speakers where the class was taught exclusively in spoken French and interpreted (just for that one student) into spoken English. There has been very little research on acquisition of additional/foreign languages by deaf signers in these kinds of situations, but it is clear that such a student must be given proper support in order to achieve the same level of success as his hearing peers.

We have a 5 year old, bilaterally implanted son who has been mainstreamed into a general education kindergarten. He is awesome at reading people’s body language and just assuming answers to questions. He is an awesome parrot. [But these do not mean he is understanding fully.] The school continues to say that he is a typical 5-year-old boy and that he has adjusted well to being mainstreamed.

He is a very visual child, and we use sign language and spoken language to communicate at home, but the school says they cannot accommodate that, even though we know that there is an interpreter around the corner who has a contract with the school. Is there any way to get sign language into the classroom? We were originally told that if they got an interpreter for him they would need to get one for every foreign language student in the school. Which we know is against the law.

He went to the deaf school for half a day last year in Pre-K, and were told that that was all they could offer him, as he is so advanced due to us working so hard with him. But his working so hard has come back to bite us. He now comes home tired and burned out, not wanting to listen to us anymore. All we want is for him to get the same education as his hearing peers, please help!

Question from L.W., New York. Posted October 9, 2014.

You and your child are going through a difficult time that needs to be resolved as soon as possible. Your mentioning that he is in a mainstream setting suggests that he has had an evaluation through special education and has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If he has, I would suggest requesting a meeting to review his current placement. If an evaluation was not done, you can request a referral for an evaluation through special education.

Your child is entitled to have access to the curriculum and to instruction in the classroom based upon the evaluation and the IEP (it is important that the assessment regarding modalities of instruction be done by someone knowledgeable with regard to hearing loss). If that access requires an interpreter, then it is the school department’s responsibility to provide that service, assuming that it is part of the IEP. There should be no negative consequences for your child because he has had opportunities (with your support) to develop his skills. The goal of special education is to insure that all children achieve to the greatest extent possible given their capabilities. Your son’s strong abilities are no less worthy of support than if he was weak in the same domains.

With regard to the school’s response to your request, not speaking English is not a disability. A child who is a native speaker of a language other than English does not qualify for special education services. That argument is a “red herring” and has nothing to do with your son’s situation.

I’m a pediatric occupational therapist who only occasionally works with deaf children. I don’t have time (or a library) to read papers and books about deaf children. Is there something like Cliff’s Notes on deaf kids?

Question from R.P., Virginia. Posted July 16, 2014.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. (sorry!)

Raising and Educating Deaf Children is a new site offering objective, evidence-based information for policy-making and practice associated with raising and educating deaf children – with an eye to improving them. New eBulletins are posted quarterly; each includes sections on The Issue, What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and Implications about various topics, all written so as to be accessible to parents as well as professionals.  eBulletins include Further Readings with content offered free of charge by Oxford University Press.

What language/sign system/ communication mode is best in regards to educating deaf children? In particular, does using SEE correlate to higher reading and writing levels when compared to ASL, total communication, or Sim Comm? Many times people argue that SEE is best because a certain school or program’s students have higher reading levels. To me that is not evidence based data. There are many factors that can contribute to higher reading levels at a certain school when compared to another school or program. Looking at one aspect is not enough unless the schools are identical in all other areas. Is there any evidence based research to support SEE? Also, is it possible to use elements of SEE, but still continue signing ASL or conceptually?

Question from L.L., Texas. Posted June 30, 2014.

I just love loaded questions! Here’s an answer many people will dislike:

There is no language/sign system/communication mode that is “best in regard to educating deaf children.” Certainly, you can find proponents (and data) to support any of the ones you listed. What that tells you is that different things work for different children in different settings. Generally, forms of manually-coded English were created to help deaf children acquire English literacy skills. Generally, they have not proven more successful over the long term than American Sign Language (ASL) or anything else, but the comparison is not a simple one. Proponents of ASL as a link to literacy typically cite data showing that early ASL (e.g., from deaf parents) supports early literacy. So does early spoken language (e.g., from a cochlear implant). The key is early access to fluent language and being surrounded by it in formal and informal settings.   There are programs that use SEE, ASL, SimCom, and other systems that report successful reading achievement in their students. The data from these programs vary in how strong they are, but, again, what this shows is that when deaf children are surrounded by consistent language they will excel. SimCom, for example, has been criticized for not being “a true language,” but has been found to work as well as anything else in the classroom, at least in high school and college. And children in a real total communication school (i.e., SimCom, ASL, assistive listening devices, etc.) have been found to read as well or better than peers in a well-known bilingual program (in which over one third of the children had deaf parents) (see Knoors & Marschark, 2012, below). SEE is an English-based sign system; ASL has a completely different grammar. Many deaf and hearing people use signing with English word order and characteristics of ASL, but trying to mix in SEE signs rather than using ASL signs seems an unnecessary complication. The goal is to give young deaf children a foundation for language (signed and/or written/spoken). Unfortunately, there is no simple solution.

Further reading

Knoors, H. & Marschark, M. (2012). Language planning for the 21st century: Revisiting bilingual language policy for deaf children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 17, 291-305.

Schick, B. (2011). The development of American Sign Language and manually coded English systems. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education, Volume 1, second edition (pp. 229–240). New York: Oxford University Press.

My 4 year old son has been diagnosed with severe sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. He was not born this way; we believe he lost his hearing sometime between 2.5 and now. He was just diagnosed in June and he will be getting his first pair of hearing aids at the end of July. I’ve been told by his ENT and Audiologist that we need to make a decision about cochlear implants (CIs) very soon. My son had lots of vocabulary and speech sounds; he now is a little difficult to understand but communicates with family and friends. My question is where can I find good information about CIs and also why must I rush to make a decision?

Question from M.H., New Jersey. Posted June 27, 2014.

It sounds as if your child’s loss predominantly occurred after he acquired verbal speech and auditory language, so his deafness is categorized as “post-lingual.”  This means your son’s brain has a memory of what speech sounds like, even if that memory and how to reproduce it are fading a bit. That is one reason why implantation is recommended sooner rather than later – research has demonstrated that the shorter the lag between onset of the hearing loss and input from a cochlear implant, the better the child does.  We believe that is because the auditory memory (part of that auditory path design) has had less time to “forget” the sounds of speech.  There are lots of research articles that talk about keeping that time-frame short between onset of hearing loss and use of the CI, although outcomes are more variable than they might appear.

The signal from the hearing aid is amplified speech and other sounds, so your son will hear things at a louder level with his aids.  The sounds will be distorted and some sounds may not be transmitted very well (sounds like /sssss/ and /shhhhhh/).  His brain and his ears are connected by a path of nerves (the auditory path), and the signals that the ears receive must be interpreted by the brain.  There is big difference between the signal provided by a hearing aid (loud speech) and the signal transmitted by the cochlear implant (kind of like Stephen Hawking’s electronic speech).

Without knowing more details as to the cause of the hearing loss, it is unclear whether there are specific reasons for recommending earlier implantation – some audiologists and ENTs simply believe that CIs are for almost every deaf children and the sooner the better. However, I can tell you that there are some conditions that can cause a bony growth to happen in the cochlea (which is the organ if hearing) and, if so, this growth begins after the hearing loss in a gradual and slow manner.  If this occurs, the longer one waits, the more difficult it can be to insert the electrode of the cochlear implant.

There may be other reasons your healthcare providers are wanting you to make a decision, but you need to do your homework first. One of the predictors of children’s success with CIs, literally, is how much time their parents spend getting information on the subject. Here are two links that let you compare what the signals of a hearing aid sound like and the signals of a Cochlear Implant sound like

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1l37lzLIgQU

http://www.etc.cmu.edu/projects/tatrc/?page_id=371

Here are some article review links:

http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_pdf&pid=S1808-86942012000200019&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en

https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/11533

[Ed. – For more, very objective information visit the UK’s Ear Foundation]

Our district audiologist wants to put all DHH students on personal FM and remove the class soundfields altogether. I find conflicting research on this. The DHH teachers don’t want to get rid of the class soundfield systems. Can you please confirm either the benefits or detriment of keeping the soundfield in place in addition to personal FMs?

Question from E.W., California. Posted June 12, 2014.

By class soundfield system, I assume you mean a room equipped with two or more speakers that broadcast the desired signal into the desired space.  The problem with these systems is that everyone in the room is exposed to the signal and, depending upon where the deaf or hard-of-hearing student is sitting, there could loss of signal strength over distance.  Personal FM systems have the advantage of being set up specifically for the user, whether the individual is using a hearing aid (s), a cochlear implant, or both.  The signal is clear, coming directly from the teacher to the student.  The signal does not lose strength over classroom distance, and the teacher can use one microphone to connect to several students at the same time.  Also, there is no “carry over” into adjoining classes as there might be with a sound field system (depending upon the decibel level of the signal).  In my opinion, the FM is superior though more expensive. Two additional notes:  (1) Students with milder hearing losses may do best with soundfield system while those with severe to profound losses are likely to do better with FM. (2) It is unclear why a person would remove an existing soundfield system unless maintenance is an issue.