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.

Sign Language

With the number of children getting cochlear implants and their parents not using sign language with them, what are their outcomes in mainstream schools…are they still affected like deaf signing children (missing out on full access)? What percentage of the deaf student population in mainstream today, use sign language verses oral?

Question from T.H., Florida. Posted February 23, 2015.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

Several studies have found deaf children with cochlear implants to be reading at or near grade level during the elementary school years, a great improvement over what typically has been seen among deaf children without implants. By high school and college, however, implants are no longer associated with better reading achievement (although use of spoken language is). Interestingly, the same is true of deaf children who are native users of sign language by virtue of having deaf parents. That is, studies have found those children also to be reading at or near grade level during elementary school, but neither parental hearing status nor sign language ability is longer associated with better reading achievement by high school. These findings might suggest that full access is an issue for both groups, but they also may be related to the greater difficulty and complexity of to-be-learned material in the higher grades.

With regard to language use in the mainstream, you would think this would be a straightforward question with a straightforward answer. Unfortunately, it’s not. According to data drawn from the Gallaudet University Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth, 19.5% of DHH students under age 13 are taught through spoken language only and 22% through sign language only. For students aged 13 and older, 6.7% are taught through spoken language only and 37.2% through sign language only. Data from the Annual Survey, however, are known to be weighted toward special schools and programs for DHH students, and it does not appear that the data are broken down by school type. According to data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTSES 2), a study of a nationally representative sample of DHH high school students, 51.6% of students in regular schools use sign language (compared to 98.1% in special schools) and 94.5% of them use spoken language (compared to 59% in special schools). What all of this tells you is that most DHH students use both forms of communication, although knowing their fluencies in each and the contexts in which they use them (including school) would require further investigation.

Further Reading:
Allen, T. E., & Anderson, M. L. (2010). Deaf students and their classroom communication: An evaluation of higher order categorical interactions among school and background characteristics. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 15, 334–347.

Marschark, M., Shaver, D.M., Nagel, K., & Newman, L. (in press). Predicting the academic achievement of deaf and hard-of-hearing students from individual, household, communication, and educational factors. Exceptional Children.

Marschark, M., Tang, G. & Knoors, H., Editors (2014). Bilingualism and bilingual deaf education. New York: Oxford University Press.

I am an educational interpreter for a deaf student in high school. She has been taught by a teacher if the deaf all her schooling life in a pull-out English/reading class. This year she was mainstreamed into an English/literature class. She reads at just below grade level. During class, when the (hearing) teacher has the whole class independently read from a book, should I use my finger to guide the student’s reading, or should I sign the whole thing? If the teacher has other children read out loud or uses a audio recording to help read out loud for the hearing students, should I encourage the student to look at the text and guide with my finger, or should I sign the whole thing? The goal I presume is to help enhance reading skills, and my gut tells me to have the deaf student read the visual. But my teacher of the deaf tells me to sign everything. I find that counter intuitive. If the student was learning to read, I would sign and attach the visual word to it at an elementary or preschool level. But this student knows how to read; this is now a high school level reading class. We are talking novels, short stories, etc.

Question from W.D., Maine. Posted February 19, 2015.

While we have little information about the effectiveness of interpreted education for school age students (e.g., Schick, Williams, & Kupermintz, 2006), researchers have found that college-age deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) students may gain equally as much or more knowledge from reading as they do from seeing someone sign a lecture (Borgna et al.,2011; Marschark et al., 2009). This information might be something to consider when you begin having important conversations with the English teacher, the teacher of the deaf, and the student.

First, you should talk with the classroom teacher and teacher of the deaf to gather what their goals are for this activity. If the classroom teacher is listening to the hearing students read to gauge their decoding skills, then helping the DHH student follow along by tracing your finger above the words would be appropriate. This way the DHH student would be ready to read when her turn came. Asking the teachers about their goals will clear up any assumptions on your part and you can work with them to be ensure these goals are met.

Second, you should talk with the student and find out her preferences during English class. The student might prefer to read while you aid in tracking or the student may feel uncomfortable having someone that physically close during class. These preferences should be taken into consideration when deciding how to interpret in the classroom but may not be paramount to the teacher’s goal during the lesson. Your combined knowledge and ability to communicate as an educational team will resolve this issue as well as many in the future.

Further Reading
Borgna, G., Convertino, C., Marschark, M., Morrison, C., & Rizzolo, K. (2011). Enhancing deaf students’ learning from sign language and text: metacognition, modality, and the effectiveness of content scaffolding. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(1), 79–100.

Marschark, M., Sapere, P., Convertino, C. M., Mayer, C., Wauters, L., & Sarchet, T. (2009). Are deaf students’ reading challenges really about reading? American Annals of the Deaf, 154(4), 357–70.

Schick, B., Williams, K., & Kupermintz, H. (2006). Look who’s being left behind: Educational interpreters and access to education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11(1), 3–20.

I am doing research on the benefits of early language acquisition and teaching d/Deaf babies ASL. I am having trouble locating those who oppose it outwardly in either a scholarly journal or university publication. Do you have any suggestions as to where I may find this information?

Question from A.D., Michigan. Posted February 5, 2015.

I am not aware of credible arguments against teaching sign language to deaf babies, in principle. There are some arguments that sign language can interfere with the development of spoken language, but there is considerable evidence that refutes that position (see below).

At the same time, there also is evidence that children with cochlear implants who are in “oral” programs show better spoken language development than those in sign language or Total communication programs (see below). However, it is unclear whether that is because children with greater spoken language skills (or potential) are more likely to be “oral” programs or dividing children’s – and parents’, early interventionists’ and educators’ – time and resources between two languages is not as efficient as focusing on only one. Without something resembling a randomly controlled trial, this is not a question that is going to be answered easily (see below). Further, the “politics” of the issue are such that even what appears to be support for one position or the other is not going to be accepted by many.

Further reading:
Davidson, K., Lillo-Martin, D., & Chen Pichler, D. (2014). Spoken English language development among native signing children with cochlear implants. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19, 238–250.

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.

Lyness, C.R., Woll, B., Campbell, R. & Cardin, V. (2013). How does visual language affect crossmodal plasticity and cochlear implant success? Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 37, 2621–2630.

Svirsky, M.A., Robbins, A.M., Kirk, K.I., Pisoni, D.B., Miyamoto,
R.T. (2000). Language development in profoundly deaf
children with cochlear implants. Psychological Science, 11,

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

Question from L.T., Florida. Posted January 20, 2015.

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 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.

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.

I am a teacher of the deaf in the school for the deaf in Scotland. I have recently begun working with a family whose son, aged 2 1/2 years, has just been diagnosed with a severe/profound loss. He is currently undergoing cochlear implant assessment. The family are very keen to develop both sign and speech as they acknowledge they do not know what the future holds and they understand the need to establish language. It is at this point my question arises. The family home language is Arabic and they have asked about using Arabic sign and speech at home and BSL/English of the home. The boy in question has a hearing sibling who is already bilingual. I am finding it challenging locating any information about the development of 2 sign languages at the same time. Is this an area any research has ever been done in? Is there any advice I can take to the family? The family used the approach of Arabic at home and English outside the home with their hearing son. Can this approach be applied to the development of 2 sign languages? I don’t think this is beyond the family as Mum is a linguist and can speak 5 languages. Her enthusiasm and interest is immense! My concern is whether this too much for the child?

Question from J.R., Scotland. Posted March 7, 2014.

I have been on the lookout for publications on the acquisition of two sign languages simultaneously, but I have not found any. However, there is an increasing number of Deaf couples marrying across nationalities, and raising their children with more than one sign language, so there is anecdotal evidence of children growing up sign bilingual, and from what I hear, the situation is not so different from bilingualism in two spoken languages, or one spoken and one sign language. The biggest challenge to raising functionally bilingual children, however, is not with the children, it’s with the adults. It is very difficult to provide adequate input in both languages, especially if one of the languages is a minority language. Bilingualism researchers estimate that children need much more input in a minority language than is required for a majority language to successfully learn and maintain it at conversational levels. It also helps a lot of the input is from varied sources, including peers; simply depending on the parents to provide input is often not enough. These input challenges are compounded when the goal is to raise the child with 3 or 4 languages.

That said, I am raising my children trilingually, including two very small minority languages, and so far the results are encouraging. My strategy was to greatly prioritize the minority languages in the years before my children entered English-speaking preschool. Until the age of two, we only spoke Taiwanese and Croatian to our children, and they didn’t have much working knowledge of English at all. This made the start of preschool frustrating for them, admittedly, but they learned English so quickly that it wasn’t a problem for long. And it gave them a foundation in Croatian and Taiwanese that we built relentlessly on once they entered school. We invest in multi-week trips to Croatia and Taiwan every year to give them a wider context for using those languages, and to strengthen their relationships with family there. Now, at the ages of 10 and 4, they are both able to use all three languages, although English will undoubtedly become their dominant language.

Finally, as a professor at Gallaudet University, I also signed very extensively with my children when they were young, often in conjunction with spoken Taiwanese. I signed ASL with Taiwanese rather than Taiwan Sign Language, since I don’t know the latter. This actually worked fantastically well for lexical learning and my children quickly amassed a large vocabulary of ASL signs and the corresponding Taiwanese words. On trips to Croatia, the ASL signs also turned out to provide an effective bridge to Croatian: I could speak Croatian and sign key words in ASL, and the children were able to very quickly map the new Croatian word to the familiar sign without having to ask what the Croatian word meant in Taiwanese. I would say that it almost seemed like magic, except that this doesn’t sound very scientific… Of course, as a linguist, I should stress that what I taught my children was not ASL. I mostly taught them just lexical signs, accompanying spoken Taiwanese or Croatian, something akin to what is known as “signed supported English.” This is not a very effective form of sign input for a Deaf child to learn sign language, but my children are hearing, and my goal was not to teach them full ASL.

All this to say that I think learning BSL, spoken English and spoken Arabic should be well within the abilities of this family. The chances of success should be higher than usual, given the parents’ linguistic experience/motivation and the fact that they are willing to give their child early and intense exposure to sign language (something I think is one of the best things parents can do to to ensure the success of a cochlear implant). I would advise against trying to learn Arabic SL and focus on BSL instead. Sign language vocabulary is very easy to learn, but the grammar and phonology can be challenging for hearing learners, so one sign language at a time is probably plenty. Since this family will be trying to teach BSL as a full language to their child, it will be *very* important to find native signing BSL models and peers for the child, and to not limit their BSL use to lexical signs accompanying spoken Arabic sentences (feel free to use Arabic words with BSL signs for vocabulary learning, but my point is that there needs to also be times when BSL is used on its own). There will be plenty of time for the child to pursue Arabic SL (there are actually multiple, distinct sign languages used in Arabic-speaking countries) later once he or she is a bit older and has established BSL and spoken Arabic.

What is the difference between American Sign Language and Signed English? Is there another name that people refer to Signed English? Is it preferable to teach kids Signed English?

Question from S.T, Kentucky. Posted October 31, 2013.

Sign (or signed) languages are not universal languages, nor are they invented ones. They are, like spoken languages, natural languages, grown and transmitted in communities of language users. In the case of sign languages, the cores of these communities are deaf people and their deaf or hearing relatives. Languages constitute one of the most important characteristics of the cultural and psychological identities of various peoples. This process of cultural identification explains why deaf people in the United States use American Sign Language (ASL), deaf people in France use French Sign Language (la Language des Signes Francais), and deaf people in the Netherlands use Sign Language of the Netherlands (Nederlandse Gebarentaal). The structure of sign languages resembles that of spoken languages with their own vocabulary, phonology (albeit in manual form), morphology, syntax, and pragmatics; so ASL is not a form of English.

There are also systems that combine speech and sign according to different rules, and Signed English is one of these (as are Signed Dutch and Signed Polish). These systems differ in the extent to which they represent the lexical and grammatical properties of the spoken language in the sign channel. Some systems are strict, designed to represent the elements of a spoken language 100% in manual components. They manually encode English or Dutch fully, or at least that is the intention.

There are claims that deaf children will learn to read better if they learn a manually-coded form of the spoken/written language (like English), but there is little evidence to support that claim. Although systems like Signed English have the advantage of being more English-like, they do not “hold together” structurally the way natural languages like ASL do. Different children will find different modes of communication easier to master, and one could probably argue either way. ASL is a true language and at the heart of the Deaf community, however, while Signed English is an artificial sign system intended as an educational tool and is not often used in conversation.

Recommended Reading:

Holcomb, T. K. (2013). An introduction to American deaf culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marschark, M. (2007). Raising and educating a deaf child, Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press.