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

I have a 7 month old son, and although his hearing is fine, my wife and I would like to teach him sign language. We have seen a lot of books out there but I thought I would ask you and get your advise as to which book(s) you would recommend.

Question from S.J., Rochester, NY. Posted October 28, 2013.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

One thing I think you would want to avoid are “baby sign” books that offer artificially-created signs (designed to make money for the authors). If you’re going to sign with your hearing child, you might as well use a natural sign language – in our case American Sign Language. Many schools now accept ASL as satisfying their foreign language requirement.

Folks in the NTID Department of American Sign Language and Interpreter Education have offered three recommendations:

The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language 

 The Gallaudet Survival Guide to Signing

Basic Course in American Sign Language

They are available from Amazon and other retailers.

My son is 5 1/2, hard of hearing, moderately-severe to profound, bilateral aids since he was 4 months old. He is currently in a mainstream school, and also knows ASL, although he doesn’t like to use it. His reading skills are incredible – he has read dozens of “chapter books” since he learned to read last winter/spring. He has really good fine-motor control. But his pencil skills however are truly awful, well behind everyone else in his class, and he is even very unwilling to even try printing/tracing letters. He is on the waiting list to see the school board OT about a possible dysgraphia diagnosis. Is there any connection between his written language problems and his hearing problems? Or between his written language problems, and his unwillingness to use ASL?

Question from J.B., Ontario. Posted October 18, 2012.

It appears that your son’s problem is not a written language problem. Instead, as you have described it here, the problem is with his handwriting. If his reading skills are strong, then his written language skills may also be strong. However, you and his teachers will need to bypass handwriting in order to accurately assess his written language knowledge and skills. That can be done easily with the use of magnetic letters and/or the computer. He can construct his stories using magnetic letters or he can type his stories, instead of trying to print them.  I used this approach with a kindergarten student who was hard of hearing and also had cerebral palsy and could not write with a pencil. She was allowed to compose her stories using magnetic letters until she had learned the alphabet and then on the computer. The approach was highly successful.

I cannot say whether your son’s handwriting problem is related to his hearing loss. A consult with the school’s occupational therapist is definitely in order.

With regard to his unwillingness to use ASL, that is most likely an identity issue. Most children, regardless of age, do not want to be different from their peers. Because your son is mainstreamed with children who are hearing and use spoken language to communicate, I am not at all surprised that he doesn’t want to use ASL.  My best guess is that he wants to be like his peers and use spoken language to communicate.  Using ASL sets him apart from his peer—makes him different—the very thing children try to avoid.

I have a son who was born deaf but has a cochlear implant. he doesn’t want to pick up on spoken language so im introducing sign language to him. He also has many developmental delays and was wondering what would be the best way to go about teaching how to sign.

Question from P.T., California. Posted September 19, 2012.

This is a tricky question, not one that can be addressed fully on this site. There are so many questions that need to be asked! Crucially, I would want to know things like: How old is the child? How long since he had his implant, and has he been wearing it consistently? Are you sure the technology is working correctly and that your son was mapped correctly? What do we know about these other developmental delays?

Importantly, we need to know what is meant by “doesn’t want to pick up on spoken language.”  This is an interesting and unusual way of phrasing this, and I would need to know how you have reached this conclusion? It is only with this sort of information that we can give you any clear advice. Plus, assessments describing the child’s progress or lack of progress from the pre-implant stage to now would be very useful indeed.

The next step would be to think about what you mean by sign language. To professionals this may be very clear, but to parents it can mean many different things. Are you looking to use signs to support spoken language? Or, are you looking at a whole new language? Using simple signs to support spoken English would be a great place to start. Learning a language like American Sign Language would require a big commitment from you and other family members. And, she would need to explore at length whether your child’s developmental delays might act as a barrier to language learning – sign languages are not an easy option!

I think you really need to talk to your local professionals, so the whole family can all think about what you are trying to achieve with your child and refocus on the goals. Importantly, if they tell you either that you must not sign with your son or that he will never achieve spoken language, you should look for another opinion. There is no “black and white” here, you are asking about a complex situation that likely does not have any simple answer.

I had an audiologist tell me that 99% of the time when you add sign support to an implanted student the language level/development drops. I respectfully disagreed – Your thoughts?

Question from R.S., California. Posted May 17, 2012.

Thoughts aside, there is no published evidence we know of to indicate that this is the case. You might recommend the following to the audiologist: Spencer, L. J., Gantz, B. J. & Knutson, J. F. (2004). Outcomes and achievement of students who grew up with access to cochlear implants. Laryngoscope, 114, 1576 –1581. They found that high school students with implants who also had sign language interpreters in the classroom were performing at a level comparable to their hearing peers, a result normally not obtained with longer-term use of implants by students without sign language support.

What is the difference between a sign skills coach and an interpreter?

Question from A.M., New York. Posted March 16, 2012.

The position of “Signing Skills Coach” originated from the one-on-one position referred to as a Skills Coach. A skills coach is an individual who works along side of a student/client and assists with the learning of a task/job.  For example, a skills coach might work with a developmentally disabled individual to learn the job of a dish washer.   A “Signing Skills Coach” is an individual who knows sign language and functions as  a skills coach with a student/client who is deaf, hard-of-hearing or in some circumstances hearing but can benefit from sign (e.g., some individuals with autism, Downs Syndrome, etc.).  The requirements are that the coach have intermediate to advanced signing skills and basic skills in consecutive interpreting.

A sign language interpreter is fluent in ASL (or other natural sign language) and all forms of signed English (or other spoken language). An interpreter would work between the hearing and deaf person but not teach the deaf person a skill.  Interpreters can work consecutively but tend to work simultaneously.

Are there assessment tools to help determine what type of sign language modality would be most effective for an 8 year old child? Are there assessments that measure the effectiveness of various sign language modalities? Are there resources that describe and illustrate (video tapes) the different sign language modalities (ASL, SSE, Conceptually Accurate Sign Language, etc.)?

Question from J.G., Illinois. Posted March 16, 2012.

We carry out specialized individual assessments of deaf children’s signing skills at City University London’s Compass Centre (http://www.city.ac.uk/health/public-clinics/compass-centre). Our assessment team includes deaf native signers and hearing staff who are fluent signers. When considering the best modality for a child, we compare their sign language abilities with their spoken language and, if applicable, their sign-supported communication. With 8 year olds we can assess their BSL comprehension and production skills using standardized tests (Herman et al 1999 http://www.forestbooks.com/products/pages/search.php and Herman et al 2004 http://www.city.ac.uk/health/public-clinics/compass-centre/sign-language-assessment-clinic/assessing-bsl-development-production-test). There are similar tests available for other sign languages (see Haug’s website http://www.signlang-assessment.info/index.php/sign-language-acquisition.html). We do not know of any similar assessment tools for SSE. The final decision about the best modality takes account of test results alongside careful consideration of the child’s communication environment. This includes observation of their everyday communication with native signers, communication at school and at within the family and discussion at the assessment appointment about how they communicate with deaf and hearing people in general. In this way, we try to determine the best communication approach for a particular child. We do not know of any assessment tools for SSE but there are also assessment tools for speech reading in children of this age available: http://www2.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~bjt/avsp2009/proc/papers/paper-36.pdf

References (for BSL)

Herman, R., Holmes, S., & Woll, B. (1999). Assessing British Sign Language Development: Receptive Skills Test.  Forest Bookshop.  Gloucestershire, UK.

Herman, R., Grove, N., Holmes, S., Morgan, G., Sutherland, H. & Woll, B. (2004). Assessing BSL Development: Production Test (Narrative Skills).  City University Press.

If you are interpreting in an educational setting, would it be more appropriate to stand at the front of the classroom or sit with the deaf student therefore being able to maintain eye contact and attention at all times?

Question from G.W., United Kingdom. Posted January 26, 2012.

When interpreting in any situation, an interpreter must be able to have eye contact at all times with the deaf client(s), and the client(s) be able to see what is happening near the speaker.

In the case of the classroom, the teacher is responsible for all the students, hearing or deaf, paying attention (which might mean some educating on your part). The interpreter can either sit near the student or at the front of the classroom as long as it allows interpreter-student eye contact and the student being able to see what the teacher is doing.  For example, some interpreters in a math class (with permission from the teacher) will follow the teacher as s/he writes a problem on the board, so the students can watch both.

Of course, students of different ages have different attention spans and needs, and any vision problems would have to be considered.  There is not one right or wrong answer for every situation – as is often true of interpreting, “it depends on the situation” (e.g., the age of the student, the class, communication needs of the child).  The ability of the interpreter and student to have direct eye contact and the student to see what the teacher is doing during the lesson is a top priority, whether you are near the student or at the front of the classroom.

How can I become an interpreter for the deaf in the Binghamton, New York, area? I took ASL in high school and enjoyed it. I have been to Deaf Clubs but cannot find any now and would like to get back into it.

Question from S.M., New York. Posted January 9, 2012.

The place I would start is at the Southern Tier Independence Center, located in Binghamton. Their website is www.stic-cil.org. The relevant FAQ on their website is somewhat out of date, but it includes the following information (slightly edited here):

1. Where can I take sign language classes?
Sign classes are scheduled pretty regularly at Broome-Tioga BOCES and Broome Community College. Or, stop in and check out the bulletin boards in our Deaf Services area; we update them constantly with notices about sign classes and Deaf culture events in our region.
2. Where do I go for sign-language interpreter training?
There are two high-quality interpreter training programs within reasonable traveling distance of Binghamton:
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY
Bloomsburg University
400 East 2nd. St.
Bloomsburg, PA 17815
Our region has a severe shortage of qualified interpreters. STIC’s Interpreter Services Program is a dispatching service for interpreters working as independent contractors. Interpreting is a very demanding profession; we cannot use people who have just “taken a few sign classes”, but we are always looking for well-trained interpreters. We strongly encourage you attend one of these programs if you are interested in interpreting as a career.

Do you have any resources for parents of profoundly deaf children who are above grade average ? My daughter is 10 and has already gone through several Harry Potter books (which is not interesting conversation to her peers). My problem is that I cannot keep up with the sign language vocabulary and meeting her intellectual needs. She attends the local district school currently with an all day interpreter. Prior to 3rd grade she attended the local school for the deaf (including pre-k).

Are there any ‘mentor/tutors’ on VP? Where can I find a listing of perhaps other children with hearing impairments who would be interested in talking with her on the videophone or through chat?

Question from W.W., Florida. Posted December 6, 2011.

First, let me congratulate you on how well your child is doing.  As parents, we need to be vigilant – both when our child is lagging behind, AS WELL as when he/she is above grade level. You’ll want to ensure that your daughter is being challenged and not compared to others who are not doing as well.  You want to make sure your daughter is reaching her individual potential. Your email proves that is exactly what you are striving for. So, here are a couple of suggestions:

For information on how to best identify and serve deaf and hard of hearing students who are intellectually gifted, visit http://deafgifted.blogspot.com/2008/06/bibliography-deaf-gifted-students.html

With regard to peer mentors , can you ask the school for someone (maybe a high school student) who can relate to your daughter’s level of intellectual curiosity?

Regarding staying up with the sign skills of your daughter,  as most hearing parents can attest, keeping up with your child’s sign skills when they are exposed at school all day and, in general, parents are not takes some extra energy, positive attitude, and commitment to improving.  Some basic strategies parents can pursue are local deaf events where they can practice their skills, university level sign classes, and under the IEP provision of ‘parent training and counseling’ they can ask their school to provide them with ASL training. Practice times with your own child also can improve your skills as can getting together with other parents and having ‘silent’ practice sessions to improve your skills.

Regarding your question, “Are there mentors/tutors on VP?”  here are a couple of resources: http://deafness.about.com/od/schooling/a/howtotutor.htm


Finally, you asked about other children who you could connect your daughter with.

I would contact Your local Hands & Voices chapter. There are some chapters that do this type of project   click on www.handsandvoices.org Also, your state school for the Deaf may also be a resource.

My sister-in-law is a junior in high school and is deaf. She has an interpreter who goes to her classes with her, she is in honors classes, and she is very smart. The school she goes to has changed the rules for graduating at the “recommended” level. Now, she will have all the classes she needs except a language class. But, the only foreign language class her school offers is Spanish. She can’t learn spoken Spanish and I am trying to find out if there is a law to protect her from not graduating “recommended” even though she knows sign language.

Question from J.M., Texas. Posted December 5, 2011.

The school did not change the rules, because it is the state, not the school that mandates the graduation requirements. There are 3 graduation plans in Texas – minimum, recommended, and distinguished. The “recommended” graduation plan requires 2 credits of a foreign language. The “distinguished” requires 3 credits. ASL does qualify as a foreign language requirement in Texas. If her HS does not offer ASL, she could ask her school whether they offer a dual credit program. Then, she could take ASL classes from the local community college and get both HS and college credit.  At Austin Community College, for example, one semester of a foreign language from the college equals 1 full credit of the HS requirement, so she could potentially get 2 years HS credit by completing 2 semesters at a local college. Programs vary by area, so she would need to find out how her school and local colleges handle the credit transfer.

Here is a link with more information about ASL as a foreign lang. requirement in Texas:  http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/deaf/certinfoupdate.html

and here is a link explaining the various graduation plans: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/graduation.aspx.