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

Our daughter is nine yrs old and deaf. Has been attending a school for the deaf for the past two years and has learned very much, plus is now fluent in ASL! Unfortunately she was molested in her residential dormitory this year.We’re struggling with making a decision of where to place her (educationally) next year. Obviously, residential is out of the question for now. We can either place her back in a “hearing support” class within our school district where they put K-5 grades together in one classroom with one teacher. Or keep her in the school for the deaf (which would mean moving.) We’re almost 50 years old and my husband isn’t keen on the idea of moving. The other thought is I would rent an apt near her deaf school and she and I would reside there during the week and return home on weekends. My question: What are your thoughts on the importance of keeping her in a school for the deaf vs hearing support classroom within school district? I should add, she’s 9 yrs old however is on a 1-2 grade level.

Question from A Conflicted Mother. Posted June 11, 2010.
Response from Jennifer Adams and Marc Marschark - NTID

This is a complex question involving language, education, and both your and your child’s emotional comfort. While it is probably impossible to cover all aspects of the issue here, three issues stand out. First, just on the basis of educational research, the emerging evidence points to the importance of having a teacher who knows what deaf children know, how they learn, and how to accommodate both their strengths and needs. That is likely to be an advantage of a school for the deaf, but assuming that there is a teacher who has experience in teaching deaf children, the evidence suggests that a classroom with a congregated group of deaf children can be an excellent educational option. The only concern in this case is that regardless of comparisons between mainstream and school for the deaf settings, having K-5th grade children in the same class normally is not advisable. The younger children are learning language and the older children are using language to learn. These are two very different things when it comes to instruction, and one teacher is unlikely to be able to handle everything at once. If there are a sufficient number of children around the same age of your daughter, that would be a plus, but given her language skills, you want her to be in a setting that would move her forward, not backwards. You might check with parents of children in the congregated classroom to see how they feel about the teacher and support from the school. If they are happy and their children are thriving, it may be a viable idea, at least in the short run.

That raises the issue of your daughter’s feelings about going back to a different residential school – and how both of you will feel in the fall. Is there a qualified counselor or school psychologist that the two of you can meet with to work through this both now and in the fall? That seems an important first step. It might be that you can try out the local classroom (if it seems a good fit) for a year and see how it goes. At the same time, the fact that you would consider having your daughter be in a residential setting during the week if you were nearby suggests that you might be more anxious than she is. If that is the case, trying another school for the deaf and being nearby for a short period of time would be another alternative. But keep in mind that the whole family will be affected by this decision.

Finally, if your daughter is “fluent in ASL” and still two years behind academically, it may be that the school she was in was not meeting her needs or she may have academic challenges that are not immediately obvious. Looking at another school for the deaf might be helpful with regard to the first issue; a qualified school psychologist and testing might be helpful with regard to second issue. Either way, schools for the deaf generally are the best equipped and prepared to meet the needs of deaf children, and a mixed class with K-5th grade children might not be what she needs at this point.

I am doing research on the effects of teaching a deaf child to speak and how it plays into their personal lives and on to the deaf community. As an interpreter I have noticed that my oral clients tend add new signs that are not ASL. I feel like all people should have the choice to be involved in the Deaf and/or hearing community. How do you think speech effects their identity and the identity of the deaf community?

Question from Abigale, Boston. Posted April 12, 2010.

With regard to the creation of new signs and, I suspect, your concern about the use of initialized signs, you might want to take a look at linguistics resources. Contrary to claims, there does not appear to be any negative evidence concerning the use of initialized signs. “Signs that are not ASL” are used by deaf people all the time; that is part of the ongoing evolution of language.

Concerning the relation of speech and identity, a variety of books have been written on the subject, usually by deaf people more invested in being part of the hearing community than the Deaf community. With regard to the evidence base, let me offer two suggestions: Most generally, you might look at Irene Leigh’s new book A Lens on Deaf Identities, Oxford, (2009).  Specifically with regard to children, try Most, T. (2007).  Speech Intelligibility, Loneliness, and Sense of Coherence Among Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children in Individual Inclusion and Group Inclusion. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12, 495-503.

Can you tell me what the story is on sign-supported English?

Question from Anne H., Oslo Norway. Posted February 18, 2010.

I know, I know, everyone says that sign-supported English (SSE) and simultaneous communication (SimCom) – both involving speech and sign at the same time – are bad. On the theoretical/political side, people point out that neither is truly a language unto itself, and argue that they therefore are “inappropriate.” Empirically, people point to two studies, both done over 20 years ago, which found that several teachers and parents of young deaf children said more than appeared on their hands (by anywhere from 20 to 50%). The sign abilities of those parents and teachers were never examined, however, and some people are extremely good at SSE (or whatever language) and SimCom. Research over the past 30 years has shown that when teachers are highly skilled at SSE or SimCom, students learn just as much or more than with ASL from a teacher, interpreting, or spoken language alone. In our own work, we’ve recently have found the same thing, as deaf college students learned exactly the same amount when they had teachers using SimCom, voice-off ASL, or utilizing interpreters. Importantly, these were skilled teachers of the deaf, who had been using SimCom for many years with classes that included oral students, ASL students, and everything in between. Although it frequently is not discussed (at least in public) many deaf students request teachers to use SimCom and ask interpreters to include “English on the lips.” It seems likely that SimCom would be particularly beneficial for children with cochlear implants, who generally do not receive auditory input as clear as that received by hearing children.

Unfortunately, the unearned stigma associated with SSE/SimCom seems to have prevented anyone from doing the appropriate study. Meanwhile, both are used effectively in many classrooms, even if students use a natural sign language or spoken language in other settings. What is essential is that deaf and hard-of-hearing children have early access to fluent language. That usually is difficult with spoken language alone and most parents are not fluent in sign. So, SimCom/SSE might be helpful in ensuring communication for new-signing parents, but this DOES NOT mean that SimCOM/SSE can replace full access to a natural language (actually, there isn’t research one way or another). The issue clearly is more complex than we can deal with here. For full discussion of what we know and what we don’t know, see Spencer, P.E. & Marschark, M. (in press). Evidence-based practice in educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students. New York: Oxford University Press.

I am interesed in adopting a 10 year old girl that is deaf. I have had some experience with sign language. I would like to communicate with parents that have children like her so that I can be more informed and other issues that I might experience. Is there a book of signing that anyone might recommend for me?

Question from Judith H., Somewhere USA. Posted February 9, 2010.

I have contacted several parent groups, and both Hands & Voices and the American Society for Deaf Children (see Partners page) have urged you to get in touch with them. They have a number of parents who were in your situation, and they would be happy to share. [Separately, I will send you e-mail addresses of individuals who have adopted deaf children themselves.] With regard to learning to sign, these organizations, sign language experts, and I all urge you not to depend on books or related material. Learning to sign is just like learning any other language, and it is neither as quick nor easy as many people expect. There are some good DVDs out there, and the (expensive) “Bravo! ASL” series was highly recommended, but face-to-face sign language lessons are essential. And not all sign language programs are created equal. Your best bet is likely a local university or community college. If you let us know where you live, we may be able to make specific recommendations.

A friend recently met a woman who had a deaf child with a cochlear implant. She was not happy with the outcome of the implant on her child and admitted that she should have contacted a deaf person first before making a final decision to get the implant for her child. Now she is taking an ASL course. It is widely known that about 30% of deaf children with cochlear implants have success. That child I mentioned above falls into the 70% group. I am aware that there are some more deaf persons who no longer use cochlear implants. Also, I have met more people and parents who are disgruntled with cochlear implants. Enough to require a legislative action? But we do need statistics. Where can we get the statistics? Should we ask legislators to create a bill to research and collect progress data and outcome on the children with cochlear implants?

Question from T., Minneapolis, MN. Posted January 21, 2010.

First, let me clear up a misunderstanding: Different people mean different things by “success” with cochlear implants, but by far, the vast majority are at least “satisfied” and most are happier than that.  Cochlear implants benefit most deaf children with regard to hearing, speech, language, and academic achievement, although none of these necessarily reach the same levels as hearing children. Not all children are successful with spoken language, but even when they are not, access to environmental sounds can be beneficial for incidental learning and cognitive development.

Certainly, parents should seek a variety of perspectives before choosing a cochlear implant for their child. In fact, the amount of time parents spend with such investigations is a good predictor of children’s “success.” In part that is because some parents discover that their child is not a good candidate for an implant (thus reducing the chances of a poor outcome), and other parents learn just how much long-term support is necessary, so that their children are more likely to receive the therapy and other services that will allow them to optimally benefit from their implant. In this context, parents also learn that cochlear implants do not turn their deaf children into hearing children. The typical child with a cochlear implant functions as though they have a mild to moderate hearing loss – some better, some worse.

While most deaf children benefit from the cochlear implants, it is not clear how many “disgruntled” former implant users are out there. Those individuals may be more visible, but they likely are a relatively small minority. And, I freely admit that prior to 2000-2001, I was not a supporter of pediatric implants, because I did not think there was enough evidence to support their value given the relatively risky surgery. Since that time, the surgical risks have been minimized, and there is now abundant evidence of the great value of implants for most kids. Enough to convince me.

It would be helpful to all concerned if parents received full, objective information about pediatric cochlear implantation. Pollard (1996) discussed this issue in the context of  “Informed consent at a phenomenological… conceived as freedom from undue bias based on ignorance or unfounded beliefs about life with deafness or, more specifically, life with or without a cochlear implant.” That information would include the fact that sign language is not necessarily a bad thing for children with cochlear implants and may be helpful in supporting spoken language development as well as social-emotional development and academic achievement.

For more information, see Pollard, R.Q (1996). Conceptualizing and conducting preoperative psychological assessments of cochlear implant candidates. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 1, 16-28.

Spencer, P. E., Marschark, M., & Spencer, L.J. (in press). Cochlear implants: Advances, issues and implications. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer, Editors (in press). Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Volume 1, second edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

I am hoping that you might be able to tell me if there is a good set of leveled readers that you would recommend specifically for students who are deaf and use American Sign Language as their primary language.

Question from Elizabeth C. Alberta, Canada. Posted September 22, 2009.

It is unclear if you are referring to a reading series that covers the same material but with some level of flexibility concerning vocabulary and reading level or leveled readers that are high interest with low vocabulary. In any case, there are a few reding series that have show a lot of promise with our students here at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf:
Jamestown Literature – An Adapted Reader (www.jamestowneducation.com)- It complements the Glencoe Literature (an on level reading series). For us that means that students are covering the same stories as their peers but with some adaptation. The literature is adapted to lower reading levels and teaches critical reading skills, builds background knowledge and reinforces essential vocabulary.
Daybooks of Critical Reading and Writing (www.greatsource.com) They combine high-interest fiction and nonfiction with direct reading and writing instruction. They’re a great way to encourage active, analytical reading and help all students build key reading and writing skills. Also the amount of text tends to be more manageable for our students.


Is there any evidence that providing or exposure to sign language to cochlear implanted children could hinder speech development?

Question from Darlene A. Orange County, CA. Posted August 31, 2009.

Actually, the research is very clear that sign language does not hinder speech development in children with cochlear implants…in fact it may facilitate it. Research from the Nottingham Cochlear Implant Centre has shown that three years after cochlear implantation, deaf children’s spoken language skills are independent of whether they started out signing or utilizing spoken language only. With regard to language after receiving an implant, research has shown that parents and children move toward spoken language after implantation, at least to the extent that it works for the child. When it doesn’t, parents and children (appropriately) move toward sign language. There are a couple of older studies which indicated that deaf children with cochlear implants who were in “oral” settings had better spoken language than others in total communication settings. However, those studies were done back when the children who were received implants were the ones who already were showing particular facility for spoken language, and there is no recent evidence to support that view. In general, sign language can be acquired earlier than spoken language, and may provide a “framework” for early spoken language development. Future research will have to answer that question but, in the meantime, there is no evidence that sign language in any way has negative effects for children or young adults with cochlear implants. With regard to academic achievement, see Marschark, M., Rhoten, C., Fabich, M.  (2007). Effects of cochlear implants on children’s reading and academic achievement. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12, 269-282, available at www.jdsde.oxfordjournals.org

There are various theories about a “window of opportunity for language learning” for children with hearing loss. What proof do we have that this window exists? If it does exist, does a window for the deaf child using a spoken language methodology have the same parameters as a deaf child using a sign language methodology? Can significant language learning occur after the typical window of opportunity has closed (i.e. after 5 years of age)?

Question from Ruth M. Denver, Colorado. Posted June 29, 2009.

In the Philadelphia airport, an English-speaking passenger told me that she gave up hope of teaching her six year old Spanish because someone had told her it was too late after 24 months.  What exactly was too late?  Learning to pronounce Spanish sounds like a native? Learning any Spanish at all?  Language is a highly complex and multi-faceted system, and there are many languages in the world.  When researchers ask if there is a particular age by which language can be learned or not, they typically measure one aspect of one language and then make generalizations.  Although hearing children learn much language by age 5, they learn the bulk of their adult vocabulary at older ages in school and do not master some complex grammatical structures until after the age of five.

Linguistically, we can describe language as being made up of a vast vocabulary, syntactic and morphological rules, and a phonological, or sub-lexical unit, system.  Communicatively, we express language through multiple modes: face-to-face comprehension and self-expression, accompanying gesture, and reading and writing.  It is important to consider this complexity because there are several hypotheses as to what specific aspect of language may be sensitive age of learning.  For example, the ability to pronounce a foreign or second language without an accent appears to depend on the age of language learning, although there are exceptions.  However, the adult ability to use and comprehend a second language depends more on the linguistic overlap between of the first and the second languages and how many years of education are done in the second language than age of learning alone.

What about learning a first language?  From retrospective studies where we measure the language skills of adults in relation to their early linguistic experiences, we know that children need to learn language in early life, any language, regardless of whether it is signed or spoken.  Adults who learned little spoken language during early childhood and then learned sign language at older ages show long-lasting deficits in their ability to comprehend any language, which is linked to lower reading levels and associated with specific cognitive deficits.  Moreover, not learning language in early childhood affects how the brain processes language in adulthood.

There seems to be a gradual decline in the ability to learn language efficiently, rather than an abrupt cutoff, for spoken and signed languages. How much language can be learned after early childhood appears to depend upon how much language was successfully learned in early childhood, regardless of whether it was signed or spoken.  In other words, language learning is cumulative and reciprocal across the languages that a person knows.  The more language a child knows, the easier and quicker he or she can learn additional language and skills, and other languages as well.

Learning a language at an early age is important, but it needs to be functional.  A child with hearing loss may be able to pronounce many speech sounds beautifully but still be in linguistic jeopardy.  Likewise, a child may produce signs in rapid succession but be at risk for comprehension problems.  The question is whether the child understands what is said or signed to him or her at an age appropriate level.  Can the child make himself specifically understood?  All children learn language, signed or spoken, by having lots of daily conversations with other children and adults.  So a child may begin to learn spoken or signed language at an early age, but if the child is not making real progress, this means that the child is not receiving enough linguistic input for language learning.  Children who do not make progress learning a spoken language nearly always learn to sign later.  Although they can produce sign, they often have marked comprehension problems.  How severe these comprehension problems are depends upon how much or little language they acquired at a young age (Mayberry, in press). For more information, see Mayberry, R. I. (in press). Early language acquisition and adult language ability:  What sign language reveals about the critical period for language. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education (Vol. 2). New York: Oxford University Press. and  Mayberry, R. I., Lock, E., & Kazmi, H. (2002). Linguistic ability and early language exposure. Nature, 417, 38.

The ASL specialist at my school insists that research has shown SimCom [simultaneous communication – use of speech and sign together] to be harmful to deaf children’s language and educational growth. True or false?

Question from Name withheld. Posted June 2, 2009.

From Marc: This is a common myth in the field, but one without any evidence to support it. We do know from a couple of early studies in the 1970s that parents and teachers who are not skilled in using speech and sign together say much more than they sign. This would suggest that at least in the hands of novices, simultaneous communication would not provide optimal access to language (although there does not appear to be any published evidence indicating that it either hurts or helps language development). In the educational domain, in contrast, there is abundant evidence that students from middle school through university learn just as much from teachers who are skilled in using simultaneous communication as they do from teachers using ASL. Surprisingly, recent evidence also indicates that high school and college students can learn just as much from text as they do from deaf or hearing teachers using natural sign languages (e.g., ASL or Auslan – Australian Sign Language). This is not one to say that there is anything wrong with using natural sign languages in the classroom, just that language development and learning involves more than just using one mode of communication or another. For more information see Marschark, M. & Wauters, L. (2008). Language comprehension and learning by deaf students. In M. Marschark & P. C. Hauser (Eds.), Deaf cognition: Foundations and outcomes (pp. 309-350). New York: Oxford University Press. (Marc Marschark)

From Barbara: It is difficult to see change coming and fear it won’t be for the better. There are some things you can do that may influence the outcome. First, make sure you have the correct information. Contact the school superintendent or a member of the school board, or someone who is in a position to know what is going on. Confirm whether or not what you heard is true. Share this information with other parents of deaf and hard of hearing children and community members. Meet with the officials who will be making this decision to let them know your views. Usually when proposals like this are put forward there are public meetings. Attend these meetings with other parents and speak up. Write letters.

While the main concern you expressed is about social interactions, there are other issues you may want to raise. You could consider:

  • Given the fact that the program is strong and stable where it is, it would be a mistake to dismantle it and try to reestablish it with new staff in a new environment. The program was in place for (number of) years, and it grew and matured over that time. The services are highquality, and maintaining them on the existing campus – rather than starting up new services on a different campus – will use resources more efficiently. Much would be lost by trying to start it again in a new place. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
  • Transportation time could be an issue. If students are now attending school near their homes but are transferred across the city, the amount of time they spend traveling to and from school could be excessive. Many districts and states have policies limiting the amount of time a child can spend on the bus, so you may want to explore this.

Of course, there is the Individualized Education Program (IEP) as well. The services listed on the children’s IEPs must be provided. IDEA requires that the IEP Team consider the language and communication needs of the child, including opportunities for direct communication with peers and professional personnel in the child’s language and communication mode. Wisconsin uses a document called a communication plan to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing children’s language and communication needs are addressed in the development of the IEP. You can emphasize the opportunities that exist at the current school and the difficulty of ensuring that these opportunities will exist at the new school. So this is not “just” a social issue, it is an issue of language development and the need for these children to develop and maintain age-appropriate language for them to be able to access the general education curriculum and succeed in school. For more information about IDEA requirements, go to www.deafchildren.org, click on Resources, click on Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

During your communications with decision makers of course you should be polite and civil. Offer to work with them to find the best solution for all. Thank them for meeting with you and considering your concerns. Stay in touch with them until the matter is resolved. (Barbara Raimondo, Esq.)

I am a speech-language pathologist. I was wondering if you were aware of any curriculums or programs which are specifically designed to improve the comprehension skills of hard-of-hearing students using an educational interpreter? Currently, I am working with a motivated hard-of-hearing student who is in the process of transitioning to high school. We are fortunate that we have an excellent educational interpreter who has been working with this student for the past five years. Our dilemma at the moment is that the student’s comprehension of sign language and ability to access the information presented by her interpreter is limited. We have recognized this and have built time into her schedule for the past several years for direct instruction in sign language on a 1-1 basis with her interpreter. Her expressive and receptive use of ASL has improved. Now as she is moving into high school, we are looking for a sign language curriculum that will continue to meet her needs and help her build her comprehension skills in the classroom.

The deaf and hard of hearing outreach team for our area is willing to work with us to develop a distance learning class for this student. Until I read some CERP research articles, we were simply looking at a basic ASL class. Now I am wondering if a specific class which incorporates academic vocabulary and strategies for using an interpreter would be more appropriate. Would you know of any course that already exists? In my searches, I find ASL courses for interpreters and other hearing students, but not for the hard-of-hearing.

Question from Emily M., Wisconsin. Posted May 21, 2009.

I am a big fan of teaching grammar and vocabulary in the context of the classroom curriculum.  They could use something like the Signing Naturally 3 but the vocabulary and content in most ASL curriculums are very non-academic.  They focus on social conversation.  Talk about academic topics often entails more complex grammar than social conversation.

I developed an ASL course in my past that focused on topics found in science, social studies, literature, etc.  Students were required to discuss science etc in class using ASL.  We also picked hot topics from magazines and newspapers to discuss in ASL.  Students were required to explain concepts such as how satellites work in ASL, or cell, or the heart, or the Civil War.  We patterned a lot of work on The Pursuit of ASL.

Talking about more technical topics obligates more academic vocabulary and more complex grammar. I would suggest a couple of approaches.

  1. Discuss the student’s course material in ASL, teaching her the vocabulary in ASL.  Just use her textbooks.  Preteach some vocabulary.  After the lesson with the classroom teacher, review the material in ASL.  The grammar would follow naturally.  Then she would have vocabulary specific to her coursework.  A plus is that she would go into the class knowing some vocabulary and would have an opportunity to discuss the concepts after the lesson, but in ASL.
  2. Work through a book like the green book to develop some metalinguistic awareness of ASL grammar.  I still think the green book is the best overview of ASL grammar and is not too complex.  (Baker, C, and Cokely, D. (1980). American Sign Language: a teacher’s resource text on grammar and culture. Silver Spring, MD: T.J. Publishers, Inc., 287-329, 333-357, 363-370. (The most accessible to the average interpreter, with many illustrations and example sentences – accompanying videotape.)
  3. Work through some materials such as “The Pursuit of ASL”, which is a great video that explains scientific concepts in ASL.  This website has some great resources for using classifiers in technical topics, such as this one.