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.

Alternative Communication Systems

My son has a bilateral, severe hearing loss and will be entering the third grade. His second grade teacher suggested that cued speech might help with his reading, which is really hard for him. She says cued speech easy to learn, but it sounds too good to be true. Is it?

Question from Ginny R. Littleton, NC. Posted June 19, 2009.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

It has been estimated that only about 20% of English is fully visible on the lips (which is what makes lip reading or “speech reading” so difficult). Cued speech is a system of hand shapes and positions intended to make mouth movements unambiguous, for example, by adding different cues to “b,” “m,” and “p.”  (Note, these are not signs!) Cueing clearly helps with speech reception although, interestingly, most cued speech kids I have encountered do not cue themselves (that is, they do not use it when they speak). There is a wealth of evidence from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and a little from Spain, indicating that when cued speech is used both at school and at home, it significantly improves reading in deaf children. However, despite 40 years of trying, no one has ever shown it to help reading for children who are learning English. The folks in Belgium have suggested that this is because French (and Spanish and Italian) are very regular in their sound-to-spelling correspondences, while English is one of the most irregular languages. Add that to the fact that English has well over five times as many words as French, and the situation is not so surprising. Unfortunately, people hear about the French results and assume  they apply to English.  For more information on cued speech, language, and literacy, see the review by Jacqueline Leybaert and Jesus and Alegria in the Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education Oxford University Press, 2003, edited by M. Marschark & P.E. Spencer).

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.)