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.

Question from O.M., Kenya

I am a teacher for deaf children in Kenya and looking at English compositions written by most deaf children in our school now and in the past, most tend to take the sign language structure. Is there any research which has been carried out to find the relationship between sign language and written English and how can I access it?

Question from O.M., Kenya. Posted December 31, 2011.
Response from Connie Mayer - York University

Many teachers notice that children will write the way they sign. Teachers can sometimes read and understand these texts, but because they are not written in standard English, they are often not understood by readers who do not know sign language.

A considerable amount of research has been done describing the nature of this writing and the writing of DHH children in general (see Mayer, 2010 for a recent review).  As to the issue of the relationship between signed language and written English, it is worth thinking about this from two perspectives –meaning (content) and form (syntax, grammar etc.).  Children can discuss and develop the ideas for what they will write about in a natural signed language (e.g., ASL. BSL). This can be helpful in the planning stage of writing. But when it comes to writing down these ideas, children need to have control of English as well. If they are generating ideas in a natural sign language, they will need to translate these ideas into English before they write them down.  This can be very challenging and there is evidence of interference from the L1 (e.g., ASL) to the L2 (e.g., English). This can make it look like “sign language written down.”

Suggestions for further reading:

Mayer, C. (2010). The demands of writing and the deaf writer. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education: Volume 2 (pp. 144-155). New York: Oxford University Press.

Mayer, C. (1999). Shaping at the point of utterance: An investigation of the composing processes of the deaf student writer. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4, 37- 49.

Singleton, J.L., Morgan, D., DiGello, E., Wiles, J. & Rivers, R. (2004). Vocabulary use by low, moderate and high ASL-proficient writers compared to hearing ESL and monolingual speakers. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 9, 86-103.