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 A.R., London

My grandaughter is aged four, has deaf parents, and high level BSL which is her first language. Her levels have been assessed as being approximately two years above her age in terms of her language acquisition.We are currently requesting that she is taught in a mainstream class with a high level interpreter in a bilingual setting but have been offered CSW’s with BSL level 2/3. Where can we find research/evidence to back up our request that she needs a highly skilled interpreter to go from one language to the other and therefore help her to acquire English as her second language, rather than a low level communication support worker which we have been told is all that a primary aged child needs?

Question from A.R., London. Posted August 21, 2013.
Response from Ros Herman - City University London

I am not aware of research that evaluates the merits of a Communication Support Worker (CSW) compared with a Sign Language Interpreter. Although the titles and job descriptions of each of these speak for themselves, and in theory at least, a CSW is appropriate for some deaf children, in practice, there are very few CSWs with sufficiently high levels of sign language to meet the needs of children such as your granddaughter. Then again, there are few high-level interpreters who work in school settings.

The difference between the two roles is that a CSW is there to support communication, which is particularly necessary for deaf children with less well developed language. In these cases, the CSW may simplify the language used in class as needed in order to help the deaf child’s learning and language development. The CSW often goes beyond translation to provide additional explanations so that the child knows what to do or understands what s/he is meant to learn in class. In contrast, a sign language interpreter is there to translate directly from one language to another, normally without simplifying or modifying the language in any way. With an interpreter translating exactly what is said in class by the teacher and the other pupils, the deaf child has exactly the same access to information as any other child in the classroom. Importantly, the SLI will expose your granddaughter to all the complexities of classroom language that she needs to further develop her own language and this will also help her when she comes to learning to read English. A CSW with inadequate signing skills may oversimplify classroom language which can then limit language development. A final point of difference is that a CSW typically sits alongside the deaf child in class to support them whereas the interpreter stands next to the teacher. The advantage of the interpreter being positioned next to the teacher is that a deaf child has the possibility of watching both, thereby developing speechreading skills for improved understanding of spoken English.

There certainly is research to indicate that exposure to higher levels of language leads to better language development (e.g. Wood et al 1986) and also that higher language levels are associated with better literacy levels among deaf children – this is true for deaf children who communicate using spoken language (e.g. Daneman et al, 1995; Gravenstede & Roy, 2009) and those who use sign language (e.g. Strong & Prinz, 2000). Finally, there is also research that shows that better speechreading, particularly at a young age, is an important predictor of reading in deaf children (e.g. Harris & Moreno, 2006; Kyle & Harris 2010).