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Verb Knowledge Research

National Science Foundation Grant BCS-1251342, September 2013-February 2017

Deaf Learners’ Acquisition of English Verbs and
Their Component Properties

Gerald P. Berent, Principal Investigator
Department of Liberal Studies, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, RIT

Ronald R. Kelly, Co-PI
Master of Science Program in Secondary Education of Students Who Are Deaf/Hard of Hearing, NTID
John Albertini, Co-PI
Dept. of Liberal Studies, NTID
Kathryn L. Schmitz, Co-PI
Associate Dean for Academic Administration, NTID
Stanley Van Horn, Co-PI
Director, RIT English Language Center
Tanya Schueler -Choukairi
RIT English Language Center
Dianna Winslow
Dept. of English, College of Liberal Arts



A verb plays a central role in establishing the form and meaning of a sentence because every verb, along with its meaning, has properties that determine what other structures can occur with it in a sentence and how the whole sentence functions in communicating events. Hearing native speakers naturally acquire the requisite lexical knowledge of English verbs that determines the admissible forms and functions of sentences. However, acquisition of spoken-language knowledge under exceptional circumstances, as with deaf persons, can be compromised because deaf learners have (variably) restricted auditory access to input from the spoken language. Under these circumstances, lower levels of proficiency in the spoken language often result, with potentially serious negative consequences for educational and career success.

To gain a deeper understanding of deaf learners’ lexical acquisition of English verbs, this research project undertakes a comprehensive investigation of deaf college students’ knowledge of isolatable lexical properties of verbs using sentence acceptability rating scale tasks. Deaf learners’ English verb knowledge within and across the relevant lexical domains is compared to the verb knowledge of their hearing college-level peers and hearing second-language (L2) learners of English, whose English acquisition exhibits many parallels with deaf learners’ acquisition. The findings of this research will establish an empirical basis on which to develop more effective methods for teaching English to deaf and L2 students and more fine-grained English language assessments. More effective methods and assessments will contribute to increasing students’ English language and literacy levels, which is critical to their educational and career success.

This grant research is housed in the NTID Center for Studies on Career Success, REACH— Research on Employment and Adapting to Change (Ronald R. Kelly, Ph.D., Director), Rosica Hall 1140.


Deaf Learners’ Acquisition of English Verbs and Their Component Properties


  • Investigate deaf college students’ knowledge of subtle and “hidden” properties of English verbs, lexical knowledge that is largely not “visible” to global assessments of English
  • Determine the relative extents to which deaf (and hearing L2 English) students have acquired specific, isolatable components of lexical verb knowledge
  • Determine variation in verb knowledge within the deaf college student population and what demographic, communication, and personal factors are associated with this variation
  • Identify those specific components of verb knowledge that, if insufficiently acquired, contribute the most to undermining deaf students’ successful English language acquisition


  • Transitive, intransitive (incl. unaccusative and unergative verbs), passive, and middle verbs
  • Semantic roles assumed by different verbs’ arguments (agent, instrument, theme, etc.)
  • Argument realizations and argument alternations exhibited by specific verbs and verb classes
  • Motion events
  • External and internal causation
  • Resultative sentences
  • Linguistic events: states, activities, accomplishments, achievements
  • Verb frequency effects


  • Research results will expand our understanding of deaf (and L2 English) students’ component and composite lexical knowledge of English verbs.
  • Results will reveal detail that is otherwise “invisible” via global assessments of English knowledge and will guide the development of more fine-grained English language assessments for more accurate student placement and evaluation of improvement in English.
  • Results will establish an empirical basis for improving English language teaching methods and materials for deaf (and L2 English) students, especially in the understudied area of vocabulary teaching.
  • These findings will provide guidance for optimizing and accelerating deaf students’ English language and literacy development, which is critical to educational/career success.


For results ofpilot research, see:

Berent, G. P., Kelly, R. R., Albertini, J. A., & Toscano, R. M. (2013). Deaf students’ knowledge of subtle lexical properties of transitive and intransitive English verbs. American Annals of the Deaf, 158(3), 344-362.