The results of Berent (1983) indicate that deaf college students continue to have difficulty in properly interpreting some very basic English sentence structures, even those that exhibit seemingly straightforward grammar and that contain common, high-frequency words. The students' overall low performance on two of the sentences that contain the verb ask is quite remarkable. These are sentences in which ask expresses a request for information because it is followed by an infinitive clause that begins with a WH-word.
Tom asked Bill what to buy. (25%)
Larry was asked where to sit. (20%)
The potential misinterpretation of such sentences can have significant consequences for students' comprehension of reading materials used in their courses. Remember that this study assessed the abilities of deaf college students. If deaf college students can misinterpret such fundamental English structures, we might anticipate that the average performance of younger deaf students could be considerably lower.
Unlike problems of written production, it is important to emphasize that problems with the comprehension of the kinds of sentences studied in Berent (1983) can go totally unnoticed by educators. As with all potential problems of reading (or any receptive) comprehension, we never know to what extent low academic performance is a consequence of poor English comprehension or a result of some other academic variable. Teachers of deaf students must be knowledgeable of these kinds of "invisible" English problems and attempt to determine both the nature of their students' English skills and the difficulty levels of the reading material used in their courses.
As noted, sentences containing infinitive clauses are common English sentence structures, and the grammatical formations involved are quite straightforward. Therefore, it should be easy for teachers of deaf students to demonstrate and model the kinds of sentences discussed in this module within the context of their course content. By focusing on infinitive clauses that follow high-frequency English verbs such as ask, tell, explain, etc., teachers of deaf students can use the vocabulary and content of their own courses to illustrate, explain, and reinforce some of the grammatical principles involved in interpreting infinitive clauses. This effort can be extremely valuable to the effort to support deaf students' continuing English acquisition both in the English classroom and in the content classroom.