Deaf students' difficulties mastering written English skills are well-documented (Bochner, 1982; Maxwell & Falick, 1992; Moores, 1982; Musselman & Szanto, 1998; Paul & Quigley, 1990). Traditionally, studies examining deaf students' written English have focused on structural items such as vocabulary and syntax rather than a functional analysis of the text, that is to say, how well the writer's message is understood (Maxwell & Falick, 1992). More recently, however, researchers have analyzed the communicative success of one kind of writing produced by deaf students, the narrative.
While the above studies focus on a single rhetorical mode-the chronologically ordered, often experientially based story-they make several points that can be applied to other modes of composition. These points are:
1. Linguistic cohesion is an area of textual weakness in deaf students' writing and one which can interfere with message delivery (Maxwell & Falick, 1992).
2. Story sequencing (rhetorical organization) and cause/result relationships are weak areas in deaf students' writing (Klecan-Aker & Blondeau, 1990; Cambra, 1994)
3. Deaf students benefit from the teaching of the structure and format of rhetorical modes (see the Cambra study and Mayer, 1999).
The Maxwell and Falick Study
Maxwell and Falick (1992) compared narrative texts from hearing and deaf children to discover a rationale for how these texts might differ beyond the obvious fact that deaf children lack the experience of hearing. These authors examined the linguistic devices used by deaf and hearing students to make their texts cohere. That is, they compared the quantitative and qualitative use of cohesive devices-or how text is tied together so that it functions as a single and meaningful unit-in summaries of first-hand experiences (retelling a movie plot).
The authors' focus on cohesive devices is based on their belief that deaf students frequently lack a clear understanding of the communicative function of their writing, which likely stems from how they are taught. According to Maxwell and Falick, deaf students are traditionally taught grammatical structures out of context. As a result, while students can reproduce the structure, they frequently do not understand how that structure functions in written communication.
Results of the study showed that, while there were not significant quantitative differences between hearing and deaf students' use of these cohesive devices, there were qualitative differences. Although the deaf students used cohesive devices, their use was very basic. For example, deaf students used significantly fewer conjunctions, devices that presuppose the presence of other components, in discourse. They almost exclusively used and, then and because to conjoin ideas, while hearing students used too, also, or, nor, for instance, after that, just then, suddenly, at…time, finally, at last, in the end, so, for, and then.
The authors concluded that, despite the cohesive devices used, deaf students' texts seemed to lack overall contextual unity. They suggested that deaf students' difficulties in writing may be in part attributable to lack of exposure to a wide variety of written discourse models rather than to the sentence elements within the text.
The Klecan-Aker and Blondeau Study
A second study on deaf students' written narratives (Klecan-Aker & Blondeau, 1990) analyzed samples three ways:
1. Using a T-unit analysis which looks at independent clause (sentence) length
2. Using an adaptation of story grammar components, or rules that define the structure of a narrative
3. Using Klecan-Aker's own classification system for differentiating and categorizing children's narratives
Results of this study showed that deaf students used both fewer clauses and fewer words per T-unit than their hearing peers. Results also showed that students experienced problems with one part of the story grammar, the internal response or feelings of the main character that motivate the action.
The researchers posited that students' inability to state these internal responses was reflected in their inability to successfully use subordination (dependent clauses), because subordination reflects more abstract use of English. Klecan-Aker and Blondeau also found that the majority of stories analyzed could be classified as true narratives, a developmentally advanced stage of this writing mode.
The Cambra Study
The results of Cambra (1994) underscore the importance of actively teaching specific points of writing. Cambra's study was divided into three parts: (a) a pre-test, (b) intervention activities, and (c) a post-test. Pre- and post-tests were written samples. The intervention activities focused on the structure of the narrative and included such areas as cause/result relationships and sequencing as well as writing strategies like the use of linguistic cohesion.
Results of the study showed an improvement in students' organization and an improvement in use of the story elements (parts of the narrative) following intervention activities. The study reaffirmed the difficulty deaf students have in recalling elements of an episode. It also showed that students do not always understand the meaning of what they have read. This was evidenced by the students' introduction of new characters and other elements in their retellings.
The Mayer study
Mayer (1999) examined the compensatory strategies used by deaf writers. Mayer noted that less proficient second language writers have to struggle with the demands of "communicating content under the production constraints of operating in a second language in which the fundamental aspects of lexicon, syntax and grammar do not yet operate with relative automaticity" (p. 39.). Mayer suggested that there likely is a threshold level of proficiency in a second language necessary before the writer is able to attend to the task of composing.
To better understand how deaf students compose, Mayer videotaped two students while they composed and then used the videotape as a prompt for student verbal reports on their composing process. The two students reported that they remembered what teachers had taught them and consciously used it in their composing process. One student also reported that direct instruction helped her structure parts of her text. The students also reported remembering experiences with texts and applying those experiences to their writing.
The author concluded that previous experience with reading and writing affected the students' current writing experience. She further concluded that direct instruction in writing plays a significant role in subsequent student production.
Research has not examined deaf students' writing beyond retellings and experiential narratives. That is to say, to date, available research does not include a functional analysis of academic writing in the rhetorical modes discussed in this module. While speculative, it is nevertheless reasonable to assume that deaf students' difficulties with writing earmarked by the above studies would also be found in more exacting and complex kinds of writing. It is further reasonable to assume that, if deaf students benefit from activities that teach to problematic areas in narrative structure, they might equally benefit from direct teaching in other rhetorical modes.