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Knowledge of Wh-Question Types

Quigley, Wilbur, and Montanelli (1974) found that deaf students’ knowledge of English questions improved with increasing age. With respect to question types, they found deaf students had better knowledge of yes/no questions than of wh-questions. With respect to the wh-word who in a wh-question, Quigley, Wilbur, and Montanelli found that who in subject position was easier for deaf students than who is object position:

EASIER: Who runs the company?

HARDER: Who did the manager hire • ?

As noted above, a question with who in subject position does not contain a gap. A question with who representing object position contains a gap where an explicit object phrase will occur in the answer to that question (The manager hired the college graduate). In addition, an object who question requires a helping verb (for example, did), whereas a subject who question does not.

Quigley, Wilbur, and Montanelli (1974) also found that, for many deaf students, questions with who in subject position were easier than questions beginning with when and where:

EASIER: Who runs the company?

HARDER: When did the companies merge?

HARDER: Where did the secretary put the files?

However, by age 16 the deaf students in their study had equal knowledge of all three of the above sentence types but still had less knowledge of object who questions. Even though object who questions and when and where questions all require a helping verb like did, who represents a required "argument position," whereas when and where represent optional "adjunct positions." This difference between argument and adjunct positions may have a bearing on deaf students’ mastery of wh-questions.

De Villiers (1988) found that deaf students between 6 and 14 years of age almost always produced the right kind of wh-question for the appropriate situation. That is, when students were shown pictures of situations and told to ask a what, where, why, how, or when question, as the case may be, they were quite successful in producing the appropriate question types.

However, when the students were told only to ask "the right question" (but not told which type), they often substituted a what question for one of the other question types. For example, a student might ask:

What did the man use to cut down the tree?

rather than:

How did the man cut down the tree?

With respect to the use of auxiliary verbs and modal verbs in wh-questions, de Villiers (1988) found that deaf students often omitted the auxiliary or modal altogether or else they used the wrong form of the auxiliary or modal. For example, they might ask What do the teacher say?.

In view of the difficulty of English wh-questions for deaf students, LaSasso (1990) provided suggestions for helping deaf students to develop better comprehension of wh-questions. She suggested that teachers should "model" wh-questions by asking a question and then providing the answer. She argued that the more deaf students are exposed to questions and appropriate answers, the better they will become at answering questions.

More Difficult Questioned Positions

Berent (1996b) studied deaf college students’ knowledge of English wh-questions in which the wh-phrase occurs in a variety of positions within a main clause and also within an embedded clause. Questioned positions within a main clause are illustrated in the sentences below.

SUBJECT: Who invested money in your company?

OBJECT: Who did you see • at the business meeting?

OBJ of PREP: Who did you order supplies from • ?

As discussed previously, there is no gap in a sentence like the first one, in which who occurs in the subject position of the main clause. In the second sentence, there is a gap (•) in the object position after the verb see. In the third sentence, there is a gap after the preposition from, further away from the beginning of the sentence.

Berent (1996b) found that deaf college students were very successful in their knowledge of wh-questions targeting the subject position. However, they were less successful in their knowledge of the wh-questions targeting the object and object of preposition positions. These questions contain gaps representing wh-words that have moved up to the beginning of the questions.

On average, deaf college students had even less knowledge of wh-questions targeting positions within an embedded clause. These kinds of questions are illustrated in the following sentences, where the embedded clauses are surrounded by square brackets:

SUBECT: Who does the lawyer think [• invested money in your company]?

OBJECT: Who does the accountant think [you saw • at the business meeting]?

OBJ of PREP: Who does the manager believe [you ordered the supplies from • ]?

In all of these questions, the wh-word has moved out of its logical position within the embedded clause and up to the front of the sentence. The movement from these logical positions within embedded clauses is further than the movement from logical positions within main clauses. Therefore, it seems that deaf students are more successful on question structures involving "shorter movement" than on question structures involving "longer movement."

The most difficult wh-questions for the deaf students were the ones targeting the subject position within an embedded clause. Interestingly, these kinds of questions have two verbs in a row (for example, …think invested … in the example above). It is apparently extremely difficult for deaf students to figure out that the answer for such a question refers to the subject of the second verb, invested.

Berent (1996b) also assessed deaf college students’ knowledge of English wh-questions which begin with a possessive wh-phrase containing whose:

SUBJECT: Whose lawyer invested money in your company?

OBJECT: Whose manager did you see • at the business meeting?

OBJ of PREP: Whose company did you order supplies from • ?

The results indicated that deaf students’ performance on wh-questions containing whose was fairly parallel to their performance on wh-questions containing who. However, overall, the students were more successful in forming wh-questions with who than in forming wh-questions with whose.