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Word Knowledge


By Eugene Lylak, Ed.D.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

English vocabulary acquisition is critical to the development of word knowledge and is needed by deaf learners to become at least marginally successful readers of English. Among the many skills needed to become a fluent reader, the ability to accurately identify word meaning is particularly important. The strategies that readers use to build up their word knowledge are honed from birth through the post-secondary school years and beyond by making full use of both the auditory and visual channels of perception. Many deaf people are able to make use of their residual hearing to complement their visual perception of English words, but often their complete acquisition of English lags behind hearing individuals, who have full access to both auditory and visual input.

Both "top-down" and "bottom-up" theorists place important emphasis on the role of decoding print as one of the fundamental skills for developing reading comprehension. In the process of constructing meaning from print, word knowledge plays a central role. Trying to identify and report on the exact role of each of the skill areas needed for deaf students to become fluent users of English is an intricate and time-consuming task that has yet to be accomplished by reading researchers. What has already been documented has yet to be put into a definitive format for the everyday classroom teacher to use.

However, a useful discussion of the development of word knowledge in deaf learners could focus on the mastery of a number of word-based variables. "Morphology" is one such critical variable. Knowledge of the basic constituent of words, the "morpheme," should be a major focus in many classrooms for deaf students. Morpheme knowledge is a building block in the development of word knowledge.

Morpheme analysis may be a viable approach for improving deaf students' word knowledge because the morphological structure of English is more apparent to deaf readers in its "orthographic" (written or printed) representation. Morphological structure can be accessed visually by deaf students in their reading and appears more regular and stabile once the rules governing English morphology are learned.

What follows is a brief description of basic reading models and their indirect reliance on morphological structures as a core component to increasing word knowledge. Then a brief review of some of the relevant morphological research studies of deaf students will set the framework for suggestions to teachers on how to provide classroom practice for "morphographic" development. This module also contains Guided Practice exercises that allow site visitors to identify and combine English morphemes to create words.

Major Considerations

1. Increasing word knowledge is a complex, on-going process for all users of English, no matter what their fluency level.

2. Because much of the nuance and repetition that is required for increasing word knowledge takes place in a phonological (auditory) environment, deaf people cannot fully benefit from everyday exposure to the word-learning environment.

3. Various reading models are in effect to a greater or lesser degree in most English language learning programs for deaf students, but there is no conclusive evidence as to which of the models would produce the most successful development of word knowledge in deaf students.

4. Two basic models are considered to explain the extent of the relationship between word knowledge and reading ability. Among others, the "instrumentalist (bottom-up) model" and the "knowledge (interactive) model" are employed to some extent in contemporary classrooms for deaf students.

5. Instrumentalist models applied to word knowledge schema in many classrooms for deaf students have not significantly improved the vocabulary levels of a great majority of the deaf population.

6. The two (instrumentalist and knowledge) models are applicable across broad areas of lexical development, and each necessarily, but indirectly, deals with morphemes and the meanings of common morphographic changes within words, for example, word inflections and the changes that inflectional and derivational endings produce in assigning new word meaning. Likewise, these models can be useful in suggesting practice scenarios for morpheme skill development.

7. Using morphographic anyalsis may improve the word knowledge skills of deaf students by providing techniques that they can apply in a consistent, sensible manner to improve their English word knowledge.