A presentation at the National Strategy for Early Literacy (NSEL) public consultation
In Edmonton, Alberta, March 9, 2009
by David G. Mason
The role of this submission is to promote that there is a way to improve the literacy of Deaf children, adolescents and adults other than the traditional assumption that the only way for them to acquire/develop literacy skills is first through learning to hear speech sounds. Evidence that shows that the use of American Sign Language supports ASL-based and English-based literacy acquisition/development is ever-present typically outside the traditional formal schooling jurisdiction. The traditional aural-oral (or its current version, “listening and speaking”) English approach has the history of resulting Deaf persons ending up with low English literacy skills by the time they are out of school.
Background information: Deaf persons with or without hearing aids or cochlear implants, including those who have some speech skills, continue with their struggling English literacy skills that are not at par with the English literacy skills of their hearing counterparts even after years of being restricted to training to hear and speak English. The incidence of Deaf persons who read and write English well tends to be lower than that of those who acquire and adapt with ASL literacy skills and English literacy skills. This implies that the professionals charged with the responsibilities to support Deaf persons’ literacy acquisition and development need to take notice that the emphasis on training Deaf children to listen and speak can hardly be justified given the inevitability of such children having positive experience with both ASL literacy and English literacy. The problem is that there are hearing professionals and entrepreneurs who have vested interests in their own design hearing-centered objectives for Deaf children and their control over it. These hearing adults do not experience living as Deaf persons; yet, they decide what is best for them based on their hearing-centered perspectives. History shows that the continuing support of the schooling model that restricts Deaf students to training to use the aural-oral/listening-speaking approach is inconsistent with underlying pedagogical principles.
Estimates of the expected impacts include: Given the fact that it is not unusual for Deaf persons to have American Sign Language literacy skills that are at par with their “normal” hearing counterparts’ English literacy skills, it makes sense to allow Deaf children to start acquiring and using ASL from the very beginning of their lives. With such early start with ASL acquisition and use, they will likely start acquiring and developing their English literacy skills as part of their formal schooling process in ASL-English bilingual education much earlier during their crucial developmental stage.
Proposed actions related to conceptualizing and implementing schooling processes with ASL and English need to involve ASL-proficient Deaf adults who also use English as paid/compensated leadership partners in all the phases of curriculum/guideline reviews, adjustments/modifications and developments, as well as in all the follow-through phases including implementing phases. Ideally, these people would work with/for the Ministry of Education and the school boards through the developmental stages and with teachers at schools like Alberta School for the Deaf as part of the implementing phase. Speech Language Pathologists and Auditory-Verbal Therapists are already involved as “service providers” at schools. Given the history of such limited success rate with their approach, they cannot make better quality contributions than Deaf adults can. The latter have first-hand experience becoming bilingually versatile and adaptable with ASL and English—as Deaf persons.
Expected impacts on Deaf students’ literacy performance will be positive. As evidence such Deaf students demonstrate through how they use ASL to support their acquisition and appreciation of English, a language that is available in them wide variety of academic materials. They will show more confidence with their advanced thinking, problem solving skills and other academic-related skills. Caution: the use of “hearing-normed” tests may be inappropriate simply because these are normed on the basis of hearing students’ experience with their naturally acquired spoken language skills. How Deaf persons experience with English literacy is not the same as how their hearing counterparts experience with it. This implies that funding needs to be available to enable such Deaf adults to prepare themselves for their participation in developing appropriate types of tests for Deaf students.
Available resources: There are available resources required for such actions. There are many adequately educated ASL-English using Deaf persons who are readily available or will be available as resource to support the above-mentioned stages.
Students’ performance: How they do it can be assessed/evaluated in several different ways, either through English or ASL. For example, the students who use ASL to support their English will use ASL to show their understanding of information/knowledge encoded in printed English. At least one prototype test to assess how the use of ASL affects Deaf participants’ reading and comprehension of figurative English samples. This is one of several ways to monitor and evaluate and to improve on the ways.
Theoretical underpinnings: This submission is based on an interpretation of Cummins’ Cognitive and Contextual Demands model (1996). The Context Embedded and Context Reduced continuum, as diagrammatically depicted in the model, is within the scope of this discussion. Metaphorically the students move along an imaginary continuum line toward/away from the Context Embedded resource and the Context Reduced resource, depending on extent of their need for contextual support from external sources. How the use of American Sign Language (ASL) enhances comprehension, use and appreciation of information/knowledge encoded in printed academic English is an example of contextual support through a language the persons have confidence with.
Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society. Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.
Mahshie, Shawn. (1995). Educating Deaf Children Bilingually: With Insights and Applications. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.
Brueggemann, Brenda (1994). Literacy and Deaf People: Cultural and Contextual Perspectives. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.