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Dolch Words for Deaf Children

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Dolch words, also known as sight words, are common connectors and function words that make up 50 to 75 percent of the text in children’s books. These words have been used in deaf education for more than 30 years to ensure basic understanding and familiarity with English grammar. Dolch words are typically presented in three lists for grades one through three. For example, first grade words include: are, after, again, an, any, as, ask, of, by and could.

Different Grammars
Some of these words do not have equivalents in American Sign Language, as the grammars of English and ASL differ. In ASL, many connection terms such as “and” or “be” are discarded as unnecessary, because their function in ASL is implied by hand shapes or movement. In deaf education, Dolch words are used to strengthen bilingual development by providing greater exposure to elements of English vocabulary and grammar.

Manually Coded English
Various sign systems, collectively referred to as manually coded English, have been created to bolster English comprehension. Some examples include Seeing Essential English, Signing Exact English, Cued Speech, Conceptually Accurate Signed English and the Rochester Method. These sign systems are not languages, but serve as adjuncts to ASL by enabling “codeswitching,” a way to bridge the difference between English and ASL. MCE systems devise signs that are Dolch word equivalents. In the context of ASL they appear awkward, but can help deaf students develop a “feel” for the rhythm of English grammar.

Beyond Vocabulary
It is not enough to simply expose deaf children to Dolch words. It’s important to ensure students fully understand them conceptually, with a firm grasp of meaning and ability to use them appropriately in context. Research the optimum ways to accomplish this is ongoing. The Reading Milestones series incorporates Dolch words and has been the primary text for teaching English to deaf students for over three decades. While little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of this program, results are consistent – most prelingually deaf adults read English at a third- to fourth-grade level. This does not reflect intelligence levels, but rather a failure of existing systems to convey English in an accessible way to deaf students.

Conceptual Approach
Two conceptually based vocabulary instruction approaches incorporating Dolch words have been attempted: the Cornerstone system and the commercial Fairview Reading Program. Both lack comprehensive studies to evaluate effectiveness, but have attracted attention from educators as alternatives to existing practices. One study utilizing this general approach was conducted with six students in Ohio in 2010 and reported positive results, however.

Beyond Dolch
Dolch words have proved useful in some respects, but current practices yield clearly dismal results. The Visual Language and Visual Learning Lab at Gallaudet University is conducting basic research into the nature of language development, and results are already providing useful insights for new approaches. Anecdotally, the most effective technique for building strong English reading and writing skills among prelingually deaf children is an old-fashioned one – reading stories together with parents.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 10:58 pm

Activities That Teach Deaf or Hard of Hearing Children to Write

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

In the early stages, teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children to write is similar to the techniques for hearing children. The manual alphabet and the written alphabet work together well — there is a manual equivalent for all 26 letters. However, hearing children, and to some extent hard-of-hearing children, can learn parts of words through sound, a technique that is not accessible for deaf children. English grammar is ordinarily learned by hearing it. The traditional approach has been to teach deaf students general rules of grammar, such as subject-verb-object word order. This can be confusing for students when they encounter the numerous deviations from general rules.

Manual Alphabet
For someone who already knows the manual alphabet, the teaching activity is simple — point to the printed letter, show the sign for the letter. Deaf children normally learn this at the same pace as their hearing peers. Supplemental materials such as children’s alphabet books, are helpful because colors and images aid memorization. For both deaf and hard-of-hearing students, the learning process for writing letters is a motor activity and proceeds as it does with hearing children — a lot of scribbling, followed by attempts that vaguely resemble letters. With encouragement and standard connect-the-dots guides, children refine their technique and letters come into focus.

Using American Sign Language as a linguistic base also helps hard-of-hearing children because they are likely missing some percentage of speech. That gap can be filled in by ASL. For both deaf and hard-of-hearing students, ASL makes it possible to discuss the meaning of printed English words. A simple activity for vocabulary is a stack of flash cards with printed words. Show the word, share the ASL equivalent and discuss the meaning of the word in ASL. As a child’s vocabulary grows, have him write the word and meaning to reinforce memorization of spelling and definition. In English, many words — called homonyms — have multiple meanings. You can show the word in both sign and print, then discuss the different meanings. For example, “bat” could mean a flying animal or an object to hit a baseball. Have him write the word, then draw images of different meanings of the word.

Sentences are where grammar enters, and where the sequence and hierarchy of instruction diverges from techniques for hearing children. A useful visual tool for teaching grammar are grammar mind maps. These serve as grammar flow charts, showing how meaning changes depending on how a sentence is structured. Because it’s visual, it’s best to see examples to understand how to create these (see Resources). Progressive English instructors in deaf classrooms are working with other ways to make it easier to visualize English grammar. An example is called manipulative visual language, a system that uses colored shapes to help identify and recognize grammatical patterns. A good home activity that makes learning grammar accessible at an early age is the use of word magnets on refrigerators. Encourage children to create their own sentences, then show how their sentences are structured in English. This gives them a basis to compare, contrast and ask questions.

During these activities, your ongoing encouragement and warm praise for students as they learn is their greatest reward. Patience and persistence is important too, for both instructor and student. When a student gains the conviction that they can write well, it can happen. Your effort and support are essential ingredients.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:51 pm