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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics

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

The Advantages of Early Intervention for Deaf Children

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The importance of early intervention for deaf children is universally accepted, but controversy persists over which forms of intervention are best for the child. The deaf community strongly emphasizes a linguistic approach, giving priority to early exposure to language. The medical model emphasizes an auditory approach that prioritizes the ability to speak and hear. Most researchers agree that language acquisition occurs early. Children who do not reach common linguistic milestones as toddlers lag their peers in language skills. If the delay is severe, the lag can become permanent. Early intervention is focused on preventing this stunted communication growth. The debate centers around the benefits and drawbacks of linguistic and auditory approaches.

Linguistic Intervention
The advantage of the linguistic approach is that American Sign Language is a complete, natural language fully on par with spoken languages. Exposure to ASL introduces the child to language immediately, creating a foundation for the later addition of other languages. With family engagement and daily face-to-face communication, ASL is a first step toward full literacy. With the language base secured, it becomes possible to learn the grammar, vocabulary and idiosyncrasies of other languages, particularly English.

The common fear is that learning ASL will inhibit the understanding of English. But the opposite is true — ASL enhances English learning. Bilingualism has demonstrated benefits in communication as well as brain development and the ability to monitor the environment. The grammar of ASL is expressed in three dimensions, a useful mode of expression not available in English. Rather than generate confusion, knowledge of multiple grammars enhances mental agility.

Auditory Intervention
Auditory early intervention relies on technology to deliver sound perception and intensive training to detect patterns through speech reading. This typically means hearing aids for mild to severe hearing impairment or cochlear implants for profoundly deaf children. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration permits implants as early as 12 months as of 2013. The advantage of the auditory approach is the network effect. Most people rely on speech and hearing to communicate. Children with the capacity to participate in this network have broader access to the resources of the network and the people in it.

Combined Strengths
Parents of a newborn deaf child are faced with the task of sorting out which early intervention strategy they feel is best. If they are hearing, as 90 percent of parents with deaf children are, the prospect of learning ASL can be daunting. Implants require invasive surgery in the skull with variable results, depending on age of implantation, condition of the auditory nerve, degree of recipient’s familiarity with sound and speech, post-operational mapping process and several other factors. Speech reading is most effective for children with mild to moderate levels of hearing impairment.

If the decision is made to go forward with hearing aids or an implant, a hybrid approach that includes ASL exposure may confer the greatest advantage. Current auditory technology is not equivalent to full hearing. Broadly, the effect has been to deliver the equivalent of being hard-of-hearing, leaving critical gaps in comprehension when relying on speech reading and hearing alone. ASL can help fill these gaps, especially during early development when language access is crucial.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 10:35 pm

Learning Language in a Home With Deaf Parents

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

Ninety percent of children born to deaf parents have normal hearing. Not all deaf adults converse in sign language, but in homes where they do, children grow up bilingual. American Sign Language is often their first language. Because spoken language is so common, children easily acquire speech through interaction with other family members, playmates, day care, movies and television. Dr. Laura-Ann Pettito, a neuroscientist doing research on the biological basis of language, says “Study after study showed that for every level of language organization, signed languages and spoken languages were using the identical brain tissue.”

American Sign Language
ASL is a complete language, distinct from English, with its own grammar, sentence structure, expression of tenses and time. It is a three-dimensional language, which enables conceptual constructs not available to spoken language. Children — deaf and hearing alike — who learn ASL as their first language arrive at common linguistic development milestones at the same pace that spoken language milestones are reached. At 3 to 6 months, they are “fingerbabbling” in imitation of finger-spelling, At 6 to 12 months, they will gesture. First signed words appear at about 8 months, with 10 or more understood and expressed signs at 12 months. In a paper titled “Milestones of Language Development,” researchers report that, “The phonology, syntax, semantics, morphology and pragmatic aspects of language are acquired around 4 years of age whether the parental input is in sign or spoken language”

It is now widely recognized that bilingualism boosts mental agility and flexibility. As Pettito states, “It’s almost as if the monolingual child’s brain is on a diet and the bilingual child’s brain stretches to the full extent and variability that Mother Nature gave it to use language and exploit human language.” For children, the process of learning signed and spoken language at the same time is natural and intuitive. Bilingual children in deaf households respond to ASL in ASL, to speech with speech, and switch between them as needed. Because this requires more active monitoring of their environment, they do monitoring tasks better and more efficiently than their monolingual peers.

Deaf Children
Early exposure to English is important for deaf children. A helpful tool in this area is the availability of captions and subtitles in movies and televisions. Early recognition of the differences between English and ASL grammar supports strong reading and writing skills later. Parental involvement matters, too. By sharing children’s books, the text can be signed and read in English, providing a bridge of understanding between both communication modes. In a 2000 study titled “American Sign Language and Reading Ability in Deaf Children,” a strong correlation was found between deaf children of deaf parents and higher reading achievement scores. Deaf parents have no need to “get up to speed” on the use of ASL as a language, so ASL development in their children begins immediately. This early acquisition of language facilitates learning English and reading skills later.

Children of Deaf Parents
Children of deaf adults have a special role in the deaf community. As hearing children of deaf parents, they learn to juggle relationships with hearing and deaf individuals, institutions, cultural norms and languages. They might have deaf or hearing siblings, or both; they often grow up with both deaf and hearing friends. They are not only bilingual, they are bicultural. Among professional sign language interpreters, children of deaf adults are common. Growing up with deaf parents gives them a native’s grasp for the subtleties and nuances of ASL, and their grasp of both English and ASL is strong enough that they can earn a living interpreting between them.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:45 pm