Updated: Oct 12
Often, Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) students face many challenges when it comes to acquiring English and learning to read and write. Identifying and understanding these challenges can lead us to discover ways to combat these challenges, and minimize their future impact.
Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing children are exposed to less language than their hearing classmates.
It may not be surprising to discover that 90-95% of DHH children are born to hearing parents. Most of these parents have little or no exposure to ASL. While many parents begin learning to sign, many others don’t. Those who do learn often don’t rise to the level of fluency. It’s estimated that 70% of parents of DHH children aren’t fluent in ASL.
The determination of parents who learn to sign in order to teach and communicate with their children is admirable, but their work is truly cut out of them. Imagine for a moment you were taking introductory German classes, and then you were immediately expected to begin tutoring someone else in German! This is the struggle these parents face.
Additionally, children are exposed to less modeling of language. People having a conversation are not likely to use ASL to communicate with each other. Many hearing parents, self-conscious of their abilities, are hesitant to use ASL with anyone except their own child.
Since most language acquisition happens in the home, DHH children are at a huge disadvantage. Because language is the foundation for all learning, the result is many DHH children fall behind their peers academically.
Deaf and Hard-of-Hearings students are often developing two languages at once.
Because of this delay in language development, often DHH children must work on strengthening their ASL communications skills while learning to read and write in English at the same time. One way that children whose first language is ASL differ from most other bilingual students is that sign language does not have a written form. This means that even if a student has mastered ASL with perfect fluency, they still will not have acquired the skills necessary for reading and writing.
English and ASL don’t function the same way.
ASL has its own grammar and syntax, ASL omits many features present in English. Like many foreign-language speakers, DHH students must be explicitly taught complicated grammar rules that are picked up passively by children who are exposed to English.
For instance, if you have been exposed to English from early childhood, you may not know what past perfect continuous means, but you can correctly write the sentence, “She had been waiting for bus two hours before it finally showed up.”
ASL has a much smaller vocabulary than English. Because of this, it often recycles words. For instance, the sign for car is the same as a drive. ASL also uses phrases where English might use a single, more specific word.
Mistakes follow a similar pattern.
Because of these linguistic differences, DHH students often make the same mistakes when writing. They tend to use shorter, less complex sentences. Things like subject-verb agreement and a distinction between subject, object, and possessive pronouns (like she, her, and hers) don’t exist in ASL, so they often make grammatical errors. Frequently the subjects and objects of sentences are dropped in ASL when the meaning is implied or understood. This tendency is mirrored in these students’ writing.
SIWI Addresses these unique challenges
There are many teaching methods that focus on teaching English as a second language or teaching students who have experienced interruptions in their education. However, these methods often overlook the specific experience of DHH learners.
The developers of Strategic Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI) have conducted many studies assessing the challenges posed to DHH learners. They have applied their methods and studied their efficacy. Researchers discovered students who used SIWI made significant gains in both ASL communication and English writing. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but an experience individually tailored to the needs of DHH learners.
Marcath encourages anyone and everyone to celebrate and learn sign language. "Learning ASL opens pathways in your brain, enhancing your cognitive skills at any age." Learn more in our blog article 4 Overlooked Benefits of Sign Language.