Bilingual Education For Deaf Students

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Table of contents

  1. Overview of ASL/English Bilingual Education
  2. Trends
  3. Theoretical Support

The purpose of this study will be to determine if the use of ASL/English bilingualism, promotes literacy in deaf and hard-of-hearing students. This literature review will begin with an overview of bilingual education, followed by a discussion on the benefits and advantages of bilingual practice using the ASL/English approach.

Overview of ASL/English Bilingual Education

When incorporating a bilingual education approach, an institution provides instructions using two languages. Language one is the primary language that is typically used in the individual’s household. Language two is the secondary language that the institution uses as means to instruct the mass of students. In the world of Deaf Education, bilingual education consists of American Sign Language and English. The Clerc Center of Gallaudet University defines the ASL/English bilingual approach as, “A design to facilitate early language acquisition in both a visual language (American Sign Language) and spoken language (English)” (Cler Center).

The topic of bilingual education has been a debatable topic amongst educators for decades. However, before bilingualism ever became a topic of discussion, institutions used Manually Coded English (MCE), or what is often referred to as Signed Exact English (SEE). Manually Coded English is a visual language system that was put in place to reflect English structure and grammar. The conflict with this method was that it did not allow the deaf community to use their first-natural language. Since the inception of the ASL/English bilingualism approach, some argue that when implementing sign language with deaf and hard-of-hearing students, this prevents them from using their speech. To counter this argument, studies have shown an increase in literacy when both languages are used; whether it be simultaneously or using Language 1 to compliment Language 2. Through observations conducted by Hall et al. (2019), “records demonstrate that relying exclusively on spoken language remains an extremely risky proposition for DHH children” (p. 372).

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Due to the implementation of the Universal Newborn Hearing screening process, more babies are being detected with hearing losses than ever before. Unfortunately, even though these early detections, deaf and hard-of-hearing children's literacy rate continues to be very concerning. Lederberg (2012), reports from The Institute of Education Science, since the beginning of the twentieth century, not much has changed in the literacy rate of deaf high school students. Data shows that after deaf and hard-of-hearing students graduate from high school, their reading level is comparable to the average fourth grader. Needless to say, this issue has brought about great concerns. Researchers as well as educators, ponder over which or what approach is most appropriate to address the need for literacy growth in deaf and hard of hearing students. Evan (2004), researched the idea of bilingual education being a practice or merely a theory. It was determined that ASL/English bilingual education is more than just a theory. It is indeed a practice that has been studied by other researchers and used by my educators. However, even with the push to implement the ASL/English bilingual approach, “Only 1–2% of deaf children worldwide receive an education with a sign language as the language of instruction.” (Hall et al., 2019, p. 369).

According to Baker (2011), “Bilingual research has shown that fluency in a first language is a strong predictor of second language skills; competence in a second language is a function of proficiency in a first language” (pg. 3). Further research has shown that early language acquisitions are far more developed in deaf children born to deaf parents than those deaf children who are born to hearing parents. Deaf parents have an established language that immediately establishes language acquisition with their deaf children. Hearing parents who only possess verbal language faces the challenge of not being able to communicate with their children effectively. This is the start of language delay. Oftentimes, these deaf and hard-of-hearing children miss the opportunity for incidental learning. Incidental learning is when a new language and learning take place through informal conversations amongst family members, friends, etc. Through this informal conversation, unintentional learning fosters building language and evidently creates experiences. With these simple dialogues, teachers often use this as a means to activate the students’ prior knowledge. This in turn increases student’s chances of becoming successful academically. However, missed opportunities create educational and social gaps.

Participants of Mounty, Pucci, & Harmon's (2014), study expressed how they felt ASL as a language foundation is critical and it must be fully accessible in both schools and homes. Oftentimes, individuals assume that learning only takes place at school, when in fact most incidental learning takes place at home. Later findings suggested factors that promote bilingual ASL/English proficiency and support deaf students in becoming strong independent readers.

When ASL is the primary language, deaf children excel more academically. In a study conducted by Hrastinski and Wilbur (2016), fluent deaf ASL users were compared to their hearing peers in the areas of reading, language, and math. Results indicated that the fluent deaf students scored at or above average, the same as their hearing counterparts. This particular group of deaf students was exposed to ASL at an early age. When language is established and consistent with any group of children, the opportunity for literacy is afforded.

Theoretical Support

The foundation of Deaf bilingual education is based on a theory of human development. The idea of human development involves analyzing and observing how things (behaviors, culture, language, etc.) stays the same or in fact change. Horejes (2012), noted the importance of incorporating not only ASL/English in deaf children’s education but also to simultaneously incorporate Deaf Culture. Many facets of Deaf Culture involve human behavior (cultural norms, values, grammar). This is what makes Deaf Culture a culture of its own and just like other cultures, Deaf Culture has rules.

American Sign Language is considered an independent language. It has its own sentence structure with rules to follow. These rules are used within the Deaf Culture/Community. If deaf children choose to one day become a part of the Deaf Culture, they need to learn the cultural norms and values.

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