Fingerspelling and Sign Language as Alternative Codes for Reading and Writing Words for Chilean Deaf Signers

Article excerpt

THE STUDY examined the role of sign language and fingerspelling in the development of the reading and writing skills of deaf children and youth. Twenty-six deaf participants (13 children, 13 adolescents), whose first language was Chilean Sign Language (CHSL), were examined. Their dactylic abilities were evaluated with tasks involving the reading and writing of dactylic and orthographic codes. The study included three experiments: (a) the identification of Chilean signs and fingerspelled words, (b) the matching of fingerspelled words with commercial logos, and (c) the decoding of fingerspelled words and the mapping of these words onto the writing system. The results provide convergent evidence that the use of fingerspelling and sign language is related to orthographic skills. It is concluded that fingerspelling can facilitate the internal representation of words and serve as a supporting mechanism for reading acquisition.

Deaf people use systems of communication based on sign language and fingerspelling. In sign language, lexical units are made up of a finite set of hand configurations, spatial locations, and movements. Manual spelling, or "fingerspelling," is a system based on the alphabet in which each letter is represented by a unique and discrete movement of the hand. The signing Deaf community integrates fingerspelling into sign language for many reasons: when a concept lacks a specific sign, for proper nouns, for loan signs, or when signs are ambiguous. Additionally, fingerspelling is used to form distinctions within a semantic category. In some sign languages-for example, American Sign Language (ASL) and Swedish Sign Language-a fingerspelled word often demonstrates a semantic contrast with an existing sign, thus making use of borrowed vocabulary to expand the lexicon of the deaf.

The acquisition of fingerspelling was examined by Padden and Hanson (1999) in a study involving deaf children between the ages of 8 and 14 years. That study confirmed that younger children made more mistakes than older children when writing fingerspelled words-a difference that was more pronounced for low-frequency words. Younger children understood the words (including uncommon ones), but they had difficulty writing them. This indicates that the ability to write fingerspelled words requires more training, which younger children lack.

Preschool-aged deaf signers begin using simple handshapes that represent words, and then spell out words letter by letter (Maxwell, 1984; Padden & Le Master, 1985). This group is able to store short dactylic representations and to memorize simple handshapes, but productive fingerspelling (series of complex handshapes), which is necessary for constructing the dactylic representations of words, does not appear until knowledge of written words has been attained. A noteworthy finding of several studies (Musselman, 2000; Padden & Ramsey, 2000; Ramsey, 2004) is that the development of fingerspelling is not observed in orally educated populations; its development is much more relevant in groups who have a good command of sign language. Perhaps one of the most interesting discoveries regarding the early use of fingerspelling by deaf children is the fact that they are aware of the movements of fingerspelled words before being able to associate these words with their written form (Akamatsu, 1985; Maxwell, 1984, 1986, 1988).

The idea of using fingerspelling and sign language as elements of a strategy designed to teach the deaf to read is controversial. The main difficulty in teaching the deaf to read arises from the fact that, in order for the reader to acquire both specific and nonspecific reading skills, he or she must develop a phonological awareness that will make it possible to think about and manipulate the structural aspects of spoken language (Hoover & Gough, 1990). A bilingual education model has been proposed to compensate for deaf students' deficiencies in this respect. …