College Teachers' Perceptions of English Language Characteristics That Identify English Language Learning Disabled Deaf Students

Article excerpt

Deaf individuals typically experience English language difficulties at all levels of linguistic knowledge. Hearing individuals with English language learning disabilities (ID) can exhibit the same kinds of English language difficulties as deaf individuals. Although the existence of deaf individuals who also have LD has long been recognized, no definite criteria for identifying them exist, partly because of the confounding effects of deafness and ID on English language development. Despite the confound, previous surveys suggest that teachers believe atypical English-language behavior is a potential diagnostic marker for ILD in deaf individuals. In the present study, a survey solicited the intuitions of experienced teachers and tutors of English to deaf college students regarding the degree of difficulty deaf students with and without LD might be expected to have in dealing with 30 specific English language phenomena. Spelling knowledge and a variety of English discourse, lexical, syntactic, and morphological phenomena emerged as candidates for further study as potential markers of ID in the deaf population.

The existence of individuals with language learning disabilities (LD)1 in the deaf2 population has been recognized for many years by teachers, researchers, and other professionals who work with deaf children and adults (Samar, Parasnis, & Berent, 1998). However, the identification of LD in the deaf population3 continues to be a vexing problem, and there are no clearly defined criteria for identifying deaf students who have LD (Elliott, Powers, & Funderburg, 1988; Mauk & Mauk, 1992; Powers, Elliott, & Funderburg, 1987; Samar et al., 1998).

This lack of criteria is partly due to the fact that virtually the same problems with English language forms, structures, and usage patterns exhibited by deaf individuals (Berent, 1988, 1996a; Mogford, 1993; Paul & Quigley, 1994; Quigley & King, 1980) can be exhibited by hearing individuals with LD (see, e.g., Gerber, 1993; Wiig & Semel, 1984). In both cases, these difficulties span the full spectrum of English language knowledge, including difficulties at the phonological, lexical, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and discourse levels. Of course, it seems likely that the double assault of deafness and LD on English language development would result in patterns and degrees of difficulty across this spectrum that are atypical of deaf students without LD. Nevertheless, the confounding influences of deafness and LD on English language development imply that criteria used to identify LD in hearing students cannot be reliably used to identify LD in deaf students (Elliott et al., 1988). In fact, uncritical application of such criteria to the deaf population has often resulted in misdiagnosis of deaf children as learning disabled (Rush & Baechle, 1992).

A reasonable initial strategy for overcoming this and developing clear criteria to identify deaf students with LD is to study the experiences and perceptions of expert teachers of deaf students about their students' typical and atypical English-language behaviors. Elliott et al. (1988) noted that because teachers work closely with deaf students and have the greatest knowledge about them, their views on the characteristics that might identify LD deaf students are a valuable source of information. A series of surveys conducted in the 1980s confirmed that teachers and administrators at schools for deaf children believe that a wide range of cognitive and language problems are characteristic of deaf children with suspected learning disabilities (Elliott & Powers, 1988; Elliott et al., 1988; Powers et al., 1987; Powers, Elliott, Fairbank, & Monaghan, 1988). However, no attempt has been made since that time to study teachers' perceptions of these specific cognitive and language domains in detail or to extend this work to a deaf adult population.

The survey results reported by Elliott et al. …