Psycholinguistics and Deafness

By Moores, Donald F. | American Annals of the Deaf, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Psycholinguistics and Deafness


Moores, Donald F., American Annals of the Deaf


In the summer of 1967, American educators of the deaf observed two significant milestones. It was a year which commemorated establishment of the first school for the deaf 150 years before in Hartford, Connecticut, and which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the introduction of oral methods of teaching the deaf at the Clarke School for the Deaf and the Lexington School for the Deaf. Although great strides have been made in the education of deaf children in the United States, a variety of problems which have existed since 1817 still continue to plague the field and to resist the efforts of even the most committed and creative teachers.

If one could perceive, Janus-like, the past and future, retrospectus and prospectus, the view might be unsettling and could call into question some of our basic beliefs. It is common, in education as well as in other fields, to equate the past with failure, the present with innovation, and the future with success; however, it has been arguedl that, in written language at least, deaf children of 100 years ago were superior to those being graduated or terminated from the schools and programs of today. A reading of compositions of 19th-century deaf students might tend to substantiate such a statement, even though it should be noted that a much higher proportion of students were postverbally deaf then than is the case today.

Still, it cannot be denied that results, in the form of academic achievement, leave much to be desired. It has been demonstrated consistently that the educational attainment of deaf children falls far below what might be predicted on the basis of chronological age and/or mental age.2,3,4 A cumulative deficit also has been shown to exist; i.e., the academic retardation of the deaf, relative to the hearing, increases as a function of age due to the tendency for the achievement scores of the deaf to plateau during adolescence.245 After a deaf child enters his teens, annual gains are typically measured in terms of tenths of years. The deaf child starts school at a disadvantage that is continually expanding and is never overcome.

The area in which the deaf child is weakest, and which underlies his deficiency in other areas, is his language ability. Studies of academic achievement of the deaf 3,4,6,7 indicate that their lowest scores are earned on Word Meaning and Paragraph Meaning subtests. The median reading achievement score for the deaf at age 16 has been reported to be grade 3.4.8 Other investigators3,5,6 produce somewhat higher figures, but none reach a grade level for any group of 6.0. It has been demonstrated9 that even these low estimates are spuriously inflated because the nature of multiple-choice tests standardized on the hearing is such as to assume a base of linguistic proficiency that most deaf children do not possess.

Thus, results paint a gloomy picture which forces educators of the deaf to a choice. We can continue along the same lines that have been set down in the past and face the discouraging prospect of producing disproportionate numbers of intellectually normal yet functionally illiterate deaf adults, or we can begin to reexamine the whole structure of our educational programs and the practical means by which we hope to attain our goals.

There exist today large bodies of knowledge and techniques in education and psychology that are of tremendous potential value for the deaf. Programmed instruction, both of a linear, Skinnerian type, and the more sophisticated response-dependent systems approach, come immediately to mind. The investigations of Bruner10 with very young hearing children raise exciting possibilities. In the public schools, the principles of the new math and the developments in linguistic approaches to teaching reading should be readily adaptable to deaf children. Principles of operant conditioning applied to behavior modification could be utilized in a variety of situations. The work on attention theory and attending behavior" has not received the attention it deserves. …

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