Deaf Children Creating Written Texts: Contributions of American Sign Language and Signed Forms of English

By Mayer, Connie; Akamatsu, C. Tane | American Annals of the Deaf, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Deaf Children Creating Written Texts: Contributions of American Sign Language and Signed Forms of English


Mayer, Connie, Akamatsu, C. Tane, American Annals of the Deaf


The objectives of this descriptive study were to investigate the ways in which American Sign Language (ASL) and English-- based sign allow for comprehension of text content, and to determine how these two avenues of communication might mediate the process of reconstructing "signed meaning" in a written text. The authors argue that comprehensible input in a visual mode is possible in either ASL or English-based sign. They further claim that English-based signing may be an effective means of bridging the gap between inner speech and written text.

Background

For most deaf students, achieving a high level of English literacy is a challenging endeavor. It is often reported in the literature that, on average, deaf students graduating from high school are not functioning much beyond a fourth-grade level in English (Paul & Quigley, 1990). Educators and researchers continue to grapple with how best to address this unacceptable situation. In recent years, there has been a move in the field toward the adoption of bilingual-bicultural models of education for the Deaf. Many proponents of this approach are firm in their belief that, if American Sign Language (ASL) is well established as the L1, or primary language, then English literacy can be achieved by means of reading and writing without exposure to English in its primary form through speech or English-based sign (Hoffmeister, 1990; Israelite, Ewoldt, & Hoffmeister, 1992; Livingston, 1997; Mashie, 1995). Research to investigate whether this is the case has not yet been widely reported (although see Strong & Prinz, 1997).

The difficulties deaf children have with writing, however, are well documented, and evidence suggests that the problems deaf children face in mastering written English are more formidable than those they face in developing reading skills. A deaf person can resort to compensatory strategies to understand a message when grammar and vocabulary skills are limited. It is much more difficult to express oneself clearly in writing in the face of such limitations (Moores, 1987, p. 281).

Paul and Quigley (1990) point out that most deaf students have not developed an internal representation of English and cannot express their thoughts in English in a primary mode such as speech or sign. It could be argued, therefore, that it is highly unlikely that they will be able to express themselves adequately in writing. (For a detailed discussion of this point see Mayer and Wells, 1996.)

In the past, research tended to focus primarily on the written product of deaf writers (see Kretschmer & Kretschmer, 1978; Quigley & Paul, 1984), but more recently attention has turned to the processes deaf students employ when they compose (Ewoldt, 1985; Kelly, 1990, 1995; Kretschmer & Kretschmer, 1986; Mayer, 1998, 1999; Truax, 1985). From our perspective, one aspect of such investigations would be a consideration of the relationship between signed production and written language and the nature of the "inner language" deaf children use as they engage in the act of writing.

To address these concerns, we would argue that within an expanded bilingual-bicultural model (Mayer & Akamatsu, 1999), there is a role for English-based sign, in addition to those played by ASL and English in print. The key function of this signed form of English would be to serve as a model for English text, rather than as the primary language for face-to-face communication. Further, this "through the air" English might provide a basis for developing a form of inner speech' that would support the development of higher levels of English literacy, which elude so many deaf students (Paul, 1992).

It is also critical to point out that this English-based sign would espouse the documented characteristics of effective simultaneous communication (Akamatsu & Stewart, 1992; Hyde & Power, 1991; Stewart, Akamatsu, & Bonkowski, 1990), and that, in particular, it would take into account and accommodate the visual, three-dimensional nature of signed language. …

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