Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Understanding Communication among Deaf Students Who Sign and Speak: A Trivial Pursuit?

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Understanding Communication among Deaf Students Who Sign and Speak: A Trivial Pursuit?

Article excerpt

CLASSROOM COMMUNICATION between deaf students was modeled using a question-and-answer game. Participants consisted of student pairs that relied on spoken language, pairs that relied on American Sign Language (ASL), and mixed pairs in which one student used spoken language and one signed. Although the task encouraged students to request clarification of messages they did not understand, such requests were rare, and did not vary across groups. Face-to-face communication was relatively poor in all groups. Students in the ASL group understood questions more readily than students who relied on oral communication. Although comprehension was low for all groups, those using oral communication provided more correct free responses, although the numbers were low; no significant differences existed for multiple-choice responses. Results are discussed in terms of the possibility that many deaf students have developed lower criteria for comprehension, and related challenges for classroom communication access.

Imagine the following scenario. It could occur in a variety of situations involving deaf individuals, but is of greatest interest-and potential concern-in educational settings. This particular event was observed on the campus of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and it occurs quite often: Two deaf students are standing in the hall between classes. One of the students is signing, in American Sign Language (ASL), without using his voice. The other student is using her voice, with no gesture or sign, her speech (barely) intelligible to the faculty member walking past them-someone with 20 years' experience working with deaf students of all ages. The two students appear to be having an animated discussion, but without any apparent interlingua, one wonders if they are having what Piaget (1955) referred to as a "collective monologue." Piaget observed that pairs of children sometimes engaged in verbal behavior in which they appeared to be taking linguistic turns, but in which their successive statements were completely independent. Children engaged in collective monologues appear not to be expecting relevant responses, but recognize from prosody or the silence after a statement when it is "their turn." In the case of our two college students a collective monologue may seem unlikely, but not much more unlikely than effective communication between them. Do they really understand each other? How well?

Our puzzlement over the situation is not just one of idle curiosity, but is relevant to day-to-day classroom interactions. Deaf students vary far more than hearing students in their communication skills, knowledge, and academic preparation, and it would seem that classroom discussions among deaf students and between them and their hearing peers would be an essential aspect of learning. Yet it is unclear to what extent deaf students understand ongoing discussions in the classroom-with or without the support of an oral or sign language interpreteror even attend to those discussions. Anecdotally, it is frequently suggested that deaf students help each other in classes by providing clarification of ongoing communication, but there is no evidence concerning the extent of such assistance and whether it is actually helpful-that is, does the "helping" student understand correctly and thus provide real assistance? In the present study, we explicitly examined how well deaf students understand each other in classroomlike interactions, as a function of their use of spoken or signed communication.

Paying Attention to Communication

The issue of attending to ongoing communication in the classroom is particularly important in the case of deaf students, who depend on visual processing of language regardless of their preferred language modality (i.e., sign language or speechreading of spoken language). The need for deaf students to attend to and keep up with multiple visual information sources in the classroom (e. …

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