Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Written Forms of Signed Languages: A Route to Literacy for Deaf Learners?

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Written Forms of Signed Languages: A Route to Literacy for Deaf Learners?

Article excerpt

Signed languages are unwritten. They are not unique in this regard, as it is estimated that over half of the world's languages do not have a developed writing system (Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2015). However, as Grushkin, writing in the present issue of the American Annals of the Deaf, points out, there have been a number of attempts to develop a writing system for signed languages (e.g., SignWriting, Si5s, ASLwrite), and he posits a number of reasons why doing so would be important. I suggest that these rationales can be broadly characterized as sociocultural (i.e., preserving deaf history, community, culture, and literature; elevating the status of American Sign Language), linguistic (i.e., standardizing ASL), and pedagogical (i.e., teaching ASL; developing literacy in English). In this response, I focus on one aspect of Grushkin's argument: the utility of a written form of signed language (e.g. American Sign Language) as a route to literacy in a second spoken language (e.g., English) for deaf learners.1

On this point, Grushkin contends that, although it may mean that second-language (12) development is deferred, "Deaf students should ... learn to first read and write in ASL before be- ginning instruction in written English" (p. 512). Appealing to the work of Krashen (1996) and Cummins (1979), Grushkin suggests that literacy skills developed in written ASL would transfer to the development of reading and writing in English, and more specifically that increased competence in written English would be derived from increased competence in written and signed ASL. He makes the strong claim that "the development and use of a written system for signed languages would present a means toward a transformation of Deaf educational pedagogy" (p. 516).

Before going into an in-depth discussion of the tenability of this assertion, it would be worthwhile to take a pragmatic step back and consider its applicability and relevance in the current context of the field. Even assuming that written forms of signed language were viable as a route to literacy, the cohort of deaf learners2 who would take advantage of this route would be limited to those students who used ASL as a first language (LI). This group has never constituted the majority of the deaf school population, and in the current context of universal newborn hearing screening and advances in hearing technologies including cochlear implants, bone-anchored hearing aids, and middle ear implants, its size is continually decreasing (Archbold & Mayer, 2012). Greater numbers of deaf children are now being educated in mainstream settings (see Anda, Kreimeyer, & Reid, 2010, for a discussion) and use a spoken language (albeit sometimes with sign or other visual support) as their primary means of communication. In the United Kingdom, according to 2014 data from the Consortium for Research Into Deaf Education, only about 9% of deaf learners are reported to be using sign language in some form and less than 2% to be using British Sign Language. The most up-to-date statistics available from the Gallaudet Research Institute (2011) indicate that 57% of deaf students are taught exclusively in general education school settings with hearing students, with a significant majority of the remaining group in resource rooms or self-contained classrooms. Spoken language only is used by 53%, and an additional 17% use spoken language with sign support or with cues.

Therefore, I suggest that it is not (or at least is no longer) accurate to suggest, as Grushkin does, that most deaf people prefer to sign and are not comfortable with using spoken language, and that English represents their L2. In the current environment, the majority of deaf individuals use spoken language as their primary mode of communication, and would identify English or some other spoken language as their LI (see, e.g., Archbold, Gregory, Mayer, Athalye, & Mulla, 2014). And even among the group that is purported to use ASL as its LI, it is not always the case that these learners have developed an age-appropriate level of competence in ASL. …

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