A BILINGUAL MODEL has been applied to educating deaf students who are learning American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language and written English as a second. Although Cummins's (1984) theory of second-language learning articulates how learners draw on one language to acquire another, implementing teaching practices based on this theory, particularly with deaf students, is a complex, confusing process. The purposes of the present study were to narrow the gap between theory and practice and to describe the teaching and learning strategies used by the teachers and parents of three elementary school children within a bilingual/bicultural learning environment for deaf students. The findings suggest that strategies such as using ASL as the language of instruction and making translation conceptual rather than literal contribute to literacy learning. Findings further indicate that some inconsistencies persist in applying a bilingual approach with deaf students.
The present article focuses on the literacy acquisition process of Deaf children who acquire American Sign Language (ASL) as a first language and written English as a second language. In the article, I define literacy broadly to include the context and culture in which reading and writing occur. The view of literacy that goes beyond the basic tasks of textual decoding and encoding outlines the strong connection among language learning, the individual, and the community. This framework emphasizes the importance of literacy acquisition for all individuals and the problems that can occur when literacy in this broad sense is impaired.
The application of a bilingual model to the education of deaf students evolved from the observation that deaf children with Deaf parents consistently scored higher on tests of English reading that their deaf peers with hearing parents (Trybus & Jensema, 1978). Deaf children with Deaf parents were fully immersed in ASL as their first language. Written English was therefore learned as if it were a second language, and these Deaf children became essentially bilingual (Hoffmeister & Wilbur, 1980). These observations established the premise that deaf children should learn ASL as a first language, with English introduced as a second language, and that deaf education should be a form of bilingual education. Specific methods of implementing ASL-English bilingualism, however, continue to be debated.
An understanding of bilingual education of deaf students builds on the general study of bilingualism. Cummins's (1984) theoretical framework, in which the two separate language systems are linked to a common conceptual core, plays a significant role in bilingual educational programs because it suggests a common underlying proficiency. It also implies that experience with cither language can promote the proficiency underlying both languages. It is important to understand that the common proficiency does not exist at the surface level (pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary) of the first and second languages, but at the deeper, conceptual level (Cummins, 1984). The common proficiency facilitates the transfer of cognitive/academic or literacy-related skills across languages. These skills include conceptual knowledge, subject-matter knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, reading strategies, and writing composition skills. In a French-English bilingual program, for example, French instruction that develops first-language reading skills does not just develop skills in French, but also a deeper proficiency in the development of written literacy and general academic skills. Similar benefits are possible in an ASL-English bilingual program, though one must take into account the differences between oral bilingualism (e.g., French-English) and Deaf bilingualism (ASL-English).
Bilingual programs with deaf students differ from other bilingual programs in three significant ways: (a) language modality (signed vs. spoken/ written); (b) the absence of a written form of the first language, ASL; and (c) the inconsistent exposure of deaf children to the first language. …