Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Classroom Discourse Practices of a Deaf Teacher Using American Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Classroom Discourse Practices of a Deaf Teacher Using American Sign Language

Article excerpt

FOUR DECADES AGO Stokoe (1960) observed that deaf professors at Gallaudet College were more effective than their hearing colleagues in maintaining discourse with students in the classroom (ibid. 1991)· Kluwin (1983) bolstered this observation in a study of two hearing and two deaf teachers. He demonstrated that deaf teachers were more proficient in their discourse than their hearing peers and more persistent in pursuing their learning objectives in class. Both Stokoe and Kluwin argue that fluent knowledge of sign language facilitates classroom discourse.

Their hypothesis is supported by research with students who are deaf, teachers, and administrators. Lang, McKee, and Conner (1993) and Lang, Dowaliby, and Anderson (1994) claim that the ability to sign clearly is a critical component of effective instruction. However, it would be a mistake to assume that signing fluency alone makes for effective teaching with students who are deaf. After all, many of us can probably remember a teacher fluent in our native language who was not an effective teacher. As Akamatsu, Stewart, and Mayer (2002) suggest, "To focus solely on the signing skills of teachers overly constrains the conception of what a good teacher of deaf students is. It becomes clear that it matters less which language or mode of communication teachers use than the manner in which they use the laguage" (277, our emphasis). In this article we identify and describe features of discourse that the teacher's experience and ASL fluency make possible.

Background

Classroom discourse research in general education settings has provided a significant empirical foundation. This body of research suggests that teacher strategies that encourage extended interaction and active participation by students are critical to learning (Cazden 19X8, 2001; Goldenberg 1992; Goldenberg and Patthey-Chavez 1995; Hicks 199$; Mehan 1979; Wells 1993). Easterbrooks and Baker (2002) note that extended discussions are also important for the development of conversational and questioning skills in children who are deaf and lead to improved social and academic outcomes. Teaching that supports language competence is critical for this population. However, there have been few published studies on teacher strategies for extended discourse in classrooms with students who are deaf. Kretschmer (1997) comments that student social interactions among teachers and peers, extended narrative, and opportunities to provide detailed conversational description have traditionally been lacking in both self-contained, deaf education classes and mainstreamed classrooms. Yet we know that language competence is best fostered through meaningful communication with others and not through drill and practice alone, particularly for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Kretschmer adds that many children who are deaf arrive in kindergarten already impoverished in the conversational skills that hearing children acquire in the course of their development.

A common feature of classroom discourse in almost all classrooms is the use of the initiation, response, and evaluation (IRE) structure (Mehan 1979).' Depending on the amount of didactic control the teacher lias over the IRE process, this experience can be a positive or a negative one for students. It often is a negative experience for students who are deaf, as Kretschmer notes (1997). In a review of studies of classrooms for deaf pupils, Wood and Wood (1997) categorized teachers according to their relative control of the classroom. Teachers who had more control were didactic in discourse with students. They held the floor during instruction and used language to repair the students' errors and to correct their language. "More controlling" teachers employed linguistically simple forms and concrete vocabulary. Their students produced shorter utterances, asked fewer questions, made less frequent contributions, and showed more signs of confusion. They also communicated less with their peers. …

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