Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Vocabulary Instruction for the Development of American Sign Language in Young Deaf Children: An Investigation into Teacher Knowledge and Practice

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Vocabulary Instruction for the Development of American Sign Language in Young Deaf Children: An Investigation into Teacher Knowledge and Practice

Article excerpt

The linguistic and instructional needs of deaf children have been passionately debated for more than two centuries (Moores 2010), as this population has often struggled to acquire the literacy skills necessary for academic success (Gallaudet Research Institute 2011; Paul 2009). Although research on the education of deaf children has addressed many issues of language, school placement, and literacy development (Marschark and Spencer 2010), much is still unknown about how educators teach language and literacy skills in the classroom. This is unsurprising, given that the incidence of hearing loss is less than one in one thousand (Gallaudet Research Institute 2011) and that comparatively fewer scholars are undertaking research in this area.

One essential component of early language and literacy development is the expansion of vocabulary (National Reading Panel 2000). Despite the importance of vocabulary, research has shown a pervasive lack of formal vocabulary instruction in the early childhood setting. In fact, one study shows that, over the course of 660 hours of observation, formal vocabulary instruction was nearly absent in early childhood curricula and classroom instruction (Neuman 2011, 363).

For deaf children who use American Sign Language (ASL), the limited evidence available also shows that higher levels of ASL skills, including vocabulary, are associated with greater English literacy (e.g., Freel et al. 2011); however, few studies have addressed ASL vocabulary development in young deaf children, and even fewer have examined evidence-based instruction that includes vocabulary (Luckner and Cooke 2010). As such, information about the ASL vocabulary instruction provided by teachers of deaf children (TODs) is limited despite the need. Therefore, the current investigation explores the following question: What is the nature of vocabulary instruction in early childhood classrooms for deaf children whose primary language is ASL?

Conceptual Framework

Bransford, Darling-Hammond, and LePage (2005) propose three important types of teacher knowledge required for effective practice: knowledge of learners and their development, knowledge of subject matter and curriculum, and knowledge of teaching (11). On the surface, the literature base is seemingly disparate in that it draws from various areas of child development, instruction, and sociocultural contexts

of curriculum and instruction for deaf learners. However, by bringing together the literature within this conceptual framework, the underlying and interconnected nature of the research can be understood in a relevant manner (see figure 1).

Knowledge of Learners

To possess knowledge of learners, one must understand the particular nature and features of ASL, as language mediates learning. It is also important to address the nature of lexical development in deaf children.

Features of ASL

Empirical research indicates that structural components of ASL are comparable to those of spoken languages (e.g., MacSweeney et al. 2009; Novogrodsky, Fish, and Hoffmeister 2014). Some key linguistic components of ASL that are directly relevant to the teaching of vocabulary are phonology, syntax, morphology, and iconicity.

In ASL, phonology refers to the subcomponents of signs that influence meaning. The four major components are the shape of the hand, the location of the hand, the movement of the hand, and the orientation of the hand (Brentari 2011; Allen et al. 2014). These four features interact in specific ways to produce signs and their meanings.

In addition, ASL syntax includes the majority of the features of spoken languages; however, prepositions are absent from ASL (Beal- Alvarez 2012). Instead, the signer uses spatial relations to convey the meanings typically conveyed by prepositions. The use of space and facial expressions, referred to as nonmanual modifiers, are also important syntactic markers in ASL (Hoza 2008).

The morphology of ASL includes classifiers, or specific handshapes, that represent certain aspects of people, objects, or movement. …

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