Syntactic and Semantic Processing in Hebrew Readers with Prelingual Deafness

By Miller, Paul F. | American Annals of the Deaf, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Syntactic and Semantic Processing in Hebrew Readers with Prelingual Deafness


Miller, Paul F., American Annals of the Deaf


The experimenter investigated the effect of semantic clues on the reading comprehension of deaf and hearing Israeli children. Two groups of students with prelingual deafness, and a hearing control group, were asked to read syntactically simple and syntactically relative sentences of varying semantic plausibility. Sixteen of the participants who were deaf (mean grade 6.9) had been trained orally, using spoken language as their principal means of communication at home and at school. Another 16 students with deafness (mean grade 6.9), all of them children of deaf parents, had acquired sign language as their primary language. The mean grade of the hearing control group was 6.5. The results suggest that, in contrast to the case with hearing individuals, reading comprehension in individuals with prelingually acquired deafness, regardless of communication background, is predominantly determined by the semantic processing of content words, with only minor attention given to the processing of the syntactic structure of the text.

Reading comprehension is the product of two fundamental, interacting activities: the bottom-up and top-down processing of text. Bottom-up processing involves the coding, identification, and syntactic processing of textual information to bear meaning. Top-down processing, conversely, refers to the activation of prior knowledge and experience to build up expectancies, which enhance word recognition and facilitate text interpretation. Whereas the participation of each of these processes in reading may vary in dominance according to the reader's reading level, the nature of text, or both (Kelly, 1995; King & Quigley, 1985; Paul & Quigley, 1994), the acquisition and development of skills underlying these processes' efficient implementation is a prerequisite to proficient reading.

Although readers who are prelinguallydeaf seem to have serious problems with most of the skills required for proficient reading, it is in their syntactic ability where they differ most from their hearing counterparts. Several hypotheses concerned with the origin of this deviant syntactic ability have been presented in the literature. One of these hypotheses suggests that the inferior syntactic functioning of readers with prelingual deafness derives from incomplete syntactic knowledge. Indeed, numerous studies (Deal & Thornton, 1985; Jones & Quigley, 1979; Quigley, Power, & Steinkamp, 1977; Quigley, Smith & Wilbur, 1974; Wilbur & Quigley, 1975; see also Webster, 1986) have shown that, even after years of intensive schooling, such individuals fail to establish syntactic knowledge adequate for the processing of spoken or written language. As a result, they are continuously forced to decipher text by means of a limited set of syntactic rules, which leads unavoidably to systematic misinterpretations. Yet research also suggests that if people who are deaf master the syntactic rules of the spoken language, they progress in very much the same order as their hearing counterparts (Berent, 1988, 1993; Quigley et al., 1977).

Two researchers (Quigley, 1982; Wood, 1984) analyzing misinterpretations made by readers who are deaf have argued that many of them reflect a tendency to impose a subject-verb-- object pattern on sentences. Such a strategy necessarily leads such readers to misinterpret sentences written in the passive voice. Individuals with profound hearing losses seem to have particular problems comprehending sentences with complex syntactic structures (conjunctions, subordinations, etc.). In two studies (Hatcher & Robbins, 1978; Quigley et al., 1977), researchers demonstrated that students who were deaf were able to understand an idea expressed by means of simple sentences but failed to comprehend the same idea when it was incorporated into sentences that were syntactically more complex. Bochner (1978) assumed that many individuals with profound hearing losses tend to perceive, produce, and learn syntactic structures by arranging isolated lexical items in a linear-sequential fashion without being aware of spoken language's hierarchical order. …

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