University of Edinburgh

Benchmarking Sign-Bilingual Education

Presented on Wednesday 12 January 2005

Meeting Needs within a Sign Bilingual Environment

Marjorie Douglas
Head of Speech & Language Therapy Department, Donaldson’s College
[] notes in brackets are commentary

[My use of the word bilingual is very loose. I am simply referring to the fact that English and BSL are both accepted as full languages that can be used for communication & learning. I hope that the reasons for this interpretation will become clearer as this presentation continues.]


Children arrive at Donaldson’s as individuals with

  • Different experiences
  • Different ages
  • Different skills

drawing of children

[Most deaf children are born to hearing parents. It is therefore unusual for them to arrive at school with BSL as their first language. We now also cater for hearing children with speech, language and communication difficulties. Most of them will have had no experience of BSL and very limited experience of signing. In fact, most children come with limited levels of language development and it would be difficult to say that they had any first language. Many however, will have established some level of communication and understanding based on whatever experiences they have had prior to beginning school.]

And what about the staff?

Also a very diverse group

  • Deaf & hearing
  • Variety of professions & training
  • Wide range of experience & knowledge

[It is difficult to recruit staff who have BSL as a first language. Most of our BSL users lack specific training and it is rare to find a qualified teacher who has BSL as a first language. There is also great diversity in the BSL used by staff, as many Deaf adults who are BSL users were actually educated o/aurally and were brought up with English as a first language.]

Complex Needs

The majority of our pupils have a range of special educational needs

  • Many of our Deaf pupils have additional speech & language difficulties (ie; autism, dyspraxia)
  • Some pupils have social/emotional &/or behavioural difficulties
  • Many pupils have some degree of learning difficulties

[There are very few pupils who have a significant hearing loss but otherwise normal development. The complex nature of our pupils’ needs and learning styles makes it very difficult for us to write a blanket communication policy that will cater for everyone.]

Square pegs in round holes

  • Need clear communication policy so that people know how pupils will communicate and learn
  • Need flexibility in our approach to cater for diverse range of complex communication needs


[Some bilingual schools suggest that BSL should be the predominant language for communication and learning, with English being taught as a second language through the development of literacy skills. Others suggest that there should be a 2-pronged approach, with a group of BSL dominant learners and communicators, and a group of English dominant learners and communicators. This latter approach does allow for more flexibility, but can be difficult to achieve with small numbers of pupils and great diversity. With the current pupils at Donaldsons it is almost impossible to find a reasonable sized group of children with similar ages and similar communication needs. Because of this, we decided to take a slightly different approach to writing our communication policy.]

Communication Profiles

  • Each child has a communication profile
  • Profiles are mini communication policies
  • Individual profiles are drawn together into classroom profiles
  • Profiles are written by a multidisciplinary team including input from parents and pupils themselves

[We have been writing individual and classroom communication profiles for the last 3 years. The process is an evolving one, and we are continually reviewing the effectiveness of the profiling system. At present, profiles are written in August, and reviewed in February. However, we are currently considering changing the time of writing the profiles to April/May, in order to give us up to date information on communication to aid in the decision of which pupils are best grouped together with which staff for the forthcoming school year. There is input from all levels of staff including the educational audiologist, speech & language therapist, Deaf Studies department, class teacher and classroom support staff. Parents are consulted and, where possible, pupils are asked to contribute their views.]

Content of Communication Profiles

  • Hearing and Listening
  • Understanding & Use of Spoken English
  • Understanding & Use of BSL
  • Additional Needs
  • Recommendations

[H & L info mostly comes from Ed Aud. Particularly important to consider how hearing is used rather than just looking at aided or unaided levels
Spoken English – info predominantly comes from Sp & Language Therapist. Try hard to keep info on English separate from info on BSL, but may comment on use of sign to support English.
BSL- information from Deaf Studies dept. and Deaf support staff
Additional Needs – includes recorded needs and any other needs that are identified as having an effect on the pupil’s ability to learn
Recommendations – includes statements about use of amplification, which language (if any) is stronger, what type and level of communication is required for learning, specific programmes that benefit the pupil’s learning and/or communication, etc]

Classroom Communication Profiles

  1. Look at learning needs and communication needs of each pupil
  2. Look at strengths and weaknesses of staff communication (eg; new teacher just beginning to learn BSL, Deaf support worker with BSL as preferred mode of communication)

[Classroom communication profiles aim to identify which language(s) should be used for learning, teaching and daily communication, which pupils require additional support for listening/signing, what strategies should be employed to cater for specific needs of individuals or for needs of the group, when additional support from other professionals might be required etc.]

General Points about Profiles

  • No jargon – written for everyone to understand
  • Concise – single side of A4 so can be read quickly
  • Individual Profiles put in record folders
  • Class Profile displayed on classroom wall so supply/cover staff can access easily
  • All profiles put on shared work area of computer system so can be accessed by all staff including support staff and specialist teachers

[These are intended to be working documents to aid daily interaction and teaching with the pupils. One class policy might be to use BSL at all times for teaching, but with voice over for one pupil who accesses spoken English through listening. Another class policy might be to use spoken English, but with some key word signing, whilst ensuring regular lessons in BSL curriculum. Another class might suggest that the Deaf support worker takes responsibility for relaying information in BSL at key points in the day, whilst the hearing teacher will use sign supported English at other time. The profiles change every year, as they are written to meet the needs of the individuals and small groups at a particular stage in their education.]

Concluding Remarks:

We do not subscribe to any one of the popular educational philosophies or communication approaches commonly advocated for Deaf children. Instead, we view all of our pupils as individuals and try take into account their personal experiences, abilities and limitations when considering their learning and communication needs. We also try to recognise our own strengths and limitations in communication and to combine the skills of our team to meet pupils’ needs, both as individuals and as members of a group. It is an evolving process and we will probably never find solutions to many of the difficulties we encounter.