University of Edinburgh

Language and Deaf Education: Into the 21st Century

March, 2006

What Really Matters in the Early Language and Literacy Development of D/HH Children?

Connie Mayer is associate professor of York University in Toronto. she is a researcher, teacher and her experience includes the role of signing in the language process.

Notes from presentation

What really matters in the teaching of deaf children. It’s an honour to be here at a conference in honour of Mary Brennan. A quote from Mary is "children are little linguists" I would like to talk about reading and writing today. We know literacy in the classroom is important. Why? well we know there is evidence linking an early result with early intervention. An early start is important.

With early identification we have an opportunity - this is a challenge too. Also there is a sense we should be doing a better job too. As a teacher (grade 4 is age 9) at grade 8 at age 11 when they go to high school they need the literacy skills to enable them to function in high school.

What do we know about literacy in deaf and hard of hearing students? Cherie Williams alludes to similar trajectories in early literacy. It is more or less the same. Yet we know the outcomes based on Mark/s talk are that literacy outcomes are still not what we want them to be.

Maybe we are missing something on the emergent literacy area. If we can sort this then we can teach differently and focus differently. What really matters in literacy? My own research shows that you have to have language in place first. In classes teachers assume language is in place already we know this is not the case for deaf children.

If acquiring the first language what ever the language is - whether the language is BSL or English then children acquire it given that quality and quantity exposure to it - in the correct environment they acquire the language. Face to face communication - becomes the substance of your cognition. If your face to face was in BSL or English you think in that language. If you are bilingual you can think in both languages. The language you know is the language you use to talk to yourself.

The egocentric speech or sign you see in kids - they are talking to themselves as they play (for example of car playing and making the vroom vroom sign). This is fundamental to the development of concepts and how people manage information. It is different for signing and speaking kids but they are prerequisites to emergent literacy. So before you begin to write you need to have something to write about.

In hearing classes we imagine the child can think and communicate face to face. You can sometimes even see them thinking - it is new for young children. When they go to school the teacher asks them to write down all the stuff they have been thinking or talking about.  Now show your meaning in print - that is different from their experience to that point. Many children struggle at this point - that’s why we teach reading and writing. We don't teach speaking.

At the emergent literacy stage how you arrive at it - for hearing children it is the spoken language itself that is the tool. As a teacher what do you say to a child - write down what you think or say, you write it for them. You give them opportunities to make the connection between speech and print. For children who sign this is more difficult. If their first language is BSL I am not sure how you sign your way into text. We'll come back to that.

It is at this phase where you move from oral language to print to represent your meaning.
The 4th stage - the synoptic genre - where texts have long, complex sentences with difficult vocabulary. School texts are in this genre. So to do school you have to understand this genre. Our deaf students struggle with this. You need basic literacy and exposure to this genre.  If you can't understand it you can't access it. If you read you read more and then you understand more. If you can't read well then the spiral goes downwards.

Theoretical frame: if it holds any water we need to get some data and see what this means for teachers.

I want to focus on the 3rd phase the emergent literacy stage.

Most of you will have seen a version of this in UK and Australia - you will recognise these stages of literacy. Where do children start? If you show something in drawing form then the children don't differentiate between the text and the drawing.

In the early days they don't sort between the drawing and the text. Very quickly they do use a form that looks like text. its not really speech - it looks like print - they are drawing a picture of print - there are scribbly things that look like print to them. They will match the story to the text but the scribbles are not standard and only the child knows the meaning of it. Some examples of this (contrasting hearing and deaf students): this is from longitudinal work all in Primary grades - up to age 7 or 8.

See slide of scribbly stuff and print done by children.

At this stage there is no difference between the hearing and deaf child. Both representations are visual that is why there is no difference. We get fooled into thinking it all looks the same. Does it carry on the same?

The next phase: when they look around their environment and they start to identify letters - from say their name and they see it everywhere on signs, number plates etc.  They use it randomly and in a non standard way.

Goodman and Graves alluded this stuff to being early reading.

If a child says I can read TESCO they are just really recognising it as an object. They have meaning but not language. At this stage - phase 2 the hearing child is writing letters and giving them meaning that does not necessarily connect. The deaf student does it differently (Jane) she draws a picture of a few crying people and the story is the woman is dead and the people are sad.

I thought I could get my deaf students to write like my hearing students. At this stage the same things are going on there 's nothing very different. It looks like the hearing children’s work. It changes later.

I am going to follow Jane and Kate. Kate's story is different. She draws a picture of a girl looking at a butterfly - she is using random letters but the text is not recognisable. The emergent literacy moment of the vocabulary spurt is in phase 3.

This is where kids figure out scribbly stuff has to line up with the spoken language - it is not random - there is some systematic relationship to be figured out. Writer uses knowledge of spoken language to create the text. Not just the phonics thing - it is everything - all the information the child carries within spoken language - child sorts that before writing down. You start to learn more about the spoken language. If we didn't write we wouldn't care where words end. Think about the alphabet song - most kids think lmno is a word - they only eventually find out they are separate letters. Even a structure like a sentence -we don't have sentences in oral language. When you write you are held to a sentence. Murial Jacobi - I suggest in this phase, it is the one at which - it happens over time -kids start to figure out how those two modes of meaning line up with each other - one is the bridge to the other. The stage where representations begin to approach standard. A reader who knows spoken language will be able to reconstruct meaning from the text even though there are some bumps in it.

This is a hearing student - I will let you look at it for a second - my apologies to those at the back - can you see it? How does it start - Clifford the big red dog with wonder manners. Phrase: Clifford gets a job. Once upon a time there was a dog named Clifford. He was very big and red but . . . the difference between that and the slide before is only about 6 months to a year (space wise). I love this one - it has sheep - we met 3 the other day - they were coming at us and Greg waved them off.

The name of the recipient of the letter is Asian. Dear Heyin, could I use your eraser please? I need it only sometimes. From Melissa. We did lots of authentic uses of text.

A longer one -
Dear Mr Bea,
I miss you a lot, are you going to visit us? I miss the days you were on duty. I miss you coming in our classroom. Did you make a lot of friends at your new school. I hope you are comfortable without us. Our class is different, we are making our biographies.

There are hearing children who do not manage to do this. Those falling off the rails have an issue - a kid who will have a harder job with print than the rest.

Both Jane and Kate, were signing students, hearing parents. Both parents signed a version of English - Jane's very little. Both students profoundly Deaf. Jane had a lot of oral intent. A delightful student with lots of ideas/strategies. Never at a loss of what to write. When creating stories, post funeral one, this is her story called punk girl. What strikes you? Can't reconstruct the meaning - not possible to read it - even though you are a speaker of the language she is writing. Mary Brennan's notion of little linguists - she is using interesting strategies - look at next sentence - see the is for kiss it looks like. It is supposed to mean - I see the punk girl. We have the 'see'. The 'is' and 'for' I call English sprinkling. Not a useful strategy. This word 'kiss' - let me show you the sign for 'punk' - she looked at this - think of cognitive strategy - her name starts with J - so other signs would start with similar handshape. I discovered this within a lot of data. Think in terms of this kid trying to see her face to face language in terms of the text. It is meant to map onto a text that does not exist. Cognitive strategy is appropriate, but does not have the right tools. You have to be able to memorise it. How thoughtful she is in constructing this. She has long hair next. She has, don't ask me. This one means long hair - classifier. Same strategy. If I put a 'c' in - then her strategy works out - yellow, green, purple, orange. Sign for yellow does start with a 'y'. A problem: looking at Jane's struggles - if I knew then I would have done things differently - I was excited at what she was doing and did not look past what the problems are.

This child - Kate - look at the text - can you read it?
Doubtful. But Kate is doing something significantly from what Jane is doing. Bad dream. Once I, once I had a dream - repeated. She has a marker for every single piece of English syntax in that story. She does not spell the work correctly, but morph syntactically it is perfect. Later my dad said: it is time to go back. When I went back my dad was waiting - she read that back to me. Every single piece of English is accounted for . She is 6. At the time, sadly, I was not smart enough to know what I was looking at. Wish I could do more probing with her. How did she get to that. She was at that point, most of the others in the programme were not. She did not wear hearing aids. The one I gave her was not linked up to work. She could not hear, but she could do lip pattern - now I can see or speculate about what was going on. Did these kids get to literacy - phase 4 is what you want. Representations are standard - kid has worked out relationship between spoken language and text, someone reading it can deconstruct meaning.

Sally is one of my best friends in class. She plays with me a lot of the times. What happened to Jane and Kate. Here is Jane. The big balloon. Boy walk, see no cat say meow, to cat say.

Boy walked to but balloon said help . . . typical if you have taught profoundly deaf children. Everything here is spelt right - means something to her but hard for you to deconstruct the meaning

Here is Kate’s - she is 6, end of grade 1. Dear daddy and grandpa, I am sorry you are away today. TJ scratched me eye and I scratched myself on the wall in front of my house.

Dear deaf kids, it wasn't me that killed the lady bug. The lady bug just stopped walking and died. It died on Janice's hand. I didn't kill it . I'm so upset and lonely.

What needs to be happening at emergent literacy phase - it is more than just writing down speech. If that is what it is the deaf children are in trouble. What it is that you need to figure out a systematic way to make the relationship between face to face language and text . It might look different for deaf children than text provides a model for your speech. What happens to deaf children's speech when text is put in front of them - it changes. Need to give them strategies to be able to make it happen in an aligned way. Once you have text as part of your understanding your oral or signed language changes.
Not saying better or worse - it is different.

There is a relationship between print and face to face language that we need to sort out for children. About the ways in which we sign to kids, lip patterns are important. That is where the word is. Meaning may be up here. But word is on the lips. Our sign for assume - this is it. Guess, estimate. The word is here. It is because you put something on your mouth. Thinking about other ways to sign alluding to what Sue said - bimodal communication for kids with implant - to access print - to enhance the link to text.

An example - one of my students wrote a story for me - wrote in story - tea bag yelled the man - it was not in context till I realised -this is the as sign for 'too bad' - this is the one for 'tea'. I used it all the time in class - look at my lips - I had been saying to this guy for a year 'too bad' - he thought I said 'tea bag' - he is though on the right track.

Implications for education. If you want to turn this around for deaf people - the face to face language has to be the same language you are reading. Speaking Spanish does not help you read English. To read sign writing you have to be able to sign. To read this - you need concepts about print, phonological concepts about the language. It goes this way. Those are the full stops. I could give you more. The only way you could read this text -those reading as will get this more easily. Look at this one - that is hello. Irena - that is finger spelled. Thank you - if you don't know how to sign you can't start to see the systematic relationship of the two. To get to the print they need the English. Maybe some English on the hands is the point I am trying to make. Can we agree that early literacy experiences need to be authentic, meaningful. We all know this. That is not new news now. We don't need to argue about this. Many teachers do this well already.

Need to worry less about teaching the print concepts. Which part is story which is text - kids know this. This is not the problem. I see teachers saying they are focusing on print concepts - I say why? You are wasting your time - children get that stuff.
It is spending less time on that. More attention needs to be paid to - we also need classroom based research - phonological awareness - it is one of the main strategies in English for seeing the link between print and spoken language. Out of all the other variables - it is the tool that lets you link spoken language to text in English. What can it look like? What does it look like for kids with implants? Can we use sign language to buttress it? So that kids can make the critical link between oral, sign language and the text . To provide them with a base in the language they are going to be reading. Not replacing a language with another. Giving child ability to use English and BSL in a variety of ways, not just in print. Parents will not go for the voice-off option. It challenges us - literacy and kids with implants, think of ways to present English through the air in a wider variety of ways. Thank you - I was pleased to share this with you.