University of Edinburgh

Language and Deaf Education: Into the 21st Century

March, 2006

Harry Knoors -

Varying objectives and tricky mixes: language used in the education of deaf children.

Presentation notes

This is the second presentation by a member of a minority group - the Dutch speaker - the status of the spoken Dutch language is an issue too. You will have to put up with my English.

Thank you to Marian and John for inviting me. It gives me a chance to pay tribute to Mary Brennan's work.

The quotation which is the motto of this conference is important. If we take the
power of the child's linguistic capacity one step further and use it for learning we come close to the topic of the identification of the right language and construction mix for deaf children. To me this process of identification includes the choices parents make and their objectives. I will also focus on the issue of professional advice. I will also talk about the ways that dilemmas can be negotiated in education. I will focus on Dutch research and data so here is some context.

We live on the water - the Netherlands is very densely populated - it is multi-ethnic with a small Deaf community - 8,500. These are profoundly deaf people who were born deaf or acquired deafness in later life. The hard of hearing group is larger at 275,000

We have an extended system of special education the schools are in 4 clusters. One of these has 30 schools for hard of hearing or deaf children or for those with language impairment. Admission is by strict criteria - you have to present your case to an admission board. There is a big difference between hard of hearing and profoundly deaf children.

Deaf children enter schools at 2.5 years and if they follow education in schools for the deaf they may stay in education until they are 20. Schools for the deaf have been challenged by a number of developments.

Here is a list:

Recognition of sign language - it is not officially recognised (neither is Dutch).
The European Treaty for Minority Languages is aimed at trying to establish minority languages. The government and The Ministries of Education and of Health Care and Welfare say that sign language in the Netherlands are recognised - meaning that they are important in areas of life for deaf people.

There was an agreement on implementation of bilingual education in 1998 and in exchange for cooperation of schools for the deaf and parents the government made provision for funding for bilingual education.

It took a long time for cochlear implantation to become prevalent in our country. There was resistance. Up until 2000 there were only 2 programmes and it was limited to 20 implants per year. Parents went to Flanders and other countries for implants.

After 2000 a report of the Health Council meant cochlear implantation increased to 7 programmes - all university based. These are implicated in early intervention programmes.

Until the mid 90’s we had 5 Institutes for the Deaf in Holland - they included education and care. Now we have 11 Programmes for deaf children. The number of deaf children is not that high so the number of pupils per programme is low.

Inclusion: Holland has not been hot on this to date because of the specialist programmes that exist. Nowadays there are more people who see that for some deaf children mainstream schools or twin schools can provide an academic and social environment for deaf children’s learning.

Parents differ in their education objectives and choices but even if they vary they have underlying general motives. If we look at parents in mainstream education: we researched their motives - they make decisions based on the quality of the school their children go to. In practice these choices are made on the location (distance) of the school. Unless the quality of the school at a distance is much higher then the parents will choose the local school.

Parents in Holland are not strong supporters of inclusion. A small minority support inclusion, there is a big group that don't care, there is a considerable minority that actively oppose inclusion. They are afraid it will lower the education attainments of their own children. This is despite evidence to the contrary.

Universal Newborn Hearing Screening is in place now in Holland now. This raises a lot of questions because parents of deaf children have to decide on cochlear implant or sign language use early on in the child's life.

A study took place in Viataal between 2001 and 2004. It was a study that Oderwald did and Viataal had 2 schools for the deaf one with an bilingual programme and the other with an auditory/verbal programme. The research was quantitative and qualitative and looked to the future as well as the past.

  1. There were 3 interviews in one year about admission - prospective study.


  1. 11 families were included in the retrospective study.
  1. The children did not differ that much in the two studies.


The main conclusion was that all parents viewed their deaf child as a child with a disability. They all had a normality view - there was a persistent wish for inclusion among the parents. Researchers say this is not what should worry us but it is the way this view is coloured that is an issue.

It is not the view of normality or disability that is important but it is the capacity to adapt and reflect this view that is important.

  1. 20-22 of the parents started to use sign language
  2. 17 of them valued the growth in communication via sign language
  3. all parents wanted cochlear implant

on the basis of the interviews parents were profiled.

3 profiles: the majority were in the first: there was an instinctive normality view which changed and broadened after time.

Profile 2: was a smaller group - a sharp identification with normality view - they see the child as a child with a disability that needs fixed. they want a cochlear implant.

Profile 3: was not found in this research - this is a group who have sharp identification with Deaf culture and sign language use.

The dilemma: we know from the history of deaf education that people are still looking for the best education model. How can you reconcile the best model with the objectives and motives of parents.

Also parents make the decision by proxy - the child does not choose or oversee the consequences of their choice.

This study showed that parents were ultimately responsible for the education of the child.
The concept of shared responsibility is sometimes contested by professionals.

Tijsseling: a Deaf PHD student published a book called "another way to be deaf" - visual language development in a visually constructed environment is an optimal education for deaf children. All parents including hearing parents ...

Genetic relations with parents are not more important than natural relations with the Deaf community. Deaf children belong to the minority community as well as to their parents and family.

So: do parents have the right to make education choices or do they have the duty to make the right education choices.

They consult professionals and members of the Deaf community - what if they ignore the advice.

As professionals we ignore the child often and relate to the parent. in the medical world they relate to the child.

In the Netherlands a doctor is allowed to insist upon his advice and to try to convince parents if he thinks their actions are wrong. It is even possible to enforce professional advice on parents.

In Holland that is not possible in the field of education.

You have to be sure as a professional that the actions of the parents are detrimental to the development of the child (hard scientific evidence).

What is evidence base of professional advice in our field?

  1. The development and development possibilities of the child.
  2. Evidence about long-term effects of education interventions.
  3. Combine both types of evidence.

Evidence about functioning of child should come from a competent diagnosis assessment of the child. Covering child's weaknesses and strengths and its possibility. Professional assessment in our field - communication and language and cognition. Also key person in the immediate environment - parents ,educators - what are their weaknesses?

Funding is a problem - awareness of importance of this type of assessment - to have a full picture - is a problem among certain teachers.

You need instruments that are reliable - it is a huge problem - we don't have that many valid and reliable standardised test instruments for children. The population of profoundly deaf children is so small in the Netherlands.

As educators we have another dilemma - how do design education programmes for deaf children if some of the test instruments lack optimal reliability.

To make matters worse - the evidence base regarding effects of long term effects of education intervention is not that strong either. I am not the only one stating this.

Not so say that the educators are to blame for this situation - it is complex.

There are at least 6 illustrations for this weak evidence base. Some examples -

1. Insufficient research results. Important areas of education of deaf children - we have no information at all. There was a time when the use of sign support systems was hot in deaf education. Within a short time these systems were dismissed. Main reason, because some studies discovered it was hard to combine speech and signs in ways that in sign part all the grammatical properties of speech were reflected.

2. Sign language would be the better option - maybe it is. 95% of the parents are hearing, many more of teachers are hearing. For them sign language might be 2nd 4th 5th language. So vital for deaf children from early on it means hearing parents, some deaf parents, in a short period of time, have to become proficient in sign language. Learning a second language at a later time is not easy. Constrained too by other factors - not everyone can become proficient in a second language. There would be a wealth of research into this - there is hardly any research even 10 years after the introduction of sign language.

3. Incorrect application of theoretical frameworks - Jim Cummins. Hypothesis is that it is possible - that there is transfer of linguistic skills from l1 to l2 if sufficient exposure to second language and sufficient motivation - there are conditions - hard to fulfill for deaf children.

Limited to the cognitive language - language used in classrooms. This transfer is likely to occur with respect to reading if language shares the script system. If one language has an alphabetic script and the other not - less transfer possible.

This is not to say there are not good reasons to include sign language in deaf education - but you cannot use Cummins theory to support this.

4. Incomplete comparisons - typically happens - results of children in various programmes are compared – eg; in field of cochlear implantation - assuming this issue is only difference between programmes - actual classroom practices are published - if we see differences - are they from language policy issues, or result from different classroom practice issues?

One way interpretation of results - deaf children of deaf parents have better academic learning than deaf children of hearing parents. There are many more factors that systematically vary between each set.

5. A failure to apply research results. Sometimes it is difficult to apply these. We know much about cochlear processes, long-term , semantic memory, problem solving - the translation of this knowledge into adaptive classroom practices leaves a lot to be desired.

Research sometimes leads to complex contradictory research. 3 Dutch studies - relating to language proficiency and reading.

PHD study Wauters - included almost all deaf children in the Netherlands. Not including those with cochlear implant - 15 deaf children - 3% of population. The mean reading score of deaf children - equivalent to first grade hearing children. Below other studies results.

Found that lack of automatic word identification - lexical properties of words that contributed to the programme. 4.3% read according to their age

Vermeulen 2006 – ongoing - same Deaf instruments used

  1. only students with a cochlear implant
  2. Implanted when 3 or 4
  3. No children from ethnic minorities included

Reading comparison scores significantly higher than those without the implants across all grades.

Effect size - large

Word identification skills do not entirely explain research results.

Developing a test to develop sign language proficiency. Hermans tested children for the deaf for 3 years. In 2005 - 87 in schools for the deaf. 3 groups - deaf children; hearing/non hearing parents; cochlear implant.

Written language proficiency - for spoken language proficiency - tested. Deaf children from deaf parents outperformed other groups in sign language and written proficiency.

How to combine these results?

  1. First different inclusion criteria was applied. Those with cochlear implant - study includes children in special schools and schools for deaf.
  2. Other one cochlear implant and schools for the deaf
  3. Criteria for school placement - might be a selection bias.
  4. Yes cochlear implants contribute to spoken language and reading proficiency but not for all deaf children with implants.

This adds to the dilemma - how to design effective education programmes for deaf children - interventions can be rather weak.

Key aspect of dilemma - no easy solution. You have to negotiate. How can you do that with education practice.

My view - general principles we should adhere to managing expectation, adaptive education, diagnostic teaching.

  1. Professional advice - giving parents a real perspective of potential for their child - not miracles.
  2. Realistic short term and long term possibilities.
  3. Frequent involvement of parents - giving advice is not a matter of doing it once - it has to be often, as child and parents develop in their thinking
  4. Educational choices don't have eternal value - they need to be adapted
  5. 'more appropriate' at this time is better.

Not all deaf children will enter university - same as hearing children. Variety is good! It calls for adaptive education - there should be differences across classrooms. Balancing group work and direct instruction, co-operative learning with active learning

You have to focus on conditions - time on task, attention behaviours, teaching skills , staff pupil ratio.

Diagnostic teaching - it means integrating assessment and teaching. Diagnostic cycles - address cognitive and social domain. Entail mix of test curriculum, test observations, parental check lists

Tricky mixes
I identified possible ones -
instructional languages -

I would advise many people in education to use a no exclusion principle. Start by incorporating both languages. We don't know enough about deaf child to exclude one of the languages. Mixing principle - mixing of sign and spoken language. As long as it is not the only input for children. You need a focus on the goals. The sign systems can have communicative and instructional power.

10% sign and 90% speech is also bilingual input - this amount may differ according to the needs of child, wishes of parents.

School settings - there is not one school type that is fit for every deaf child.

I would like to see that you have cohesive comprehensive educational programmes. Only need a few in the Netherlands. Programmes may be delivered - but interconnectedness is needed.

Curriculum design - in Netherlands when we signed agreement about bilingual education - received money to design curricula. Group of deaf and hearing experts and others came together and developed curriculum principles, outlines of curriculum, and language matters used in mainstream with adaptions - Dutch as second language and use of sign language. One of the reps will be happy to answer specific questions.

Need for co-operation between education and research. Not only to establish a research agenda to fill in our lapse in knowledge but also to support educators in application of this complex often contradictory research in their educational practice.

Mary Brennan's quotation: By recognising the child as in effect a 'little linguist' we are also recognising the power and effectiveness of the child's linguistic capacity.

Appropriate actions do not include continuing looking for best educational model for all deaf children - answer is not great programme designs on ideologically based arguments. Identifying the optimum one at a particular moment in time, involves solving a complex puzzle. Persistence, co-operation, adequate analysis, cautious execution, appropriate feedback, appropriate strategies.

Thank you for your co-operation.


Steve Nover
I actually wanted to make a comment about Harry's presentation. Many people have commented on the lack of research. We feel powerless because of lack of research skills. We have a need for different methodologies, we need case studies, ethnographic description. We need naturalistic case studies rather than those that are imposed.

new speaker
I feel like an imposter now I am glad I am not a teachers of the deaf. I have 2 short questions and a comment.

Referring to the research Harry did with the 22 parents you said some parents said their child had a disability and others had a view that associated with Deaf culture. Did you disaggregate these figures? Also did some parents advocate separate education rather than inclusive?

I feel we have a human rights agenda that is contradictory with neonatal screening and genetics and that goes back to Steven's comment that we should use language as a resource and use the beauty of cultural capital. Yet children in schools are not getting this cultural resource.

Finally parents are developing your thinking and at the same time at their most vulnerable they are being asked to make decisions according to a medical model. At the same time schools for the deaf are closing down and deaf children are being put into units within mainstream schools.

Harry Knoors
What I said was all parents had the normality view - its instinctive. The colouring was that the majority of them came to a more social cultural view and combined both models.

new speaker
You say the normality view is instinctive - that is usual and then it changes as your child grows.

Harry Knoors
Yes that is where colouring comes in. Cultural views of deafness - if we go to the Viatall study - the school had a strong old school culture. In the 90’s they changed and introduced sign language into their programmes. Parents moved to the centre of the Netherlands to have oral education. Some people felt that it was like the church changing into a mosque - this research was in the aftermath of that changing process.

This may be as a result of the image of this old institute changing.

Maybe we would find some parents now

The shock of Viaatall changing is the same as the shock when some of the others changed to bilingual programmes.

In my opinion cochlear implants are simply there - I am not so much a supporter of them. The discussion is about whether that is the sole and only resolution. Or it is about whether you allow another version to interact.

It is ironic - maybe its because we live below sea level! We are used to trying to reconcile apparently differing views. In deaf education we will never have a strong oral tradition we are more fond of various shades of grey.

Steve Nover
I had a few thoughts. I am a language planner but I am also a father with two children - one deaf and one hearing. They have taught me so much about being a parent. There are a lot of ethical issues. Your natural instinct is to protect your child. If a hearing parent gives birth to a deaf child they have no experience that influences this protective feeling. My feeling as a deaf parent having a deaf child raised different protective feelings.

My deaf child uses ASL and my one year old hearing son is being raised in a dual language environment. As a parent if you removed the cochlear then the child would be deaf and that would be OK. This is about the child being viewed as a thing. My child who is born hearing - would I remove his cochlea to make him deaf - no he speaks so I adapt myself to suit him. But if a hearing parent has a deaf child they want the child to change and not them.

A deaf child has a life and emotional development and still today we are having these ethical moral discussions.

Something is wrong that I as a deaf parent will change to suit my hearing child whereas a hearing parent wants the child to change to suit their hearing world.

Harry Knoors
I can understand these dilemmas. I am a linguist from a small country. I see cochlear implant as a means to and end. It is a reality in Holland that English is the dominant language. I need to learn English to function in this modern world as a scientist. Deaf children need to understand English whether you like it or not. In my view cochlear implant is a mere instrument to allow access to that language. It is not either or it is a case of using both sign and English.

Steve Nover
I do agree but it is more than that. It’s about control. The companies that manufacture and use the implants. I worry about the balance of information. I do not see this in reality. We have an assessment review for my daughter regularly. I asked how her speech was coming on and they were surprised that I supported speech in this way. They didn't discuss her ability to interact in the hearing world because they thought as a deaf person I would not be interested in this.

Last year I went to a bilingual convention and deaf people asked why I was interested in the dual model - we need it from the deaf perspective. We need two languages and the child needs to choose at a later point what suits them. We force them to choose one method only.

New Speaker
For Harry - in relation to what you said - I think as far as deaf education is concerned, we become less flexible as child develops. When child chooses oral or signed path, when young choice seems to be more open. When older - they are not so well supported to change a path if they so decide.

In second survey conducted - you mentioned that the cochlear implants in children were ones from a special school and they were children who had achieved at a lower level than mainstream. Do you mean that children with cochlear implant are achieving at a lower level at either type of school?

Harry Knoors
That was not the intention. The conclusion is - in one study you will find deaf children with cochlear implant - when reading texts are outperforming deaf children with hearing aids. In other study we find deaf children of hearing parents with cochlear implant - in terms of language proficiency - are the worse performing ones. How do you reconcile these two results? I am only hypothesising. The inclusion of the criteria - better reading results of deaf children with implants -- includes children in various school settings. Other one only includes those with cochlear implant in special schools for the deaf.

Once they are reaching higher levels of language proficiency, the tendency is to place them in mainstream; at lower levels of proficiency - in special schools for the deaf.

These children also have relatively low levels of sign language proficiency.

We found that in respect to working memory functioning ....

The test instruments you cannot compare easily.

To give an example – we started these studies to ensure we understood the relationship between language and reading proficiency. Once you get the results you are confused - it is contradictory to an extent.

New Speaker
I felt the way data was put across was slightly misconstrued, I feel although data coming across to make it look as if children are underachieving at a special school with cochlear implant - they are also learning their sign language etc - it maybe needs to be put across in a more balanced way.

New Speaker
My view is an important thing for a young person to be able to learn is their own self esteem and feeling of emotional safety. I teach older young people who I see as having to make their own choices with little support. We were discussing last night what often happens is that at the point where they have established themselves as people within Deaf community can make choices about their language status and learning. Any research into the longer term outcomes for different deaf people. Ask Steve - about the importance of ASL for people who have had earlier cochlear implant and been quite successful orally, but not access to full language.

About status; language mixing within deaf education, been seen from perspective of superiority of spoken English so that it has been rejected - because of need to separate BSL and spoken English. Language mix is thought what people do. The Deaf community mixes language a lot.

Steve Nover
Through our Caeber training, the data showed deaf people's experience growing up - not enough data - yes anecdotal experience. People who learn to sign later realise how much they missed, and then there is a lot of anger. They might learn to hate their parents - angry because they don't believe people were honest with them.

Mixing of languages - from bilingual literacy - mixing of languages with small children is normal. Often the teachers are supposed to be best language models. In some cases, separation of languages. Need to model the languages - separated to be modelled. We suggest content model through that good sign language.

Signing and speaking - a competition there - hard for children. Primary responsibility for us to provide clear language modelling. Language mixing as a teacher I don't think so, but kids do it. Their signing influences their writing. Myself as a teacher/parent - in communication we need to separate the languages.

Marc Marschark
We do have research about young children set in different settings and different language placements - no data on how they feel, how they look back as adults. How the early placements affect employment, self esteem as adults - no data yet.

New Speaker
Responding to Steve - I am a hearing parent of a deaf child who has had cochlear implant. When my son was born I had no experience of deafness, except in old people. That is the experience of many hearing parents. The information given then was very much down oral/aural route. As someone who had not come across Deaf culture, I was frightened by it all. I wondered what to do for best? I went with the oral/aural route - my son was 7 when he had a cochlear implant. Parents do develop and as time went on I got more involved with deaf people and realise it is something that even with a cochlear implant - my son is deaf and is entitled to a strong Deaf identity. He is starting to learn British sign language - I have learned some. I feel as a deaf person he should have it. I had to become more involved with deaf people - my son might eventually marry a deaf person.

You mentioned choice - with cochlear implant for my son I gave him the choice. Without - even if with good hearing aids - I only see cochlear implant as a sophisticated hearing aid. Without that he might not have been able to be involved in hearing world completely. I have given him that choice. If he does decide to become immersed in Deaf community, he can take his implant off and he is a Deaf person, as he was the day he was born and will be the day he dies.

Steve Nover
That was powerful. There is a role for sign supported English. The tricky mix is often wrong in that it has become woolly mixes. Talking about this to presenters, Steve brought up the topic, I think what happens in reality is that two impoverished languages happen in total communication. Partly to do with lack of training both of you and lack of proper research and what we are doing with the languages.

Reality is a kind of woolly thing with sign supported English and what is then called total communication.

Both you and Sue talked about need for good assessment - it is more in relation to looking at - you said opportunities - as well as deficiencies - problems to be solved. Positive aptitudes comes within this too. Looking at what visual aptitudes can be assessed.

Harry Knoors
I agree. Assessment of language entails assessment of sign language and conditions to develop sign language.

Tricky mix - might result in woolly mixes but there is enough research - especially that by Dave Stewart that shows for communicative purposes, you can really combine speech and sign to an extent that you have an effective communication system.

Not without proper training - but neither does sign language used by hearing parents/teachers.

Not advocating lousy teaching training.