University of Edinburgh

Developing Writing Programmes for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Learners: What Really Matters?

Presented on Thursday 29 November 2007

Connie Mayer, EdD
York University, Toronto

Why focus on emergent literacy?

  • Evidence linking the quality of early intervention to later literacy development (see Dickinson & Neuman, 2006)
  • Earlier identification of hearing loss allows for earlier intervention
  • Increased expectations that greater numbers of D/HH children will develop age appropriate literacy abilities

What do we know about emergent literacy and D/HH children?

  • Suggestion of similar trajectories for D/HH and hearing children (Williams, 2004)
  • Literacy outcomes are still disappointing
  • D/HH children may not be developing some of the necessary emergent literacy concepts
  • Are we missing what really matters?

To acquire language a learner must have:

1.Exposure in quality and quantity
2.To an accessible language
3.While engaged in meaningful activity
4.With others who are already capable users of the language

Developing Language for Face to Face Communication (Mayer & Wells, 1996)


Developing Language for Cognition


Developing (Emergent) Literacy


Developing Literacy for Academic Purposes


Levels of Emergent Literacy

  • Focus on the development of written language
  • Adapted from the work of Ferreiro (1990)
  • Emphasis on how children come to make sense of different representations for making meaning – oral language, drawing and writing

Emergent Literacy: Level One Distinguishing Drawing from Writing

  • Initially no difference between representations in drawing and text
  • Begin to draw a 'picture of the text' making it look like writing
  • Will match story to the 'text'
  • The representation is non-standard and meaning is unknown to the reader

Level One: Hearing Pupil (age 4)

hearing pupil age 4

Level One: Deaf Pupil (age 5)

deaf pupil age 5

Emergent Literacy: Level Two Identifying Properties of Writing

  • Representations begin to incorporate the standard alphabet in random or memorized patterns (eg; own name)
  • Differentiation between words
  • Sense of quantitative and qualitative principles for creating words
  • Still non-standard except for a few words
  • Meanings not clear to the reader without an explanation by the writer

Level Two: Hearing Pupil (age 5)

hearing pupil age 5

Level Two: Deaf Pupil (Jane, age 6)

deaf pupil

The woman is dead. The people are sad.

Level Two: Deaf Pupil (Kate, age 6)

deaf pupil

The girl is happy. She sees a butterfly.

Emergent Literacy: Level Three Connecting Writing to Speech/Sign

  • Written representations bear a relationship to the spoken mode of the language
  • The 'phonetization of the written representation' (Ferriero, 1990)
  • Bringing together two sets of understandings – their knowledge of spoken language and their knowledge of how print works
  • Application of alphabetic principles
  • Learn that letters represent words not objects
  • Use of invented spellings
  • A reader familiar with the language in its spoken form may be able to construct meaning
  • Representations begin to approach standard

Level Three: Hearing Pupil (age 7)

hearing pupils

Level Three: Hearing Pupil (age 7)

hearing pupil

Level Three: Hearing Pupil (age 7)

hearing pupil

Level Three: Deaf Pupil (Jane, age 7)

deaf pupil

Punk Girl
I see the punk girl.
She has long hair.
It is yellow, green, purple, and

Level Three: Deaf Pupil (Kate, age 7)

deaf pupil

Bad Dream
And once I
had a dream.
I dreamed about
a friend.
I was at her
cottage and I played
in the water
for a long
time. Later my
dad said it is
time to go back.
When I went back
my dad was waiting.
I was very frightened
because a witch
came. And my
dad killed the
witch and it

Emergent Literacy: Level Four Using Writing in Conventional Form

  • Representations are in standard form
  • The relationship between spoken and written language has been made
  • Reader can easily construct meaning from the text

Level Four: Hearing Pupil (age 7)

hearing pupil

Level Four: Deaf Pupil (Jane, age 8)

deaf pupil

Level Four: Deaf Student (Kate, age 7)

deaf pupil

What is happening in the emergent literacy phase?

  • More than speech written down
  • To learn to read and write any script is to find those aspects of one's linguistic structure that can be mapped onto or represented by that script
  • Text provides a model for speech
  • Learning to read is learning to hear speech in a new way (Olson, 1994; Watson, 2001)
  • Discover the systematic relationships between talk/sign and text

What is writing?

  • Learning how to form letters
  • A way to record information
  • A means of communication
  • A tool for thinking
  • A representation of meaning that has a relationship to spoken language

meaning to language

Drawing as Representation

'Signing' your Way into Text

sign representation

Hello Irina – Thank you for your letter.
I was happy to read it.
The world is sad, but now
people help each other, and give support
and love. We are becoming a world family.

What do we know about deaf writers?

Writing is a challenge for many deaf students – more difficult than reading

  • It is more difficult to quantify and there is far less systematic research than on reading
  • The average deaf 18 year-old writes at a grammatical level comparable to a hearing 8-10 year-old - although the meaning and conceptual structure may be more comparable to their age peers
  • A level of proficiency in the language to be written is needed to allow for fluent encoding of thought

The Written Product

The Not-so-good News

  • Shorter, simpler sentences and less well interconnected in compositions
  • Restricted vocabulary
  • Use of repetitive 'stock' words and phrases
  • More nouns & articles – fewer adjectives, adverbs & conjunctions

The Better News

  • Spelling & punctuation are generally okay
  • Well structured in terms of text organization

Samples from 3rd Grade Deaf ASL Users


Singleton, J et al (2004). Vocabulary Use by Low, Moderate, and High ASL-Proficient Writers Compared to Hearing, ESL, and Monolingual Speaker. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 9, 86-103.

Samples from 3rd Grade Hearing Students


Singleton, ibid

The Composing Process

Very few studies on how students actually compose

  • Preschool deaf children were using writing to depict experience rather than record speech (Williams, 1999)
  • Proficient deaf college writers told of hearing their own voice (Albertini at al, 1994)
  • Deaf writers used English-based strategies at the point of composing (Mayer, 1999; Mayer & Akamatsu, 2000)

Different between Same: By Jane

Elephant man is difference between deaf people because people knew the elephant man, but not know the deaf people because they look normal to people. If people find out some people are deaf, they will disrespect and copies them and also discrimination them. If people see the elephant man, they will be afraid of him because he wasn't normal body like people. But elephant man and deaf people understanding and don't care that they born to be deaf or problem body. Deaf people live in a house. Elephant man live in the hospital. Elephant man was heavy weight and deaf people normal weight. The deaf people and elephant man aren't stupid, they have brain, able to see, memories and imagine. Of course they wear clothes. Deaf people have hearing aid, use sign language and reading lip because they were deaf. Elephant man don't use hearing aid, speak and hear from his ear because he was hearing. But they were the same because they can read, write and learn something. They were the same feeling from heart. They can meet new people who respect them. I know they already met a queen. Elephant man and deaf people were difference and same between them.

Overview of Composing Strategies


Mayer, C (1999) Shaping at the Point of Utterance: An Investigation of the Composing Processes of the Deaf Student Writer. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4, 37-49.

Pedagogical Strategies

Changes in approach mirror those that occurred in teaching writing to hearing learners

  • Traditionally the focus was on correctness of grammar and form
  • Adoption of process oriented, meaning based approaches
  • There were improvements on traits related to content and organization – but not on vocabulary, structure and mechanics

So… where are we now?

We know that……

Deaf writers can make meaning …..

BUT challenges with form limit the ability to make meaning

What do deaf writers need to know?

Meaning and Form

meaning and form

The challenge for the deaf writer is two-fold:

  • To know what they want to say
  • To say it in English

Bereiter, C & Scardamalia, M (1987). The psychology of written composition. New Jersey: Erlbaum.

What do I mean? Challenges of Making Meaning

  • Need to have a face-to-face language in place
  • Need to have a range of experiences mediated through the L1
  • Need opportunities to engage in literate discourse about a range of topics

What do I say? Challenges of Form

  • Need to be able to use English grammar and syntax
  • Need to have an extensive English vocabulary
  • Need to use a range of written genre
  • Need to be able to read

Developing Literacy: Learning to Write

meaning and form

How do D/HH students differ from other ESL writers?


So…what do D/H writers need to know?

  • They need to know what they want to say (Making meaning)
  • They need to know how to say it in English (Managing form)