University of Edinburgh
Empower '97: International Conference on Deaf Education

Paper 3: Moving from signed to written English

Connie Mayer
Resource Leader at the Metropolitan Toronto School for the Deaf

Can the Linguistic Interdependence Theory support a bilingual-bicultural model of literacy education for deaf students?

This presentation is based on a paper I co-authored with Gordon Wells, which was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. In many respects this paper is very much a theoretical explication and it might look a bit "wordy" to some teachers. But it is grounded in over twenty years of experience as a teacher of deaf students.

Like many of you I have lived through many changes in our field and "experienced" the various methodologies and the debates that attended them. For each "method" there are success stories, but the general concerns with respect to low literacy levels of most deaf students remain.

Most recently in our field there has been a move to adopting a bilingual-bicultural model of education in which a natural sign language serves as the primary language of instruction. In such a model it is argued that literacy in the majority language can be achieved by deaf students by approaching written texts solely or primarily through the medium of the natural sign language of the Deaf Community without exposure to the majority language in its primary form through either speech or sign. In North America this translates into pedagogical models which advocate American Sign Language (ASL) through the air and English on paper. For the purposes of this talk I will refer to ASL and English as the L1 and L2 but I contend that the issues I will raise apply equally to other bilingual situations such as Swedish Sign Language and Swedish, British Sign Language and English, or Sign Language of the Netherlands and Dutch.

The goal for today is to consider the bilingual/bicultural model of literacy education for deaf students by examining its theoretical foundation and the attendant pedagogical implications. However I would like to preface this talk with two points. First, I am not arguing the question of whether natural sign languages have a significant role to play in the education of deaf students. I believe that they do. Second, I am not questioning in any way the acceptance of sign language as the natural and bona fide language of the Deaf Community.

The theoretical support for bilingual models of deaf education is grounded in Cummins' Linguistic Interdependence Model, commonly referred to as the "double iceberg model".

Figure 2 linguistic interdependence model

The Linguistic Interdependence Model
Figure 2: Taken from: Bilingualism in Education (1986)
Jim Cummins and Merrill Swain, New York; Longman

This model suggests that a "common underlying proficiency makes possible the transfer of cognitive/academic or literacy related skills across languages" given adequate exposure, in school and environment, and adequate motivation to learn L2. I am not questioning the validity of this model per se but rather its applicability in the deaf context since I would argue that the conditions assumed in the Linguistic Interdependence Model cannot be met when the two languages being considered are ASL and English. The model assumes that hearing learners of the L1, growing up in a literate culture, will eventually learn the written as well as the spoken mode of his or her first language. This literate proficiency can then be transferred to the second language provided there is opportunity to participate in a linguistic community that uses the L2 in both its written and spoken forms.

What exactly then are the literate proficiencies which are transferred? Extensive empirical data supports a positive correlation between the ability to read and write in the L1 and the ability to read and write in the L2. And even though it is weaker, this correlation exists even between languages such as Japanese and English in which the orthographies are very different. However there has been no positive correlation found between the spoken form of the L1 and the written form of the L2. The implications for a situation in which the two languages are ASL and English seem clear.

At this juncture, drawing extensively on the work of Halliday and Vygotsky, I would like to develop a conceptualisation of what is involved in becoming literate in a first language. I will present a summary in chart form with apologies to Halliday and Vygotsky for rather oversimplifying and over-summarising their very complex arguments.

There are four distinguishable, yet overlapping, phases in a child's mastery of a culture's linguistic resources.

Figure 3 bridges available for hearing and deaf children

Figure 3: taken from Can the linguistic interdependence theory
support a bilingual-bicultural model of literary education for deaf
students ? (1996), Connie Mayer & Gordon Wells, Journal of Deaf
Studies and Deaf Education 1 (2); 93-107.

The first phase is learning the L1 which could be either a spoken or a signed language. The second phase is the developmental step of moving from language used only in interactions with others to "inner speech", the mode of language which mediates internal verbal thinking. The third phase involves being able to represent the meanings generated in inner speech in an external written form. The fourth phase is the mastery of the synoptic written genres in which discipline-based knowledge is constructed and communicated.

In each phase of development presented in the chart, three conditions need to be met. (i) A child must have opportunity to participate in activity settings in which the linguistic activity to be learned plays a significant mediating role. (ii) Connected to the first point, the opportunity must also be provided to interact with other more capable users of the language who can assist and guide the child in gaining mastery of the language. (iii) And finally there needs to be a "way in" to bridge between the phases - from what has already been mastered to what is yet to be mastered.

For deaf children the first two conditions can be and are met provided that they have exposure to a fully accessible language. Unfortunately for some deaf children this does not occur as they are denied access to a visually accessible language. But for the third condition, a disparity becomes evident - this is the issue of adequate bridges.

Consider the situation of the hearing child learning English and the deaf child learning ASL. In the first phase there is no problem. Spoken English provides the bridge for the hearing child and ASL provides the bridge for the deaf learner. In the second phase the bridge from social to inner speech is provided by egocentric spoken English. Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky argued that egocentric speech does not "wither away and die" but rather it develops inwardly and manifests itself as inner speech. There is no reason to think that egocentric ASL sign could not provide a similar bridge for deaf children. It is in the third phase that a disparity becomes apparent. For hearing children, spoken English provides the link between inner and written speech. Beginning writers compose texts piecemeal in spoken English and then attempt to write down what they hear. Eventually this path is curtailed but initially it plays a crucial role. For deaf children no such bridge is available as they do not have full access to spoken English. And signing in ASL is not very effective as there is no one-to-one correspondence between signed and written phrase. The question becomes: How does a deaf learner "move" from inner speech to written word? The problems of the fourth phase are similar in that, to master the synoptic genres, hearing children rely on spoken language as the bridge. Again, no such bridge exists for the deaf learner.

For hearing children, inner and written speech, though discontinuous in mode, are born of English and thus spoken English can provide the link between them. For deaf children, inner and written speech are derived from two very different codes, English and ASL, and there is no readily available "mode" to provide a bridge between them. Yet other children learn to read and write in a second language. Why can't deaf children?

To compare the situation of the deaf learner of English to that of other learners of English as a second language, consider the model presented below.

figure 4 bridging strategies available
Figure 4: taken from Mayer & Wells ibid

A student, literate in Greek, arrives at school and is faced with the task of learning English as an L2. Two possible bridging strategies are available to this learner: the bridge between inner speech in L1 and reading and writing in English that becomes available when he or she learns the spoken mode of English; and the similarities, whatever they may be, between the written modes of the L1 and English. For the deaf learner no such routes can be established since ASL has no written form, and the learner does not have access to spoken English. If linguistic interdependence between ASL and English is meant to provide the theoretical basis for bilingual-bicultural models of literacy education for deaf students, I would argue that it is without adequate foundation. Certainly ASL or any natural signed language can develop inner speech for instrumental thought. It can provide a language to "think with", a language to develop the cognitive power to support broad cognitive and conceptual transfers between ASL and English. But, for the reasons I have already outlined, it is clear that there is little possibility of linguistic transfer or interdependence between ASL and English.

Thus if ASL, by itself, cannot provide an adequate bridge between thought and word on paper, what are some potential bridging strategies that might be available to deaf learners of English? In my thesis research I have been using a prompted recall interview technique to investigate what it is that deaf writers do as they "face the challenge" of the blank page. The following is a list of some of the strategies that students have reported using:  

  • Mouthing (with or without voice)
  • Speech-reading
  • Direct instruction Reading
  • Writing
  • Fingerspelling
  • "English on the Hands" (contact sign)

Our challenge, as teachers of deaf children, is to work with our students as they attempt to create these bridges between thought, sign and written text. In this spirit and to this end, I look forward to continuing to work with and learn from the students I teach.

Moving from signed to written English
Supplementary material


Connie Mayer, Metropolitan Toronto School for the Deaf
Gordon Wells, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Drawing on Cummins' (1989) linguistic interdependence model, proponents of bilingual-bicultural models of literacy education for deaf students claim that: if ASL is well established as the L1, then literacy in English (L2) can be achieved by means of reading and writing without exposure to English through either speech or English-based sign. In our opinion, however, this claim is based on a false analogy for, as we shall argue, the situation of the deaf learner of English literacy does not match the conditions assumed by the linguistic interdependence model. We draw on the work of Vygotsky and Halliday to develop a conceptualisation of the processes involved in becoming literate, and then examine the particular and unique challenges that deaf students face as they strive to become members of the linguistic community of users of written English. Briefly, we argue that, for all learners, becoming literate involves mastering three modes of language use: "social speech", "inner speech" and written text. For the hearing learner of a written language (L1), all three modes employ the same underlying language code and the connections between them can be made via the bridge of spoken language. If this person joins a new community that has a written language, becoming literate in L, - according to the linguistic interdependence model - is supported by two bridges, once some fluency in the spoken mode of L2 is gained: first there is the commonality of code between the three modes of the L2, mediated by the spoken language and, second the learner can draw on his or her knowledge of the relationship between the three modes in L1 to construct the comparable relationships in 1. For the profoundly deaf learner however, these bridges are not available. Since their inner language (ASL) has no written form, they cannot acquire literacy skills in it: consequently, they do not have literacy skills to transfer to the written form of a second, spoken language such as English. Furthermore, since they are unable to access the auditory-oral channel, they are also deprived of the support that hearing learners of the written mode of an L2 receive from their growing mastery of its spoken form. For them there is, thus, a double discontinuity. Therefore, although in some respects the educational context for deaf students is analogous to that of other bilingual learners, in this crucial aspect it is very different.

Deaf communication