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The relationship between the reading and signing skills of deaf children in bilingual education programs

  • Dr. Daan Hermans/ Pontem, Nijmegen, The Netherlands was available from 10/13/08 until 11/02/08 to answer questions and share ideas concerning his research and its implications for parents of children who are deaf/hard of hearing, their teachers and other professionals who work with them.
  • You are encouraged to read the research summary below and review the attached discussion.


Abstract: This paper reports on one experiment in which we investigated the relationship between reading and signing skills. We administered a vocabulary task and a story comprehension task in Sign Language of the Netherlands and in written Dutch to a group of 87 deaf children from bilingual education programs. We found a strong and positive correlation between the scores obtained in the sign vocabulary task and the reading vocabulary task when age, short-term memory scores, and nonverbal intelligence scores were controlled for. In addition, a correlation was observed between the scores in the story comprehension tasks in Sign Language of the Netherlands and written Dutch but only when vocabulary scores for words and signs were not taken into account. The results are briefly discussed with reference to a model we recently proposed to describe lexical development for deaf children in bilingual education programs. In addition, the implications of the results of the present study for previous studies on the relationship between reading and signing skills are discussed.

Background: Learning to read is vital for individuals to participate in society, even more so when those individuals are deaf. But the deaf child who graduates from high school reads, on average, at the same level as an 8- to 9-year-old hearing child (Allen, 1986; Conrad, 1979; Karchmer & Mitchell, 2003; Wauters, van Bon, and Tellings). Although many studies have been conducted in the last couple of decades to study why learning to read seems to be so difficult for deaf children, we still don’t really know the answer to this question. More importantly, it is also not very clear how reading instructional practices in schools can be optimized for deaf children.
In the mid-1990s, bilingual–bicultural programs were developed and implemented in special schools (Israelite, Ewoldt, & Hoffmeister, 1992; Knoors, 2007; Mason & Ewoldt, 1996). In these programs, it is often assumed that that there is a commonality in reading and signing skills and that skills acquired through learning a sign language can facilitate the acquisition of reading skills (Israelite et al., 1992; Rodda, Cumming, & Fewer, 1993).

Although this view on literacy acquisition has not remained unchallenged, the empirical data, quite interestingly, do show that there is a strong and positive relationship between signing and reading skills (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000; Hoffmeister, 2000; Mann, 2006; Padden & Ramsey, 2000; Prinz, 2002; Strong & Prinz, 1997, 2000). For instance, Strong and Prinz studied the relationship between the signing skills and the reading skills of a group of 155 deaf children between 8 and 15 years old. They found a strong correlation between signing skills and reading skills, even after age and nonverbal intelligence were partialled out. In general, deaf children with good signing skills were also the better readers.

Although a strong correlation between reading and signing skills was observed in several different studies, one important question still remains unanswered: What is the locus of the relationship observed in these studies? Are reading and signing skills related at several different levels (phonological, vocabulary, morphology, syntax)? The answer to this question is very important for optimizing literacy instruction for deaf children. To illustrate, if it would turn our that reading and signing skills of deaf children are only related at the vocabulary level, the implication for reading instructional practice should be that teachers will have to focus on exploiting children’s lexical knowledge in sign language in reading instructional practices. In this study, the relationship between the children’ reading and signing skills was explored at two levels: vocabulary and story comprehension.

Experiment & Results: Eighty-seven deaf children from five special schools in the Netherlands participated to the study. All children were diagnosed with deafness before the age of three, and ten of them had one or two deaf parents. Twenty-four children had a cochlear implant. All of the children were enrolled in bilingual education programs, and most of the children started in (pre-) kindergarten. The group of eighty-seven children was very diverse regarding their language preference and language use at home. In 16 families, exclusively Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN) was used at home in the communication between the deaf children and their parents and siblings, according to their teachers. In contrast, parents and siblings predominantly used spoken Dutch in their communication with the deaf children in15 families. In most of the remaining families, a combination of SLN, spoken Dutch and Sign Supported Dutch (SSD) was used. Most of the children (n = 47) themselves preferred to use SLN in the communication with teachers and other deaf children.

Several tests were administered to each child: (1) a reading comprehension test, (2) a reading vocabulary test, (3) a story comprehension test in SLN, (4) a sign vocabulary test, (5) Two short-term memory tests, and (6) a nonverbal intelligence test. The tests were administered by a group of nineteen third- and fourth-year students who were trained to become sign language interpreters or sign language teachers.

Findings & Conclusion: The results revealed a positive relationship between the children’s scores on the reading vocabulary and sign vocabulary task when nonverbal intelligence and short term memory spans were controlled for: children with high scores on the sign vocabulary task scored higher on the reading vocabulary task in comparison to children with lower scores on the reading vocabulary task. This finding may not be very surprising, as teachers in bilingual education programs in the Netherlands exploit deaf children’s lexical knowledge in SLN to teach them new reading vocabulary. To illustrate, in direct reading vocabulary instruction, teachers often explicitly use signs and fingerspelling to help deaf children to understand and remember new written words. This phenomenon has been referred to as ‘chaining’ in the work by Padden and Ramsey. The results we obtained in the present study (and in intervention studies by Wauters, Knoors, Vervloed and Aarnoutsen (2001) and Mollink, Hermans and Knoors (2008)) seem to justify the use of these techniques in bilingual education programs.

We also observed a positive relationship between the children’s scores on the reading comprehension scores in written Dutch and the children’s scores on the story comprehension scores in SLN when nonverbal intelligence was controlled for. However, this relationship disappeared when the children’s vocabulary scores were taken into account. The results may indicate that the positive relationship that was observed between the children’s score in story comprehension in SLN and written Dutch may to some extent be localized at the vocabulary level. The results, therefore, imply that children’s reading vocabulary should be controlled for in future studies on the relationship between the reading and signing skills in deaf children.

In bilingual education programs in the Netherlands, deaf children are, in addition to written Dutch and SLN, also taught in spoken Dutch. In general, the spoken language skills of deaf children from bilingual education programs lag behind the skills of hearing peers in most, if not all, domains. Despite this lag, it is still likely that the children’s skills in spoken Dutch will also affect the acquisition of written Dutch. In the present study, we unfortunately did not administer standardized language assessment instruments for spoken Dutch. However, the children’s skills in spoken Dutch were rated by their teachers and/or speech therapists on a five point scale. In a series of analyses, we found that the group of deaf children who outperformed their deaf peers on the reading vocabulary task and the story comprehension task, were also rated by their teachers/speech therapists as having larger vocabularies in spoken Dutch and better story comprehension skills in spoken Dutch. It is not clear as to why the spoken language skills correlated with their reading and signing skills. One possible explanation is that deaf children can also exploit their spoken language skills during literacy acquisition. Alternatively, the spoken language skills of the deaf children may have been improved as a result of learning to read. The findings strongly suggest that spoken language skills should also be assessed in future longitudinal studies on the relation between reading and signing skills.

In order to optimize literacy instruction for deaf children, it is clear that we must understand how the children’s skills in spoken and sign languages can be exploited in literacy acquisition. Although this study itself does not provide any definite answer to this question, it provides some clear indications as to how future studies should be set-up to clarify the role of spoken and sign languages in literacy acquisition.

Reference:
The relationship between the reading and signing skills of deaf children in bilingual education programs. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 13, 518-530.