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Modeling Reading Vocabulary Learning in Deaf Children in Bilingual Education Programs



  • Dr. Daan Hermans/ Pontem, Nijmegen, The Netherlands was available from 07/21/08 until 08/10/08 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: The acquisition of reading vocabulary is one of the major challenges for deaf children in bilingual education programs. Deaf children have to acquire a written lexicon that can effectively be used in reading. In this paper, we present a developmental model that describes reading vocabulary acquisition of deaf children in bilingual education programs. The model is inspired by Jiang's model of vocabulary development in a second language (N. Jiang, 2000, 2004a) and the hierarchical model of lexical representation and processing in bilinguals (J. F. Kroll & E. Stewart, 1988). We argue that lexical development in the written language often fossilizes and that many words deaf readers acquire will not reach the final stage of lexical development. We argue that this feature is consistent with many findings reported in the literature. Finally, we discuss the pedagogical implications of the model.


Background: In the paper we present a developmental model of reading vocabulary learning of deaf children in bilingual education programs. Deaf children have to develop a written lexicon that contains the appropriate semantic, syntactic, morphological, and orthographic information for each of the words they learn. The construction of such a written lexicon is a vital part of learning to read, as words are the building blocks of languages. We argue that, when reading instruction starts in grade 1, many deaf children in bilingual education programs do not master two important prerequisites for reading vocabulary learning for hearing children: large spoken language vocabularies and good phonological skills. As a consequence, most deaf children will not be able to exploit the natural relations between the spoken and written forms of a language. This problem has been widely acknowledged. It has also resulted in quite a different approach in bilingual programs toward the education of deaf children in general and toward teaching deaf children to read in particular. Within (many) bilingual education programs, teachers enhance and exploit their pupil's sign language skills to develop their reading skills. For example, teachers in many bilingual education programs cultivate associations between signs and words to teach deaf children new reading vocabulary. This technique has been referred to as chaining by Padden and Ramsey (2000). Padden and Ramsey found that teachers in reading instructional practices explicitly linked written words, fingerspelling, and signs together. They describe an example in which a teacher, in a lesson about volcanos, in rapid succession first fingerspelled the word "Vulcano," then pointed to the word written on the blackboard, and finally made the sign. This chaining technique is one example of the many techniques that teachers in bilingual education programs use to exploit deaf children's knowledge in sign language during reading vocabulary learning.

As a scientific underpinning, proponents of bilingual education models have often referred to the Linguistic Interdependence model proposed by Cummins (1981). This model postulates a common proficiency underlying skills in all languages and that skills acquired in a first language can be used to acquire (transfer to) a second language. We argue that there are three major shortcomings of the Linguistic Interdependence model: (1) the theory does not really give us much insight in why, how, at which (linguistic) levels, and under what circumstances transfer from a sign language to a written language is observed, (2) the theory does not explain why the reading skills of deaf children do not seem to have improved substantially in the last two decades, despite the introduction of bilingual education programs (perhaps because the potentially important role of the spoken language skills in reading vocabulary learning has been underestimated) and (3) we think the model does not adequately capture the unique learning conditions under which deaf children in bilingual programs acquire a written language.

To illustrate the third shortcoming, the use of sign-based reading instructional techniques presumably has an impact on how written words are stored in the mental lexicons of deaf children and how deaf children can access and use these words in reading and writing. To illustrate, in a reading lesson in a bilingual education program for deaf children in the Netherlands, an 8-year-old girl was asked to read aloud the Dutch sentence "Sonja loopt naar de stoel" (Sonja walks to the chair). As she attempted to read the sentence aloud, the girl made a mistake. She produced the incorrect sentence "Sonja loopt naar de ‘zitten'" (Sonja walks to the "to sit"). There is at least one aspect to this reading aloud error that is very intriguing. The noun "chair" and the verb "to sit" are not only semantically similar but also phonologically very similar in Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN). It seems, therefore, likely that SLN was somehow involved in the production of this error (for very similar errors in the writings of deaf adults, see McCoy, Pennington, & Suri, 1996a, 1996b). Thus, the conditions under which deaf children acquire written languages are unique and will have an impact on how written words are stored in the mental lexicons of deaf children. Any model of reading acquisition for deaf children should acknowledge these conditions.


The model & evidence: I will limit the discussion of the model here for the sake of simplicity. And also, because I think that many readers of the ‘author’s corner’ will be interested in the pedagogical implications of the model. Any reader who wishes more information is free to contact me. The model is strongly inspired by Jiang's psycholinguistic model of vocabulary learning in a second language, and acknowledges (1) the important roles of both languages in the acquisition of reading vocabulary by deaf children in bilingual education programs and (2) the unique learning conditions under which deaf children in bilingual education programs acquire written languages. The model assumes that there are three stages of lexical development of reading vocabulary for deaf children in bilingual education programs. We argue that, initially, deaf children from bilingual education programs create associations between written words and signs. As a consequence, the lexical representation of the written word will not necessarily contain its appropriate semantic, syntactic and morphological specifications. We also argue that lexical development for many words deaf children fossilizes; lexical development will not be complete for many of the words deaf children acquire. Lexical development will often not proceed beyond the second stage of development. A large part of the paper is then contributed to discuss evidence which is consistent with the model, and present some possible empirical tests of the model.

Figure_1.jpg
Figure 1. A model of lexical development for deaf children



Pedogogical implications: In the mid-90s of the last century, bilingual education programs were implemented in special schools for deaf children in many countries. These bilingual education programs have given deaf children unique opportunities to develop their skills in a natural sign language and to exploit their sign language proficiency to acquire a variety of academic skills. But despite the promises of bilingual education programs, the average reading skills of children do not seem to have improved substantially in the last decade. In our opinion, bilingual education programs with sign-based reading instructional practices have indeed provided children with the opportunities under which they can exploit their sign language proficiency to acquire written languages.

We have argued that most deaf children must initially rely upon their sign language system to learn the meanings of written words, as their spoken language system is not yet ready to support the acquisition of the written language when reading instruction starts. Many teachers of deaf children in bilingual education programs have acknowledged this, and they use sign-based instructional techniques to teach deaf children new reading vocabulary. However, learning the meanings of written words is not enough: children have to develop a written lexicon that also contains the syntactic and morphological specifications of each word. We have also argued that spoken language skills are, potentially, very beneficial for the development of a mental lexicon in which the orthographic, morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties of written words are specified. Thus, deaf children may benefit tremendously if not only their sign language skills are exploited in reading vocabulary acquisition but also their spoken language skills. The involvement of the spoken language system will add to the redundancy, the preciseness, and the quantity of lexical representations. In other words, we think both languages can play an important but different role in the acquisition of reading vocabulary.

To be very clear, we think teachers should use sign-based chaining techniques when they teach deaf children in bilingual education programs new reading vocabulary. Words/signs are the building blocks of language, and the acquisition of vocabulary is a crucial aspect of language development. Sign-based reading vocabulary instructional techniques, like chaining, provide teachers with a powerful instrument for teaching children these building blocks of language. In addition, deaf children with little access to spoken languages will, at least initially, automatically understand the meaning of new written words within the preexisting language and conceptual systems, regardless of whether intralingual strategies, interlingual strategies, or extralingual strategies are used in the classroom. Thus, reading instructional programs that exploit deaf children's lexical knowledge in sign language will facilitate the acquisition of new reading vocabulary.

We have also argued that many written words that deaf children from bilingual education programs acquire will not develop beyond the second stage of lexical development. In this scenario, the right question to ask is which strategies teachers should use to help deaf children to reach the third stage of lexical development. A first necessary step is that deaf children must learn that written languages are not related to sign languages. Hoffmeister and Caldwell-Harris (in preparation) have pointed out that deaf children may have a "naive theory of print." Deaf children do not always realize that the written language is related to the language spoken by hearing people and unrelated to the sign language. In addition, deaf children have to learn that there are important differences between written languages and sign languages. To illustrate, the relation between the form and the meaning of words is usually arbitrary. In contrast, the forms of many signs are related to their meanings. Children have to be aware of this fundamental difference when they start learning written words (Paul, 1998).

A second step for deaf children is to gain knowledge about the structure of the written and the spoken language. Deaf children may start to learn the regularities of the orthographic system when their experiences with reading materials are intensified. Because the orthographic system generally is a reflection of the phonological system of the underlying spoken language, children may gain knowledge about the phonology of the spoken language system as well. Thus, some deaf children acquire knowledge automatically through intensive exposure to print (Musselman, 2000. However, teachers may also try to enhance deaf children's knowledge of the written and spoken language systems. For instance, teachers can use techniques like fingerspelling (Padden & Ramsey, 2000) or visual phonics (Woolsey, Satterfield, & Robertson, 2006) to increase children's knowledge of the sublexical structures (letters, graphemes/phonemes, and syllables) in the written and spoken languages. In addition, teachers may stimulate children's knowledge about the orthographic/phonological and morphological structure of the written language by exploiting childrens' skills in the sign language. For instance, Paul (1998) notes that children can be introduced to the notion of word roots through exercises in which they have to detect similarities in the forms of morphologically related signs. In fact, the acquisition of many morphological and syntactic properties of written languages can be facilitated when teachers build upon children's knowledge of sign languages (Paul, 1998).

Another beneficial step for deaf children is the development of spoken language skills. Good spoken language vocabulary skills will facilitate the acquisition of new reading vocabulary. More importantly, children need to develop precise phonological representations (Perfetti, 1991). Precise phonological representations are necessary to exploit sublexical correspondences between written and spoken languages (Leybaert & Alegria, 2003).Speech therapists and teachers may use techniques like cued speech (CS) to enhance children's comprehension in the spoken language (Alegria, Charlier, & Mattys, 1999; Nicholls & Ling, 1982) and to improve the preciseness of phonological representations (Leybaert, 2000; Leybaert & Alegria, 2003; Leybaert & Lechat, 2001). Leybaert, for instance, found that deaf children who are taught spoken language skills through cued speech (CS) from an early age on had developed precise phonological representations, and used phoneme-grapheme correspondence rules in spelling. In other words, deaf children need to acquire knowledge of the structure of written and spoken languages. The involvement of the spoken language system in reading vocabulary learning can be very beneficial as it increases the redundancy, the preciseness, and the quantity of lexical representations.


Reference:
Hermans, D., Knoors, H., Ormel, E. & Verhoeven, L. (2008). Modeling Reading Vocabulary Learning in Deaf Children in Bilingual Education Programs, . Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 13, 155-174.