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Reforms: The Impact on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students|
It can be difficult for students who are deaf or hard of hearing without grade-level literacy skills to learn other content areas such as science, social studies, etc., placing them at risk for academic and social failure (Howell & Luckner, 2003). Although literacy is often taught as a separate part of the academic curriculum, some programs are looking at ways to integrate literacy instruction into other academic domains. These strategies, known as content literacy skills, are strategies that good readers use to tailor their learning to the academic context. For example, the reading comprehension strategies and vocabulary one may use when studying a chronological time line in a history course are different from those used when preparing for a chemistry experiment. In a history course, teachers might emphasize either concurrent events or the linear sequence of events using the time line as a conceptual anchor. In chemistry, teachers might first address the structure and layout of a science textbook to help the student feel confident about her ability to navigate it for content (Howell & Luckner, 2003). Text elements such as the headings, diagrams, and captions as well as content features such as structuring a logical argument help the student approach the course with less trepidation. (Researchers also tapped into mental imagery techniques to help the student learn new content-specific vocabulary, as found in Schirmer, Bailey, & Lockman, 2004). Finally, the student is taught how to summarize important information in long stretches of text. Using this approach, secondary students might gain needed skills not only in general literacy but also in academic course work. This research demonstrates the importance of using multiple strategies to improve student learning as well as ways to leverage both content and literacy skill development. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing with content literacy skills will be better prepared to succeed on measures of student proficiency as accountability reforms move from core content areas of math and reading into applied content areas of science and social studies.
Literacy and academic characteristics of students who are deaf or hard of hearing depend not only on degree of hearing loss but also on language use and access to culturally relevant academic experiences (Simms & Thumann, 2007). When thinking about the diversity of students who are deaf or hard of hearing and educational models to serve their needs, it can be helpful to look at parallels with other students who do not have spoken English as a first language. Some students who are deaf or hard of hearing share similarities not only with other students with disabilities but also with English Language Learners. For example, students who use American Sign Language as their first language may learn English as a second language. Some experiences of students who are deaf or hard of hearing can be similar to those of hearing students who come from a non-English speaking background and come to school with little to no English. The sensory access to English is different (visual vs. auditory), but the existence of a primary language base and different culture from that of the majority of the student body can be a common ground. Some researchers propose literacy development strategies for deaf students that are similar to those used with English Language Learners (Spaulding, Carolino, & Amen, 2004). Although not designated as special education students, English Language Learners require extra assistance as they simultaneously learn a new language and participate in the curriculum (Cummins, 1984). Two instructional strategies in deaf education reflect aspects of an English Language Learner framework applied to students who are deaf or hard of hearing: culturally relevant literacy and bilingual education.
There are multiple cultural elements at play for students in public education who are deaf or hard of hearing, including the roles of Deaf culture, sign language, and minority culture within American society (Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989; for an extensive discussion of status of Deaf Studies from multiple frameworks, see recent work by Hauser, O’Hearn, McKee, Steider, & Thew, 2010; Holocomb, 2010; Marschark & Humphries, 2010; Myers & Fernandes, 2009; Paul & Moores, 2010). Depending on the language contexts of their family and social contexts, students may also be bi- or trilingual (Gerner de Garcia, 1995, 2004). Qualls-Mitchell (2002) emphasizes the need to look at culturally relevant literacy curriculum for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Qualls-Mitchell’s research explores ways to use culturally relevant topics to engage students in reading activities. One of her key points is the need to build a culturally relevant vocabulary. In this approach, showing words along with images throughout the process is a foundational part of reading instruction for emerging readers. For Deaf students whose heritage is from the majority culture in the local community, connections may need to be made between American Sign Language and the hearing world. For students who are both Deaf and from a minority background, which will vary depending on the local context, a culturally relevant curriculum requires focusing on concepts and meaning that are relevant to all three cultures (Deaf, minority culture, and majority culture). The goal is to create a stimulating classroom environment that reflects the interests and diversity of the students.
If successful literacy is grounded in a student’s language use, then the complexities of multilingual realities are important to address in reading development. Culturally relevant literacy approaches for students who are deaf or hard of hearing draw on student experiences in ways that integrate their linguistic and cultural background into the literacy acquisition process. When a bi- or tricultural approach is in place, literacy instruction can build on the child’s ability to describe one’s own experience. Yet most literacy curricula are taught from the perspective of the dominant, English-speaking, hearing culture (Simms & Thumann, 2007). Furthermore, accountability reforms in the United States emphasize English literacy development from the earliest grades to the detriment of multilingual approaches that may require additional time before English literacy is at grade level. When assessment focuses only on English literacy development, and not on literacy development in a broader sense, students from diverse language backgrounds are labeled as “non-proficient” readers at a time when they are still developing their English language skills.
Bilingual education, reemerging in earnest about 30 years ago, is seen by some as a potentially fruitful model to use in educating deaf and hard of hearing students in a way that honors both the dominant English culture and the Deaf culture (e.g., Cangiano, 1992; Cline, 1997; LaSasso & Metzger, 1998; Laurence, 1991; Moores, 2008b; Wilbur, 2000; Zaitseva, Pursglove, & Gregory, 1999; for critiques, see also Mayer & Akamatsu, 1999; Stuckless, 1991). For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, the bilingual model combines American Sign Language and English in instruction. This strategy is, in part, a response to the perceived limitations of an oral-only or total communication (English with supplementary signs) environment. American Sign Language may be a more suitable first language for many students with hearing loss because it is communicated through the eyes, hands, and face. There is also emerging evidence of the strengths of bilingualism, including its effects in the areas of executive function and cognitive flexibility (Bialystok, Craik, & Ryan, 2006; Kushalnagar, Hannay, & Hernandez, 2010). Although the increase in cochlear implants may reduce the sole use of American Sign Language in instruction, American Sign Language will still play a role in the lives of students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Many hope that students who receive instruction in both American Sign Language and English will achieve higher levels of reading proficiency, and thus academic success, than those using only one mode of communication and instruction (Power, Hyde, & Leigh, 2008). The goal of the bilingual-bicultural movement reflects a “desire of many Deaf parents and parents of deaf children to have their children educated in an environment that supports and values both hearing and deaf culture and language” (Saunders, 1997, p. 62).
2. Although I will primarily be discussing the bilingual education movement, many classrooms couple bilingual with bicultural emphases (Bi-Bi classrooms). Issues of culture are certainly important in discussing language development in deaf and hard of hearing children. The literature base, however, pertains almost exclusively to bilingual issues.