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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Students and the Qualitative Similarity Hypothesis: Understanding Language and Literacy Development

Peter V. Paul, Ye Wang,
and Cheri Williams

Introduction to the Qualitative Similarity Hypothesis

In this introductory chapter we provide a general overview of the construct known as the qualitative similarity hypothesis (QSH) (Paul, 2010, 2012; Paul & Lee, 2010; Paul & Wang, 2012) and establish the tenor for the remainder of this book. The QSH is a descriptive, testable hypothesis (or construct), with micro and macro components (subconstructs), and is based on a synthesis of empirical and reason-integrative research concerning the acquisition of through-the-air English (i.e., speaking and/or signing) and English literacy (i.e., reading and writing). Our main thesis is that the acquisition of English by any individual is developmentally similar to that of native learners and to that of typical literacy learners of English. This developmental similarity suggests that there are certain critical fundamentals that facilitate and enhance the acquisition process. These fundamentals, discussed later, apply to the learning of English as either a first or a second language.

In this book we primarily focus on critiquing the validity of the QSH and its implications for the development of English language and literacy in children and adolescents who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing (d/Dhh). The use of the phrase d/Deaf and hard of hearing encompasses both audiologic and cultural parameters and is meant to be inclusive of the wide range of individuals who have been identified with a hearing loss, including those who are members of the Deaf culture, deaf-world, or have a Deaf identity. Individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing (dhh) are those with slight to profound hearing losses based on the pure-tone average in the better of their two unaided ears (Moores, 2001; Paul & Whitelaw, 2011; Quigley & Kretschmer, 1982). Those who are identified as Deaf (D) typically have Deaf parents/caregivers who use American Sign Language (ASL) or some other type of sign language, which is not based on English. Deaf (D) individuals also can be those who use ASL or some other type of sign language themselves, regardless of the hearing status of their parents/caregivers.

It is permissible to classify some d/Deaf and hard of hearing individuals whose home or first language is not English as English language learners (ELLs). ELL is the common term used to refer to people learning English as a second language, especially in educational settings. However, children and adolescents in special-education programs whose first language is not English may be placed in programs labeled English as a second language (ESL) (e.g., Paul & Wang, 2012). Alternatively, some of these individuals may be educated in bilingual programs, particularly ASL–English bilingual programs.

To understand the challenges of developing English within the conceptual framework of the QSH, it is obligatory for us, the authors, to synthesize theory and research on children and adolescents who are typical English language and literacy users. Throughout this book, we emphasize strongly and repeatedly that the reference standard for the QSH is the typical development of English language and literacy—and individuals may be hearing, Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing and may even have a disability (e.g., language/learning disability; dyslexia) whose effects on the acquisition of English have been minimized or even compensated for via other avenues (e.g., use of comprehension strategies). It might not be sufficient to simply compare the language and cognitive attributes of good or proficient English users with others who are struggling with English language and literacy although this is one standard procedure for research under the rubric of cognitivism, particularly information processing or computational/representational theory of mind (McCarthey & Raphael, 1992; Mitchell, 1982; Paul, 2001, 2009; for popular discussion, see Pinker 1994, 2007). The social/sociocultural and affective domains also contribute to the English acquisition process and are discussed in this book; however, both of these areas are underexplored with d/Dhh children and adolescents (e.g., see Williams, 2011).

Examining the challenges of other children with either language or literacy disabilities or language or literacy difficulties (e.g., those with language or learning disabilities or those who are struggling readers/writers) should also shed additional light on the developmental trajectory of d/Dhh children and adolescents (e.g., see various perspectives in McGill-Franzen & Allington, 2011). In fact, these challenges seem to underscore not only the importance of English language proficiency for cognitive and social purposes but also the strong relationship of knowing English in the through-the-air mode to the acquisition of English print literacy (Cain & Oakhill, 2007; Kamhi & Catts, 2012; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 2011; McGuinness, 2004, 2005). Finally, investigating the complex processes involved in the learning of English as a second language or in bilingual programs by typical non-d/Dhh individuals also contributes to our understanding of the validity of the construct of developmental similarity (August & Shanahan, 2006; Paul & Wang, 2012).


The construct of developmental similarity has a fairly long, contentious history with scholars who have undertaken the pursuit of investigating the development of English language and literacy (Paul, 1985, 2009, 2012; Paul & Wang, 2012). Ascertaining the specific historical or even theoretical influences is not possible because this is contingent on the interpretative biases of the observers. What follows is our rendition of these influences.

The construct of developmental similarity seems to have historical connections with the debates on the relations between language and cognition (Lund, 2003) and between language and literacy (particularly, script or print reading) (Bartine, 1989, 1992; Kamhi & Catts, 2012) as well as the interrelations among language, cognition, and literacy (Paul, 1985, 2009; Paul & Wang, 2012). In these debates, the critical roles of the social interactive environment (home attributes, social practices, social artifacts, school attributes, etc.) or the affective domain (e.g., motivation, interest, self-regulation, etc.) were acknowledged; however, these entities assume a more prominent position in the later periods of the research literature (Gaffney & Anderson, 2000; McIntyre, 2011; Pearson, 2004).

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