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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
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Perhaps, another feasible way to understand the notion of fundamentals is to pose a few questions, which are addressed in this book. For example,
  • What is necessary to acquire or to become proficient in a phonemic-based language such as English? Is this the same for learning English as a second language? How can or should this level of proficiency be maintained throughout the formative school years?
  • What is necessary to acquire or become proficient in English literacy? Is this the same as learning to read and write in English as a second language? How can or should this level of proficiency be maintained throughout the formative school years?
  • Is there a relationship between proficiency in the through-the-air form of English and its written counterpart? What is the nature of this relationship? Is this relationship the same for learning to read and write in English as a second language? Do the attributes of this relationship change or become altered throughout the formative school years?
The Acquisition of Fundamentals: English Language     With respect to through-the-air English, it is a challenge to delineate the fundamentals that are necessary for proficiency. There are numerous debates not only on the nature of English but also on the most efficient manner to investigate its acquisition by children (see Chapter 2). A range of theories and models can be found within the purview of cognitivism, social, contextual, or socioculturalism, or environmental/behaviorism, not to mention the array of computations or combinations of these broad frameworks or even eclectic approaches based on aspects from two or more of them (Kamhi & Catts, 2012; Paul, 2009; Pence & Justice, 2008; Reed, 2012). This situation is no different for learning or acquiring English as a second language (e.g., August & Shanahan, 2006; Birch, 2007; Paul & Wang, 2012).

What does it mean to know English? English proficiency, at the least, means that children have a working intuitive understanding of the integrative use of major language components such as phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics (Crystal, 2006; Pence & Justice, 2008). Thus, the fundamentals of English proficiency entail the use of all of the language components in receptive and expressive communicative interactions. There may be other concepts within each of the components that are critical for obtaining proficiency in a particular component, which indicates that there is an order of acquisition due to levels of difficulty. For example, in the research on the acquisition of syntax, Quigley and his collaborators demonstrated an order of difficulty across the nine structures assessed as well as within several of the structures such as verb processes and relative clauses (see reviews in Paul, 2001, 2009). The order of difficulty was found to be roughly similar for children who are d/Deaf (90 decibels or greater in the better unaided ear) and for children who were typically hearing (i.e., native learners) at younger ages. It should be emphasized that this order of difficulty was for print comprehension of syntax, given the enormous challenges of assessing such knowledge in the through-the-air domain.

Historically, a particular component of English such as phonology or syntax or semantics has received a substantial amount of scholarly attention due to its purported prominence and criticalness, and this has engendered a strong line of research in each specific area (Crystal, 2006; McGuinness, 2005; Paul, 2009; Pence & Justice, 2008). It is assumed that the full development and, consequently, subsequent benefits of knowing and using English requires proficiency in all of its components. The nature of reaching a threshold level of proficiency in a particular language component or with the integration of all components is not completely understood. This current state affects our understanding of the specific contributions of major English language components to the development of English literacy.

There seems to be little doubt that there are important connections between English language comprehension (i.e., comprehension in through-the-air English) and the development of both early and mature literacy skills (Cain & Oakhill, 2007; Kamhi & Catts, 2012; McGuinness, 2004, 2005; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 2011). In fact, English language comprehension—often labeled oral language or through-the-air comprehension—is a major component of an influential model of reading called the “simple view of reading” (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; cf. a critique in Hoffman, 2009). English language comprehension through the air might be necessary (but not sufficient) for English literacy, but also, as stated eloquently by Pinker (1994, p. 16), “writing is clearly an optional accessory; the real engine of verbal communication is the spoken language we acquired as children.”

Most young children who do not have language delays/difficulties or disabilities acquire an intuitive understanding of English by the time they start formal schooling—at about age five or six. The more difficult features of phonology are usually acquired by age eight (Crystal, 2006; Pence & Justice, 2008). Children can then use their knowledge of the English language to further their learning process—that is, growth in comprehension and knowledge. Specifically, children learn to use literate language (language to represent language and concepts as in academic content areas), and they continue to grow in their understanding and use of more complex language structures, including vocabulary knowledge (e.g., see discussions in Paul, 2009; Paul & Wang, 2012; see also Chapter 2).

Several of the challenges to the implications of the QSH, particularly within a certain structure, concern the role of phonology, especially phonological and phonemic awareness, in the development of early English literacy skills in d/Deaf children, who are heavily dependent on the use of sign with presumably little or impoverished access to the sound system of English. Implicitly and, perhaps puzzling, these challenges seem to pertain mostly to the acquisition of English literacy, not necessarily to the development of through-the-air English language (e.g., see Allen et al., 2009; Miller & Clark, 2011).

In our view, phonology represents the building blocks of a language (Crystal, 2006; Pence & Justice, 2008). For individuals to learn or acquire a language—any language—they must be able to access its phonology. In turn, phonological knowledge (on an intuitive or tacit level) facilitates the acquisition of other language components (Crystal, 1997, 2006; Paul, 2009; Pence & Justice, 2008). Some scholars argue that both phonology and morphology contribute to vocabulary knowledge in either the through-the-air mode or in the print mode (e.g., Stahl & Nagy, 2006; see also the discussion in Kamil & Catts, 2012).

For a spoken language such as English, phonology includes the development of proficiency in two broad domains: segmentals (phonemes such as consonants and vowels) and suprasegmentals (prosodic features such as intonation, pauses, etc.). Phonology is highlighted here because of its necessary, but not sufficient, role (particularly phonological processes) in the development of emergent and foundational reading skills (Adams, 1990, 1994, 2002; McGuinness, 2004, 2005; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2002; for d/Dhh children, see C. Mayer, 2007; Paul, 2009; Perfetti & Sandak, 2000; Trezek, Wang, & Paul, 2010, 2011; Wang et al., 2008; Williams, 2004, 2011).

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