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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South

Hannah Joyner

Chapter Seven
With the Eyes to Hear and the Hands to Speak

When Deaf pupils first entered the classroom, the majority of southern schools for the Deaf immediately began to offer lessons in elementary sign language. Students themselves had already fashioned rudimentary sign skills by combining home sign with their experiences in the dorm with other pupils. Teachers quickly tried to intervene. Many instructors believed that although signed language was created by Deaf people, educated hearing people could improve upon it. It was expected that the “limited and imperfect” sign of Deaf people would be “improved” by hearing instructors who could inject some of the complexities of an oral language. Through hearing input, instructors believed, signed language would enter into a “highly cultivated and improved state.”1

Using American Sign Language extensively to facilitate lessons, teachers introduced written English by trying to connect a physical object or concept, its ASL sign, and its written representation. A teacher would hold up an object such as a hat or pen and present its sign. Depending on the level of the pupils’ sign literacy, the teacher might then ask the pupils to explain the object’s uses in “the pantomime language.” Next, the teacher might write the name of the object upon a slate, encouraging students to see a connection between the concrete object and “the particular combination of letters composing the name of the object.” As soon as students understood the concept of written language (in other words, that “speaking and hearing people have a written language by which they can recall to the mind of another the same idea which occupies the mind of the writer”), the teacher might begin to teach many other nouns by the same process. Eventually, students would be exposed to the entire alphabet through the variety of written words.2

After students learned how to express a handful of nouns in both ASL and written English, the teacher could introduce adjectives by focusing on the color, size, or shape—“the most obvious qualities”—of the object. The students would begin to learn phrases (in both ASL and English) such as the “black hat” or the “red bird.” Colors were often the first adjectives taught because they could be “readily brought before the eye” and presented “such a marked difference in contrast.” Later, “less obvious attributes” could be taught through the use of example. For example, one teacher explained that “if we wish to teach the quality of ‘hardness,’ we select a stone or some other substance possessing that quality, and present it to the pupil, with the desire that he impress it with his fingers. It of course will resist pressure. He is then directed to strike it with his knuckles. It hurts them.” The author continued, “He is directed to bite or cut it. He makes the attempt but fails to make any impression. He is directed to throw it on the floor or table and it makes an impression instead of receiving one.” The experiments continued: the teacher would hammer the stone until it became powder, without the “resisting power” of stone. When the teacher asked a student to compare a new stone with the leftover stone particles, he or she would discern that the main difference was the power of resistance. “He would then be told that ‘hard’ is the name of the resisting power,” said the teacher. At that point, other hard objects such as a key or nail could be offered to the pupils so they could expand their understanding.3

After the students mastered lists of adjectives, the teacher would begin to present verbs. Educators recognized that the verb “presents more difficulties to the deaf mute teacher than any other part of speech,” partly because ASL and English were so different structurally. One teacher advised introducing verbs by teaching their imperative form, that is, directing


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