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American Annals of the Deaf

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More Than Meets the Eye: Revealing the Complexities of an Interpreted Education
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Some students who are Deaf and hard of hearing do not perform as well academically as their hearing peers. Several factors potentially influence academic outcomes, including use of sign language in the home, age of intervention, amount of hearing loss, and quality of education and support structures.

Most Deaf and hard of hearing children have parents who are not Deaf or hard of hearing. According to Mitchell and Karchmer (2004), 92% of Deaf children are from families with two hearing parents, and 8% have at least one Deaf or hard of hearing parent. Only 4% of children have two Deaf parents. The high percentage of Deaf children with hearing parents is significant for several reasons. Although a signed language may be the most logical choice for a student who cannot hear a spoken language, most hearing parents with a Deaf child do not know sign language. Some researchers suggest that “young deaf children of hearing parents frequently do not have any truly accessible and competent language models, either for sign language or for spoken language” (Marschark, Lang, & Albertini, 2002, p. 12).

Although hearing parents typically serve as fluent language models for their hearing children, they are less prepared to make language accessible to children who cannot hear. Even if parents decide to learn sign language, they will often be less than proficient models of sign language since they are learning sign language along with their children. In addition, hearing parents are often uninformed about effective strategies for communicating visually with their Deaf or hard of hearing children. This can have a profound impact not only on the language acquisition and cognitive-academic achievement of these children, but also on their socioemotional development.

Studies indicate that Deaf children who are exposed to signing at an early age perform better academically than those who are not (Calderon & Greenberg, 1997; Mayberry & Eichen, 1991; Moores, 1996; Moores & Meadow-Orlans, 1990). The most accurate predictor of academic achievement appears to be early intervention (Marschark et al., 2002; Moeller, 2000; Yoshinaga-Itano, Sedey, Coulter, & Mehl, 1998), regardless of whether parents choose sign language or favor another approach to making communication accessible to their children. Parents must seek and evaluate medical advice to make decisions about communication options as well as education for their Deaf or hard of hearing child. Critical time passes while hearing parents try to determine how best to provide access to language, and to learn to communicate effectively with their child. As a result, Deaf and hard of hearing children may not be exposed to sign language and other interventions during the most critical years for language acquisition. Even if parents begin to learn sign language along with their children, the children typically are not exposed to fluent sign language during all of their waking hours. In contrast, of course, hearing children have the obvious advantage of constant and consistent exposure to spoken language.

Like U.S. students who are native speakers of languages other than English, Deaf and hard of hearing students’ English literacy skills often peak at about the fourth grade level, with the consequence that Deaf and hard of hearing students do not perform as well academically as their hearing peers (Allen, 1986; Holt, 1993; Marschark et al., 2002; Schildroth & Hotto, 1994). Academic success for Deaf and hard of hearing students is compromised by the challenge of reading and writing English, which in turn inhibits entry into postsecondary institutions. One study found that only 3% of Deaf 18-year-olds read as well as their hearing peers (Traxler, 2000). Other research provides further validation of the problem, reporting that about 83% of students admitted to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in 2001 and 2002 did not have “the requisite reading and language skills to enter a baccalaureate program in their first year” (Cuculick & Kelly, 2003, p. 279).

Besides age of intervention and signing in the home, another significant factor contributing to academic underachievement among Deaf and hard of hearing students is the communication policies within K–12 schools. Oddly, clear, accessible communication is often not provided at school. Not even teachers who are credentialed to teach Deaf and hard of hearing children are held to rigorous sign language proficiency standards. What is more, since Marschark et al. (2005a, p. 57) “estimates that over 75% of deaf children are mainstreamed, receiving the bulk of their academic experience in circumstances mediated by sign language interpreters” (Peterson & Monikowski, 2010, p.129), one factor worthy of consideration is the impact educational interpreters are likely to have on the learning outcomes and school experiences of Deaf and hard of hearing students.


Historically, there has been much controversy about the language of instruction appropriate for the education of Deaf and hard of hearing children and youth. Heated debates continue to rage about whether students should be taught using American Sign Language (ASL), which is a language distinct from English with its own grammatical rules and vocabulary, or through a form of contact signing in which signs are used following rules for English syntax. Some educators and administrators promote the use of a signing system developed to map modified signs onto English vocabulary and grammar in the hopes of teaching English to Deaf and hard of hearing children. A few of these systems persist in spite of questionable outcomes in improving literacy among Deaf and hard of hearing students. Still others advocate that sign language should not be used at all, providing as rationale that students who are allowed to sign will not develop the ability to speak and lipread English, since sign language will take less effort for Deaf and hard of hearing students. Controversy among scholars and researchers has led many schools to establish language policies to mandate whether interpreters should “interpret” into ASL or “transliterate,” which means to produce a more literal rendition of the spoken English, using ASL signs while emphasizing the vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation (e.g., lip movements) of spoken English words. These language policies often become directives for sign language interpreters.

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