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Scoping support for New Zealand Sign Language users accessing the Curriculum Part I: An international literature review

Publication Details

This literature review has focused on the needs of those deaf children for whom visual communication through a Sign Language is beneficial for their educational development. The aim is to allow the sector to constantly and critically re-examine its work and approaches, as is called for in the literature (Schick et al 2006).

Released on Education Counts: December 2010

Author(s): Prepared by Fitzgerald & Associates for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: October 2010

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9. Educational Practice

Bilingual education raises complex issues of educational practice, staff training and administration. (Gregory, 1996). Significant amount of research is still underway to identify best teaching methods, assessments used and how best to support the language development, including speaking and listening as well as social-emotional needs (Swanwick & Gregory, 2008).

The scattering of deaf children throughout schools also makes it harder to generate evidence on ‘what works’ in deaf education. 80% of public schools are believed to have three or less deaf students. The ethnic, aetiological and intervention profiles have changed dramatically over the last 15 years resulting in increased student diversity (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2006).

There are however some consistent pedagogical features of teaching children in Sign Language.

All teachers use a multimodal presentation of both languages (sign, print, pictures, fingerspelling) in order to make the language meaningful. Stories are typically told in Sign Language and repeated until the story becomes familiar. Nation’s techniques of repetition, analysis and enrichment are used. Subsequent re-readings are also in Sign Language but follow the English word order of the book (Paterson, 1994).

Reading aloud and seeing the print is the normal process of learning to read for hearing children. Deaf children however need to see the print and see it signed as closely as possible.  Children watch the signing in the periphery and also look at the text with the teacher sitting at right angles to the student.

Most of the literature supports mouthing, speech and sign-based assistance through signs and fingerspelling to bridge them. The importance of being explicit about the use of Sign Language, English and any English-based signing is emphasised by a number of researchers (Swanwick, 2002).

One experienced teacher noted:

With deaf children you can’t teach English through English, you have to use ASL. This makes the constant translation and switching between the two languages an ongoing part of the school day. (Evans, 2004 p 21)

Classroom practice should be based on the planned use of Sign Language and English as appropriate for the learning outcomes; the language repertoire of the pupils and the specific learning needs of individuals.

Sign Language and English should be used as the language of instruction and assessment as appropriate but should also be explicitly taught and assessed/ monitored areas of learning in their own right. Pupils are likely to have one language that is more dominant (Swanwick & Gregory, 2008).

Teachers increasingly focus on the form of English as children progress, including attention to grammar translation as students construct English text from Sign Language narrative and letter combinations. One of the problems of Deaf learners of English is that they incorrectly over-generalise a comprehension and production strategy that they have learned for simple sentences: ordering a subject before a verb before a direct object.  “The truck was hit by the car” is easily understood as the truck did the hitting (Pribanić, 2006).

Literal translation can also be a problem for some students. For example, prior to reading a story that involved a house with a dirt floor, there was a discussion that this did not mean a dirty floor but that the floor was made of dirt. Meaning-driven teaching strategies that gave the students an active role in their own learning was considered most effective. More explicit word-based, rather than discourse-based language structures were seen as inconsistent with bilingual programmes. The more explicit the teaching, the less actively involved the student became in the teaching process (Evans, 2004).

Literacy strategies include indirect representation of English by translation in NZSL and more direct representation by “contact signing” (using NZSL words in English word order) and by fingerspelling. Fingerspelling proved to be a key strategic tool in linking the two languages.

“Chaining” is often used, including the visual representation of a word or by a chained sequence of fingerspelling, mouthing and signing and thereby emphasising the equivalence of language forms (Smith, 2003 pp 115 – 116). “Sandwiching” is a form of chaining in which the sign is sandwiched between fingerspelling of the word before and after the sign is given, thereby linking the word with a sign (Herman et al, 2008).

Word maps were also often used to discuss different meanings of words.

Bagga-Gupta (2002) confirms that global lesson patterns, particularly mixed lessons of plenary and individual and/or group work, are most useful for supporting linguistic complexity. Deaf students prefer to learn in concrete and meaningful contexts (Marschark & Spencer, 2003).

Metalinguistic awareness of English and NZSL as separate languages is considered vital.

Emphasis is given to the different ways of expressing equivalent meaning and engaging students in analysis of sign and print word forms.

Whole-language proponents argue that exposure to the second language in print can make up for the lack of an oral language (Marschark & Spencer, 2003). Many researchers criticise the teachers focus on sentence structure to the exclusion of other aspects of language (inferencing, paragraph structure, conversation and story structure as a transmission of sequenced information) (Pribanić, 2006; Wilbur, 2001).  Furlonger and Massa (1998), however, argue that both the whole language approach and the code-oriented approach need to be used in bilingualism, and that too often the former dominates. Phonological learning can occur though, and Wilbur (2001) cites the ability of Chinese people to learn Mandarin as proof that people do not need to pronounce a language in order to write it.

There are copious amounts of information for supporting signing children in classroom environments (Watson et al, 1999), particularly around the need to look at information before it is discussed, the need for social relationships to be encouraged and for signing to be seen positively. Primarily deaf children need to be seen in terms of their strengths in using a different modality, rather than their deficits.

While there is not a large amount of literature on teaching mathematics bilingually, it is clear that school factors, including teacher qualifications and effectiveness, appear to have the greatest effect in mathematics performance (Powers & Gregory, 1998).

9.1. Curriculum

Wilbur (2001) speaks for many when she argues that a clear goal of deaf education is to provide access to an age-appropriate curriculum in all areas.

There is a growing acceptance that all content areas of the curriculum should use all lessons as ways of expanding cognitive and language abilities, especially vocabulary. Some contend that the differences in linguistic and cultural contexts mean that different objectives and assessments need to be used with Deaf children. Others argue that teaching deaf people can be optimised in any situation and that the same curriculum and assessments can be used to teach the same outcomes using Sign Language. Changing the curriculum is therefore contentious except for the teaching of NZSL and Deaf Studies (Marschark & Spencer, 2003).

What is agreed is the need for openness, experimentation and modification of strategies depending on student need to focus on learning objectives in the core learning areas. Marschark and Spencer (2003) note the criticism that the training of teachers of the deaf lacks sophistication in understanding modern curriculum and methods.

9.1.1. General Language Assessment

From the moment deaf children are placed in school settings, language development is a primary educational goal. The accurate and authentic assessment of a deaf child’s language development is crucial (Prezbindowski & Lederberg, 2003).

A variety of vocabulary assessments are advocated, including naturalistic and elicited language samples, parental diaries and checklists; tests can be appropriate, each with their own limitations.  Prezbindowski and Lederberg (2003) advocate for the use of the Communication Development Inventory for very young children, Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and Expressive One Word Picture Vocabulary Test at age 30 months or more in the US.

A variety of language assessment approaches are needed, including:

  • Criterion-referenced tools
  • Norm-referenced instruments
  • Analysis of student samples
  • Questionnaires
  • Interviews
  • Observations (checklists).
Many aspects of development such as social-emotional, cognitive, linguistic, perceptual and physical skills influence and modify and may be dependent on one another in the course of language acquisition

Yoshinaga (1997) supports interactionist theories that state that many aspects of development such as social-emotional, cognitive, linguistic, perceptual and physical skills influence and modify and may be dependent on one another in the course of language acquisition. Understanding that multiple interacting processes are taking place, rather than serial processes or operations performed sequentially has significant implications for understanding language acquisition.

Yet most assessment tools assume a modular perspective, for example examining syntactic development or grammar, or vocabulary. They have provided little information about:

  • How to help children develop typical rule systems
  • What characteristics predict mastery of grammar rules
  • How the acquisition of some aspects of language influence the acquisition of other aspects (Yoshinaga, 1997).

Recommendations are made to assess comprehensively to identify variables that may be restricting semantic development, such as determining flexibility and rate of acquisition of vocabulary, determining preferred mode for expanding vocabulary, identifying the student’s key strategies and cognitive ability for obtaining information and interpreting meaning, style of lexical learning (Yoshinaga, 1997).

Syntactic development is thought to often peak at the age of 12 or 13. Recommendations for comprehensive approaches to syntax assessment include determination of the student’s comprehension of syntactic structures, primary modality and the use of different forms. Recommendations for teachers include (Yoshinaga, 1997):

  • Identify language strategies that the student is using and whether they are successful
  • Compare the language to that of normal hearing peers of the same age in syntax, semantics and pragmatics
  • Determine the extent to which the language reception is dependent on auditory versus visual perception abilities
  • Determine the student’s developmental profile
  • Include information about the context of the evaluation, such as the conversational partner, and
  • Investigate the interrelationship of each aspect of the language for the individual student: syntax, semantics and pragmatics and phonology.

9.1.2. Sign Language Assessment

There are few standardised assessment tools that can effectively provide a detailed evaluation of a deaf student’s ability to use the language efficiently (Mann & Prinz, 2006).

Instruments are particularly difficult to develop when language input for deaf children is so variable and may include a natural Sign Language or sign systems.  Assessments need to target specific linguistic forms and functions (Mann & Prinz, 2006).

Of 100 staff surveyed in US residential bilingual schools, 49% stated they were not aware of any regular Sign Language assessment at school. Most commonly used were a variety of strategies including observation checklists and video recordings and it was preferred that more than one person be involved in the assessment (Mann & Prinz, 2006).

While there are some instruments of assessment available, they still need to be proven valid and reliable. They are also complex and require a sophisticated understanding of Sign Language linguistics and their acquisition as well as assessment, which in turn requires highly trained staff (Marschark & Spencer, 2003).

Swanwick and Gregory (2008) note that tools for the assessment of children’s BSL have been developed. They agree that the tests are limited by the age of participants, a lack of large sample norms and valid psychometric properties. 

Three elements were considered most important to assess (Mann & Prinz, 2006):

  • Language comprehension
  • Language production, and
  • Communicative competence.

9.1.3. General Assessment

Assessing general outcomes for deaf children is plagued with difficulty. In the US, standardised test scores are considered the best, if not only, indicators of academic achievement, as subject grades are prone to too much variability or measurement error. Most research in the area has been limited to the analysis of norm-referenced standardised tests (Marschark & Spencer, 2003).

Accommodations in general curriculum-related assessments (e.g. longer times, use of interpreter) all bring into question the accuracy of the assessment. Yoshinaga agrees that pragmatic assessments can be inappropriately based on hearing norms, provide incomplete or inappropriate checklists, ignore the context of communication intent and focus on age-matched peers (Yoshinaga, 1997).


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