Scoping support for New Zealand Sign Language users accessing the curriculum
Part II: A New Zealand Overview

Publication Details

Language instruction to children with hearing loss requires the highest level of competency at the earliest age levels in order to optimize neural plasticity providing the child the best opportunity to develop age or cognitively appropriate language development. This document addresses the need for children with hearing loss and their families to have high quality opportunities in visual communication, as we would also strive to provide for auditory/spoken language communication.

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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Somewhere between 300 and 500 (12 – 20% of) deaf1 children in New Zealand require visual communication to develop language effectively, and by this means, the capacity to develop the insights, knowledge and skills required for active citizenry. Most will be severely or profoundly and prelingually deaf.

For hundreds of years, educationalists have been grappling with the best way to instruct all deaf students. Traditional systems of teaching through oral and auditory approaches and manually coded systems of English have been successful for many deaf children but much less so for this group who need visual support, despite considerable progress in amplification and teaching methods.

Education levels are much lower than would be expected for a group of children and adults largely without cognitive impairment, although precise data on educational achievement is difficult to obtain. Negative employment, mental health and social support service statistics reflect a challenging reality for many adults in the Deaf community.

Deaf people have long been arguing that educational access through Sign Language is essential for those who cannot easily access the spoken word. We know that language development is critical in the first few years of life and that the specific language that is used is less material. There is evidence that comprehensive and inclusive approaches that include both sign and spoken languages as well as specialist deaf support are successful.

A recent Human Rights Commission survey established that the perceived three highest priorities for development after the passing of the New Zealand Sign Language Act are the use of NZ Sign Language (NZSL) in education, together with early and easy access for parents to Sign Language training and the use of educational interpreters. Other NZ legislation and policy also support the use of Sign Language access.

For all these reasons, the Ministry of Education wishes to address the issues and challenges of teaching this group of children from birth to school-leaving age in NZSL.

It is certainly not a simple issue with conflicting views and evidence. On one hand is the call for accessible language in education for all children who may require NZSL as well as spoken language and that both need to be provided to as many people as want or need them. On the other is the claim that the numbers of children who require NZSL are very small and decreasing even further in number because of the effectiveness of current methods. The latter group further argue that if any visual communication system is offered, it should be Signed English or Sign Supported English (SSE), because English is much more easily learned from this base. The counter claim is that NZSL is a natural language for many deaf children and that learning English, even in signed form, is still too problematic for some. Psycho-social needs are also considered best served by recognition of different learning patterns.

Neither view has conclusively proven educational success for all deaf children who require visual communication. Deaf education levels still languish behind their hearing peers on average, even though there is growing evidence of improving standards.

This report has concluded that if NZSL or its derivatives (such as Sign Supported English) are used in education, that it must be offered to all children and families, even though the significant majority will not be using sign language. This is not a discrete group of children who can be easily separated from all deaf children. Some profoundly deaf children and their families will choose to focus on learning only spoken language. Some will change their minds as time passes. Some with moderate hearing losses may wish to learn both spoken and signed languages.

The precise number of children needs to be identified for the allocation of resources, but in fact systems need to be designed regardless of whether it is 100 or 1000 students.  Families will determine demand based on their value of having an alternative communication option.

Offering education in NZSL as well as spoken language in a systematic but flexible way impacts on all of Deaf education. This  report has therefore taken a broad look at the complex issues facing the delivery of NZSL in schools. It is hoped that this report will provide a basis for ongoing discussion.

Teaching in NZSL in a bilingual-bicultural model

The primary purpose of bilingual programmes is to enable deaf children to become linguistically competent in both a primary language as well as a secondary language (NZSL and English), so that they can access an age-appropriate curriculum.

Minimal requirements of a bilingual programme include the involvement of native users of the Sign Language, delivery of at least some of the curriculum in that language and explicit approaches to using Sign Language to teach reading and writing skills.

Obtaining a sound base of a language early is considered critical. The acceptance of a cultural perspective has also been shown to have a positive impact on self-esteem of some deaf children, which in turn has a positive impact on learning. Conceptual development and the ability to converse, question and wonder is considered as important as literacy or numeracy.

There is considerable evidence of the positive educational impact of bilingual programmes, although it is also clear that they do not necessarily solve all of deaf children’s educational challenges. Academic achievement has been most closely linked not to language use but to parents’ socio-economic status, education and level of support, ethnicity and gender, age of identification, and absence of other impairments.

Sign bilingual programmes differ from other bilingual programmes in three significant ways: language modality (signed vs. spoken or written); the absence of a written form of language; and the inconsistent exposure of deaf children to their first language.

Inclusion of Spoken Language

Some children with cochlear implants or hearing aids, who are learning to hear and speak, still need access to Sign Language. It is fortunate then that children’s use of sign has been shown not to interfere with spoken language development, as long as there is sufficient exposure.

There is local disagreement about this that needs to be resolved, but the strength of the literature and international expertise has led to the conclusion that dual approaches can be successful.

Approaches can include the flexible use of Sign Supported English for children responsive to this. Many students and staff may learn NZSL but may prefer to “code switch” and use the signs in English word order, and it appears that this can be accommodated in a flexible system.

The practice of bilingual education must therefore enable cultural and linguistic approaches to coexist with appropriate oral/aural exposure and support. Auditory-oral approaches, including the use and maintenance of amplification aids such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, can be used in conjunction with other approaches, including bilingualism.

Many aspects of development such as social-emotional, cognitive, linguistic, perceptual and physical skills influence and modify and may be dependent on one another, making flexible responsive approaches to individual students vital for their development. At the same time, there also needs to be a consistent framework available across the country to ensure similarity in approach and resource allocation.

This review has examined international and local literature on educational approaches and outcomes in a variety of settings and has discussed these with key stakeholders. There is strong alignment between the literature and views of local stakeholders, including current conflicting views. There is though an apparent trend towards moderate stances that allow multiple modalities to operate.

It concludes that a variety of options are possible and that while there are many challenges to implementation, the transition to a cost-effective and high-performing education system that includes Sign Language does appear feasible over a 5 – 10 year period. The many positive aspects of current Deaf Education, including the many dedicated and enthusiastic staff and developing programmes need to be valued and built upon.


  1. This report uses the generic term “deaf” but focuses on the needs of children who require visual communication. At least some of these children may not identify as culturally “Deaf”.