Deaf Education

Today, there are three major philosophies on Deaf Education, but only one has shown to be most successful in educating Deaf/Hard-of-hearing (D/HH) students.


Bilingual Deaf Education utilizes ASL and English equally to educate D/HH students. The two languages are kept separate, but used to build upon each other. In a true bilingual program, D/HH students are taught the grammar and literature aspects of ASL from K-12 in addition to typical English classes. You may ask why they need ASL classes if they already sign. In that case, then why do hearing children need English classes from K-12 if they already speak English? D/HH children need to develop vocabulary, grammar, and literature skills both receptively and expressively in ASL just as much as they need to learn English. Also, ASL is used to present information in all subject areas to build prior knowledge before approaching English text to learn new information. Understanding and application of content area information is much higher when presented in ASL first before English.

Every child, deaf or hearing, has a human right to develop a full, natural first language before learning a second language. English is not a natural language for many D/HH children because it is an auditory language, rendering it inaccessible to them. ASL is natural as it capitalizes on visual skills that many D/HH children already innately have. No D/HH child will fail to learn ASL as long they are exposed to strong language models.

Research shows that D/HH children of Deaf parents have much higher English skills and academic achievement than D/HH children of hearing parents because they already have a strong foundation in the natural first language, ASL (Wilbur, 2000; Strong & Prinz, 1997). D/HH children of hearing parents usually do not have a strong foundation in a first language, ASL or English, thus they struggle with learning any language. In conclusion, if a D/HH child has a strong foundation in ASL, his/her ability to learn English grows!

Bilingual Deaf Education does NOT exclude the possibility of spoken English skill development. In fact, when the first language (ASL) is valued, student motivation to learn the second language increases (Evans, 1998). Many students who are fluent in ASL ask to learn spoken English skills and even do well! Even more recent research shows that in D/HH children with cochlear implants, listening and speaking skill growth is much faster when ASL is used during the waiting period to get a cochlear implant and during the first stages of learning to use the cochlear implant (Madden, 2008). The reason for this is that spoken English words “piggy-back” on the ASL words already in the child’s brain. Madden’s research discredits the long-standing belief that use of ASL will slow or deter spoken English skill development.

Many bilingual D/HH students go on to become successful adults with college degrees and professional jobs. As with any bilingual hearing person, bilingual D/HH individuals gain many advantages in cognitive and processing skills that contribute to their success in careers and daily lives. Additionally, there are many bilingual D/HH adults who also use cochlear implants successfully. The sky is the limit for bilingual D/HH individuals!

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The other two educational philosophies are Oralism and Total Communication.

Oral Deaf Education believes that D/HH children need to be taught speaking, listening, and speech-reading skills in order to succeed in their lives and in general society. ASL is typically not encouraged or taught. Auditory-Verbal Therapy (AVT) is a common teaching method within this philosophy. AVT is used to capitalize on the cochlear implant technology, training D/HH children to hear and speak. A D/HH child’s potential to succeed under AVT is impossible to predict as there are so many factors that impact the child’s ability to hear and process environmental stimuli. While there are success stories out there, there are also many unsuccessful stories of D/HH students who did not develop strong enough use of the cochlear implant to progress with spoken English skills and/or succeed academically. Often these students fall several grades behind their peers and struggle for the rest of their academic careers.

Total Communication is not just using spoken English and Signed Exact English (SEE) or Pidgin Signed English (PSE) at the same time. This philosophy also believes in using any other mode or method of communication “if it works,” including only spoken English, SEE/PSE, Cued Speech, or sometimes ASL. Often this method is not optimal because the classroom environment is not natural in that each student in the room may be using a different communication modality. Emphasis is still on English, as SEE or PSE is used as reinforcement. SEE and PSE are actually invented sign systems based on English syntax – they are not natural visual languages! As with Oral Deaf Education, there are some success stories of D/HH students succeeding in Total Communication programs; however, there are many students who “fail” to acquire age-appropriate skills in English due to the lack of full access to a natural first language.

These two philosophies were a result of the 1880 International Congress on Education of the Deaf (ICED) in Milan, Italy. At this Congress, 164 representatives were in attendance – only one was deaf. All but six voted to pass a resolution to strongly discourage the use of Sign Language in Deaf Education, believing that it was “animalistic” and better for deaf children to learn how to be oral. The resolutions passed at the 1880 ICED conference also made lasting effects on schools and teachers, as they called for removal of Deaf teachers from the schools to prevent sign language from being passed down to children. In the 130 years since the Milan ICED conference, we have seen Deaf Education fail the Deaf community miserably. The average D/HH child graduates high school with a third or fourth grade reading level. The years from 1880-1960’s are considered to be the “Dark Ages” of the Deaf community as there was a dire lack in Deaf leadership, professionals, and educators. Deaf people depended on hearing people to educate and help them.

NEWSFLASH!!! On July 19, 2010 at the 21st Congress in Vancouver, ICED made a historical announcement that it formally rejects the resolutions passed in 1880, recognizing the detrimental effect and irreparable damage that the 1880 resolutions had on the language development, education, and career lives of Deaf people all over the world, including the United States. Additionally, the ICED 2010 calls for all Nations to recognize Sign Languages as legitimate and equal to spoken languages of hearing people, as well as the importance of using Sign Languages in education of Deaf children, their families, and community. This announcement by ICED 2010 is a major victory in the human civil rights movement of Deaf people all over the world because it rejects and ends 130 years of oralism! For more information explaining the importance of this landmark announcement, visit NAD’s website (www.nad.org) or view Audism Free America’s vlog in ASL  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYTkPusZCMQ).

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References on Bilingual Deaf Education:

Evans, C. (1998). Literacy acquisition in Deaf children. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Seattle, WA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED424751)

Freeman, Y. S., & Freeman, D. E. (1998). ESL/EFL teaching: Principals for success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Madden, M. (2008). Early exposure to sign language: an advantage to parents and children. http://www.aussiedeafkids.org.au/early-exposure-to-sign-language.html Retrieved 26 March 2010.

Mahshie, S. N. (1995). Educating deaf children bilingually. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press

Nover, S. M., Christensen, K. M., & Cheng, L. L. (1998). Development of ASL and English competence for learners who are deaf. Topics in Language Disorders, 18, 61-72.

Strong, M., & Prinz, P. (1997). A study of the relationship between American Sign Language and English literacy. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 2, 37-46.

Wilbur, R. (2000). The use of ASL to support the development of English and literacy. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 5, 81-104.