Writing and Learning to Write for Deaf Children

The issue

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Writing is an important form of communication. Unlike spoken or signed language, it leaves a permanent record, allowing us to communicate over space and time.  When we write, we have the time to more carefully review and think about what we want to convey. Writing is necessary for everyday interactions and for work, and it plays a critical role in education. In the current climate of communication technologies and social media (e.g., texting, e-mail, Facebook etc.), options for using writing to communicate are greater than ever. For all these reasons, it is important to learn to write well.

However, learning to write is one of the most challenging educational activities that any of us face. In contrast to speaking or signing, we are required to make use of the more complex grammar, syntax and vocabulary that are necessary for making meaning with text. We must also deal with the added challenges of spelling and punctuation. Because we can’t make use of any face-to-face cues such as facial expression or intonation, it can be more difficult to get across what we mean. It would be fair to say that becoming a capable writer is a demanding task.

What we know

It has been well documented that many deaf children have struggled with learning to write, and that many deaf individuals do not write well. Research from the early 20th century onward has shown that most deaf writers do not achieve at a level equal to that of their hearing age peers. They have had difficulties with all aspects of writing including vocabulary, grammar, syntax and text structure. While it is true that learning to write is demanding for all students, deaf children often face the additional challenge of not having a foundation in the language of the text before they are expected to write it. They struggle to write a language they don’t know or don’t know well. For example, it is very difficult to write a sentence in English if you can’t first compose this sentence in English in speech and/or sign.

Hearing children rely on the spoken language they already know as the “way in” to writing—essentially talking their way into text. It is their knowledge of the language that guides them in knowing what words to use and in what order. They know what “sounds right” when they say it, so that it makes sense when they write it down. Recent research is indicating that deaf children whose hearing is aided by cochlear implants, who have developed this language foundation, are evidencing written language abilities that meet—or come much closer to meeting—age-appropriate outcomes.

Of course, mature writing is more than speech written down, but a foundation in the spoken language of the text is the necessary starting place. This holds true for deaf children as well, even for those whose first language is a signed language such as American Sign Language (ASL). It is not possible to sign a sentence in ASL and then write down what you have signed. The ASL must be translated into English first. This adds a step to the process, and is a much more difficult task than what hearing children do when they write down what they say.

What we don’t know

While there is a considerable body of evidence on the generally poor outcomes for deaf writers, there has actually been very little research looking at the processes of learning to write, and the kinds of interventions and strategies that are most effective in teaching deaf children to become skilled writers. It would also be important to understand more about: (i) how to develop the language foundation that is needed for learning to write in children who use both spoken and/or signed language including those who are bilingual learners, and (ii) the role played by advances in hearing technologies such as cochlear implants.

Implications

Writing must be made a higher priority in both research and practice. Given the important role that written language plays in the lives of deaf people, it is surprising that we actually know very little beyond the fact that outcomes have been poor. We especially need to pay more attention to how writing is taught and be more accountable for achieving age-appropriate outcomes.

Posted on Oct 20, 2015 by
Connie Mayer
Faculty of Education
York University
Cmayer {at} edu.yorku.ca

Further reading