Learning to Write (Beyond the Word Level)

The issue

For deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children, learning to write is a unique process.  This is especially true for the many DHH children who are learning to write while still acquiring their first (spoken or signed) language.  Despite early identification and intervention efforts, many DHH children still begin school without the language foundation for academic learning. As a result, writing instruction for DHH children needs to attend directly to the unique language needs of these students.

What we know

Delays in language development are much more strongly correlated with language access, than with hearing levels.  Because only 5% of DHH children are born to Deaf parents, the vast majority of DHH children do not have complete access to language models from birth.  For the families who choose to use spoken language for communication, the child has delayed and incomplete access to spoken language modeling.  For the families who choose ASL, the child is typically learning ASL at the same time as the family.  Thus, DHH children often begin school while still developing their through-the-air (signed or spoken) language. This makes them unique even when compared to students who are learning English as a Second Language (ESL).

Some scholars have questioned, even cautioned against, the use of ESL strategies with DHH children.  Perhaps this is because those strategies are built upon the premise that the child already has a fully developed first language, and they do not work to actively build both languages.  On the other hand, writing instruction for young DHH children must also acknowledge and attend to the development needs of the through-the-air language, whether spoken or signed, in addition to the written language.

We know that age, gender, socioeconomic status, and degree of hearing loss account for very little of the variance in writing outcomes of DHH children.  This leads us to believe that, in addition to language foundation, instruction may account for the majority of variance in writing outcomes. However, very little research has been done on writing instruction with DHH children.  The majority of research that has been done focuses on spelling and word-level writing, not the construction of sentences and texts.

We also know that many educational programs for deaf children have focused on grammar instruction outside of the context of authentic writing opportunities, using sentence patterns, sentence editing, and fill-in-the-blank worksheets.  However, a review of research indicates that only grammar instruction in the context of authentic writing is successful.  This makes sense, given what we know about transfer of learning.  I took French – five years of it, in fact!  But when I visited France a few years later, I discovered that I was not able to transfer the knowledge I had gained from all of the French worksheets I had completed to my attempts to communicate with the locals.

One effective strategy for language and writing instruction for DHH children is interactive writing.  In interactive writing, language and writing skills are taught within the context of authentic writing.  The teacher and students work together to collaboratively plan, write, and publish a piece of writing. Interactive writing leads to many positive literacy outcomes, including word identification, alphabet knowledge, grammar skills, and genre-specific writing skills.

A particularly promising approach for DHH students is Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI). SIWI is a framework for language and writing instruction that has been specifically developed for DHH students.  SIWI uses interactive writing, but it also includes the use of strategy instruction—explicitly teaching students skills and strategies that will help them become independent learners.  Another important component of SIWI is that instruction gives particular attention to building (first and second) language skills and building metalinguistic awareness, which is the ability to understand, reflect on, and discuss language.  (See https://siwi.utk.edu/ for more information about SIWI.)

What we don’t know and implications

We still know very little about effective writing instruction practices for DHH students.  There is a need for more research examining language and writing instruction (beyond the word-level) that is tailored to the unique needs of DHH students.

It is recommended that, at both school and home, DHH students be given as many opportunities as possible to:

  • Attend to both through-the-air and written language development
  • Communicate and write for authentic purposes & audiences
  • Learn language rules and writing traits in the context of authentic writing
  • Write both interactively and independently
  • Read widely and use books as mentor texts
  • Learn writing and language strategies
  • Reflect on and discuss language

Posted on December 18, 2020 by
Jennifer Renée Kilpatrick
University of North Florida
jrkilpatrick {at} unf.edu

Further reading