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Sound advice for deaf learners.

Sound advice for deaf learners

Young people with profound deafness have far greater potential for literacy than has previously been reportd, according to a nationwide study by researchers at Washington University's Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) in St. Louis. Ann E. Geers and Jean S. Moog measured the language skills of 100 profoundly deaf students taught in their early years exclusively by the "oral" method -- a non-traditional approach in which children learn to speak before they learn sign language. They found that in all of these students, the average reading score by age 16 to 17 was five grade levels higher than the national average for the severely deaf at that age, which is about the third-grade level.

In earlier studies, these researchers and others had tested younger children and had shown that the orally educated deaf progressed at a much higher rate than the national average for deaf children. "But we really didn't know how these kids grew up," Geers told SCIENCE NEWS, because many had left special programs for the deaf to be "mainstreamed" into public education.

The new study points to facility with English as the major predictor of reading ability in deaf students -- specifically, according to Moog, "the extent to which they mastered vocabulary and understood syntactic structure and how to form complex sentences, how to write them, how to speak them and how to understand them when they were spoken." Socioeconomic status and unusually high IZ were not factors, she says. The findings, presented last week in Orlando, Fla., at a meeting of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, will appear in an upcoming issue of the associations VOLTA REVIEW.

The CID researchers, including audiologists, psychologists and speech-language pathologists, evaluated the students and administered a series of tests, including the Stanford Achievement Test in reading. Beyond the orally trained student's overall superior scores, 24 to 34 percent were found able to read at the 10th-grade level or above (depending on the particular language skill being tested). Further, according to the researchers, 88 percent demonstrated proficiency in spoken langug, by a standard measure, and developed "highly intelligible" speech. Their sign language skills, notably, were minimal.

All the students were congenitally deaf or suffered severe impairment before the age of 2. Through elementary school -- in many cases beginning in infancy -- they had been educated exclusively by the "oral" method, which includes written communication. Although those classified as profoundly deaf cannot aurally comprehend speech even with the most powerful hearing aids, educators teach lip reading and students use hearing devices to amplify any residual hearing.

The researchers say their findings challenge the standard approach to education of the deaf, which is based on the theory that deaf children will learn faster and read better if they are offered both oral and sign systems and can absorb information by both means. A longstanding controversy has existed concerning the relative merits of oral and manual methods, though in recent years the philosophy of "total communication" has been implemented in an attempt to bring the two together and to improve literacy levels. "Our studies show that [in such programs] children are not learning to talk and sign together. Some are learning to sign, but they are not learning to talk as well as those in oral programs, and most are not learning to talk well enough to be understood," Geers says.

Despite achievements levels reported among the orally trained, the majority of adolescents studied did not achieve reading levels equal to those of normal-hearing students by the end of high school. Moog and Geers attribute this in part to less vocabulary development by the deaf students.

In related investigations into predictive factors for reading ability, Gallaudet University researchers in Washington, D.C., measured reading skills of profoundly deaf youths aged 16 and 17 who had been taught through total communication. Although the students in these studies scored lower than the orally trained, the researchers say comparisons with the CID findings are not valid and they take issue with that work. Donald S. Moores, who directed the Gallaudet research, told SCIENCE NEWS the CID study "did not examine a representative group but a select, affluent group." He says he believes "a lot of the affluent kids educated by the oral method would do a lot better in a total communication program." Moores also maintains that reading levels reported in testing the deaf underestimate the children's skills.

Geers and Moog acknowledge that not every profoundly deaf child stands to benefit from the oral approach, noting that those with higher intelligence and increased family support tend to do best. Still, Geers says, "there are many who are not receiving intensive oral education who could benefit; yet there are so few programs available." Of the 20,000 severely deaf young people under age 21 in the United States, she notes, only about 10 percent are now taught by oral programs.
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Author:Eron, Carol
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 30, 1988
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