Deaf Kids & Language Development

Thanks to my twitter friend Adrean Clark, I was privileged to view this vlog by Barb DiGiovonni.  In the vlog, she summarizes a portion from a lecture presented by Gabrielle Jones and Rosemary Stifter(1), discussing, among other things, bilingualism of deaf students.  Watching the vlog and reading this article taught me so much and made me realize I have much more to learn regarding parenting and eventually homeschooling deaf kids.

Initially, it's important to look at how first, then second languages are learned.  I, as a hearing person, first became fluent in social English before even entering kindergarten.  Only then did I begin, little by little, learning how to navigate and use academic English.  When I began learning my second language (ASL), I didn't start out sitting in a college-level science class with a Deaf instructor.  I started learning conversationally, both in a classroom and social settings.

As I became more fluent in my second language (ASL), I was also developing more knowledge of my first language academically.  After a year or so of daily immersion in my second language, I felt comfortable moving from language to language and even "interpreting".  I could use and navigate ASL before I was truly fluent.  I also did not stop learning English during the process of learning ASL.  After a lifetime of English fluency and 15 years of fluency in ASL, I still learn more about both every day.

The basic structure of my learning looked like this:
Social first language-->Academic first language-->Social second language-->Academic second language

That structure did not stay in that format, though.  I was able to move back and forth among all four categories. Often, working in my second language helped me decode my first language more fully. (Having to interpret "o'r the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming" means you must first understand what the heck that all means.)

"The cultivating and mastery of academic ASL has been lacking in education programs for deaf students." --Barb DiGi (my interpretation of her ASL)  

Most Deaf students have been expected to go straight from their social first language to the academic level of their second language.
Social ASL-->Academic English

It should, instead, look like this:

Social ASL-->Academic ASL-->Social English-->Academic English

Under this model, Deaf students would be expected to present "ASL essays" in more formal or academic ASL.  View her vlog and corresponding slideshow for more information.

 "Academic ASL provides the 'scaffolding' for literacy in both ASL and
written English as well as comprehension of academic content and 'building' of academic
knowledge." --Berkowitz

Barb DiGiovvani says the ultimate goal is for a Deaf student to become proficient in both categories of both their first (ASL) and second (English) languages; able to interchange, move and build upon all language abilities.

Deaf kids are bilingual from the start.  While they develop and use ASL, they are still seeing written English everywhere from road signs to books, fingerspelling to TV captions.  While the first and second language-learning is simultaneous, it makes so much sense to keep the 4 main "steps" in mind.

Deaf students' language abilities are:
ASL: productive/receptive
English Literacy: reading/writing 
English Oracy: listening/lipreading/speaking

As DiGi says, students will be able to make sense of English (whether written or oral/aural) by using the knowledge they have in their first language (ASL).

This reminds me of a story my friend, Kim has shared.  She grew up oral, not signing until high school.  When she began attending Gallaudet, she said the world opened up for her, including a deeper understanding of English.  She had known the word "accomplish" for years. She could read it and speak it orally.  She got the gist of the word, but never fully understood the meaning until she saw a Deaf professor use the word in context, in ASL, during a lecture.

I witnessed the same type of thing first-hand while working as a tutor in college settings.  I remember a particular student in his 30s who had been educated orally and not allowed to sign at home.  He read English perfectly, word-for-word, both using speech and Signing Exact English, but could not comprehend much of what he read.  One word I remember in particular was "disagree".  He could say it, read it, and sign it, but didn't understand what it meant until we talked about in a social context in ASL.  It only took about 2 minutes for him to "get it".  He had been passed through the public school system, so no care whatsoever was given to his literacy abilities.

I'm excited to be learning so many new things about language development.  I've only ever considered it from the perspective of an interpreter, a tutor, or an ASL teacher, never as a parent (and teacher) of Deaf children.

It's clear I've only touched the tip of the iceberg and still have so much to learn.  I'm thankful there are so many knowledgeable professionals and parents out there willing to share their expertise in cyber space.

1. Jones and Stifter are with the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. Lecture given at the Council for American Instructors  the Deaf National Conference.


  1. Incredible insight...makes a lot of sense.

  2. Amazing! There is always one more thing to learn in any situation. I'm thankful for the many resources of which you take advantage.


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