The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

Sign language and the education of deaf pupils

by Susan Gregory

Sign Language and the education of deaf pupils

Sign language or British Sign Language (BSL) only became officially part of the education provision for deaf pupils in the UK in the early 1990s. It became part of an approach to the education of deaf pupils known as bilingualism or sign bilingualism. This represented a significant development from the 1960s when sign language was not recognised as a proper language and signing was more often called manual communication and seen as a crude form of communication based on mime and gesture.

In the 1960s the oral approach to deaf education was dominant. Signing was frowned upon and there was no formal use of signing in schools, although in many schools for the deaf there was some informal use. Deaf pupils with deaf parents could often sign fluently and introduced it to other pupils, though in some schools being caught signing could be a punishable offence. A small number of schools unofficially used some signs with older pupils for whom the oral approach had been unsuccessful but this was a private affair and usually kept quiet.

As sign language was not recognised as a full language but rather seen as a primitive form of communication, some suggested it could be detrimental to the deaf child’s development as the following advice given at the time shows:

The use of conventional signs, as distinct from natural gestures, gives a superficial impression of good communication and is resorted to by many people including parents, but while it facilitates understanding at a very simple level and that level could be called communication, it is not really so… The use of signs is a very primitive form of language and creates a barrier against correct and fluent communication between adults and the profoundly deaf child; it is an easy way out for the adult and expects very little in return from the child. (Fry, 1964).

A child who signs ‘Bed-me-there’ instead of saying ‘My bed is in there’ is leaving out two important words ‘is’ and ‘in’, is confusing ‘me’ with ‘my’ and puts ‘bed’ first instead of second. This jumbled way of thinking becomes so ingrained that if he persists with signs, he will have difficulty in both reading and writing. He must learn as soon as possible to say complete sentences. (Dale, 1967)

If you want your child to talk in a normal way, you must speak to him as you would to any young child, not in an unnatural manner. If you persist in using gesture or pantomime he will not trouble to learn to talk. He will imitate you and learn that it is easy to get what he wants by gesturing. After that you are going to find it difficult to establish good speech as the means of communication. In order to compete and conform as an adult, good speech is essential. (Ling, 1968)

However, at this time there was growing disquiet about the education of deaf pupils such that Professor Michael Reed was, in 1964, asked by the Secretary of State for Education ‘to consider the place, if any, of finger spelling and signing in the education of the deaf’. A committee of sixteen was formed that took advice from a large number of witnesses, both deaf and hearing and from the UK and beyond. The results however, were inconclusive, claiming that the lack of evidence meant that no firm conclusions could be drawn and asserting the need for further research.

Deaf community organisations were disappointed. The BDDA (British Deaf and Dumb Association, now the British Deaf Association) in a report published in 1970 expressed concern that not enough attention had been paid in the report to the consistently low attainments of deaf pupils under the oral approach. They also felt the oral approach led to the assumption that deaf pupils would integrate easily with the dominant hearing population on leaving school which was misleading and a source of concern for many parents. They were also disappointed at how little attention had been paid to the evidence of deaf people themselves and their feelings about the ‘severe limitations of their oral upbringing’. (British Deaf and Dumb Association (1970) Report by a Working Party of the British Deaf and Dumb Association formed to study and comment on 'The Lewis Report'; The Education of Deaf Children: the Possible Place of Finger Spelling and Signing. Carlisle, British Deaf and Dumb Association, page 5)

However, having raised these concerns, the BDDA felt the report should be welcomed because it focussed attention on the issues and they welcomed the recommendations that more research was needed. They felt that the Deaf community, through the BDDA, was in a unique position to make a special contribution to such research.

Throughout the early 1970s, concerns continued to be voiced about the education of deaf pupils and in particular the possible role of signs. This was fuelled partly by a number of projects in the USA which had started using some signs or finger spelling. Early research (Stuckless and Birch, 1966, Meadow, 1968) had compared deaf children of deaf parents who grew up with signs and deaf children of hearing parents who grew up with spoken communication. The deaf children of deaf parents did better on a number of assessments including reading, arithmetic and spoken language although there was no significant difference in tests of speech and lip reading.

However, such studies were open to criticism because of the difficulty of matching the children and their families to make comparisons valid. Quigley (1968) compared two approaches, oral communication only and oral communication together with fingerspelling with deaf children assigned randomly to the two groups. Results were not clear cut, but overall children exposed to fingerspelling did better on speech, speech reading, reading and three of five measures of written language ability. The study by Moores, McIntyre and Weiss (1972) looked at the performance of preschool children in seven different programmes; some were oral only, some used fingerspelling plus speech, and some speech simultaneously with some signs. The children who performed well were in programmes that, as well as other features, used some form of manual communication (signs or fingerspelling) in the classroom. As is apparent, none of these studies can be seen as conclusive because of differences in sampling and controlling factors other than the use of sign or fingerspelling. Nevertheless they indicated that there could be some advantage in signs and/or fingerspelling and at very least it did no harm.

Two significant meetings were held in the mid-1970s in the UK to discuss language and communication in the education of deaf children. The BDA congress in 1974 considered various methods of communication found in schools at that time and an RNID seminar in 1975 looked at ‘Methods of Communication currently used in the Education of Deaf Children’. The BDA Congress opened with a paper by Doreen Woodford entitled ‘What happen to the Lewis Report?’. She described the high expectations that had existed before the report was published and the disappointment that was felt at its lack of definite conclusions, but then she went on to say that on reflection she felt the conclusions were inevitable. It had had a positive impact in focusing attention on methods in deaf education. She had carried out a review for the BDA of educational approaches used and her conclusions were that, while sometimes manual methods produced good results, sometimes they did not. She warned against simply focusing on methods of communication and emphasised the need to also consider the importance of good teaching approaches. The RNID seminar brought together 20 speakers with experience of deaf education describing the various approaches used. Papers were circulated before the seminar and there was opportunity for discussion following the presentations. Some papers advocated a continuation of oral approaches while some discussed the evidence for the use of approaches with a manual component. Henderson in his review of the seminar wrote that while ‘discussion was brisk and wide ranging’ there were ‘no overtones of acrimony’.

These discussions, together with research from the USA, heralded a more flexible and tolerant attitude in some places to the use of signs or fingerspelling in schools as compared with the much more rigid attitudes of the 1960s. This was indicated in a move to a form of education known as Total Communication. This term had two interpretations, the first being the use of any and all possible forms of communication: ‘ child devised gestures, the language of signs, speech, speech reading, finger spelling, reading and writing’ (Denton, 1976). Its more normal use, however, was to mean the use of signs taken from the sign language lexicon used together with spoken English and this remains the more usual understanding of the term. This approach is also known as Sign Supported English to indicate its basis in English. By the late 1970s there were a number of schools in the UK using Total Communication including the Royal School for Deaf Children at Margate, the Royal West of England School, the School for the Deaf at Doncaster, Heathlands School for the Deaf at St Albans, and Beverley School for the Deaf at Cleveland.

In the 1980s though, the possibility of using full sign language in education was being discussed. This came about for a number of reasons.

The recognition of sign languages as full languages with all the properties of language.

Recognition of the status of sign language came first in the USA in the 1960s, through the work of Stokoe who coined the term ASL (American Sign Language). In an article 1976 (first published in the USA in 1975), Mary Brennan used the term British Sign Language or BSL for the sign language used by the Deaf community in the UK. This recognition of its linguistic status opened up the possibility of sign language being used in education in the UK.

The use of BSL increased in a number of areas beyond education.

Not only in education but in other areas, sign language became more visible and more significant. In 1980 ‘The Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People’ (CACDP, now Signature) was created in response to this. It introduced a number of assessments of sign language skills leading to a significant increase in the number of local sign language classes.

Poor attainments under the oral approach in education.

Poor attainments of deaf pupils led to growing dissatisfaction with the oral approach. In the UK, the most important study was carried out by Conrad who looked at a cohort of deaf school leavers in the 1970s. He found that deaf pupils leaving school had a median reading age of nine years, poor speech intelligibility and lip-reading skills no better than those of the hearing population, despite their training in this area (Conrad, 1979). Such poor achievements were also demonstrated in other studies from other countries.

Success of deaf children of deaf parents.

In research into the attainments of deaf pupils, carried out in the 1970s and 80s, a number of studies indicated that deaf children of deaf parents were more successful academically than those with hearing parents. These results emerged in studies of reading, writing and academic achievement and, in some instances, spoken language. Attributing this to the early use of signing in these families led to the conclusion that sign language could be beneficial in the education of deaf children. The issue is, of course, more complex than this. For example, some argued that this greater achievement could be because the deafness of deaf children of deaf parents was due to genetic rather than other causes, which were more likely to be associated with other additional disabilities. Alternatively, it may have been that deaf parents were better at establishing the general pre-linguistic skills that were essential for later language development and these facilitated higher levels of attainment. However, at very least it could be said that the early use of sign language with deaf children did not inhibit intellectual and linguistic development.

Changing ideas of bilingualism in general.

In many countries in the 1960s, spoken language bilingualism was seen as a disadvantage for children rather than an advantage. Pupils who used more than one language were seen to be under additional pressure, or in a confusing situation. For example, in the UK in the1960s, there was a rise in immigration of families with a range of different first languages, and the initial reaction was to assert that the mother tongue or home language was a disadvantage which could confuse and inhibit development. The children were labelled as ‘non-English speakers’ and research seemed to show poorer attainments in pupils from other language using communities. However, this finding was overturned by the work of a number of researchers including Cummins in Canada. He showed that for children using French and English bilingualism could be an advantage. Language development was not inhibited and greater cognitive flexibility was achieved in some tasks (Cummins, 1978). This began to change the dominant view of bilingualism as a disadvantage.

A powerful force in changing attitudes to sign language and education was LASER (the LAnguage of Sign as an Educational Resource). It started with a small group of interested people coming together for a meeting at Nottingham Deaf Centre in 1983 convened by Miranda Pickersgill. In its early days it was a small informal group meeting together to discuss topics of mutual interest. However, as interest in the possibility of the bilingual approach grew and the amount of research on sign language increased, there was pressure for more frequent meetings and an annual conference, the first of which was held in 1987. The organisation developed, bringing together interested people at conferences and becoming known though its publications. It eventually closed down in 2006 as interests diversified and many of the early members became involved in setting up sign bilingual programmes in their own schools or services with the accompanying demands on their time and energy. (A full account of the history and work of LASER is given by Miranda Pickersgill in the personal accounts section of this topic).

Sign bilingualism became the official policy of a number of school and services in the UK in the early 1990s including the Royal School for the Deaf, Derby, Leeds Deaf and Hearing Impaired Service and Longwill School for Deaf Children, Birmingham closely followed by other schools and services.

In 1998 sign bilingual education was defined as:

An approach to the education of deaf children in which the language of the Deaf community (British Sign Language) and the language of the hearing community (English) are used. In the case of children from minority ethnic groups it is more appropriate to use the term ‘sign multi-lingualism’ in order to recognise the position of home languages other than English. (Pickersgill and Gregory, 1998)

In 2007 this was redefined as:

A sign bilingual child is one who uses two or more languages in their daily life, at least one of which is a sign language. Sign bilingual education is an approach to the education of deaf children which, in the UK, uses BSL and English (Swanwick and Gregory, 2007)

In the early days the sign bilingual approach grew in popularity and spread to a number schools and resourced bases. Teachers felt positive about having a language they could use to deliver the curriculum. Informal reports suggested there was development in deaf children’s self-esteem and a research study reported that children in sign bilingual settings had positive notions of themselves and their deafness (Gregory and Smith, 1997). Recognition of BSL grew and it was officially recognised by the UK Government in March 2003. New tools for the assessment of children’s expressive and receptive BSL skills were developed. There was greater acceptance and recognition of the role of BSL in schools as evidenced by the number of hearing teachers who joined BSL classes and the increasing number of well qualified deaf professionals working in education.

However, in developing practice a number of issues emerged.

Sign language vocabulary. As more and more subjects began to be taught through BSL, the need emerged for specialist signs to meet curriculum needs and groups needed to evolve to consider and develop these signs.

Literacy. Literacy remained an issue and the best way to teach a child to read whose first language was BSL was continually discussed. Mayer and Wells (1996) asked the crucial question as to the nature of the linguistic skills that are transferred when BSL, a signed language, is used in teaching literacy based on a written, spoken language.

Training of staff. There was a need for special courses for the training of staff, particularly deaf people, who were becoming increasingly involved in the education process.

Sign language and parents. As children’s sign language skills developed, it was important to provide parents, who did not already sign, with signing skills so that they could communicate with their children at an appropriate level. However, not all parents were able to attend classes, and there were no established curricula specifically designed for use with parents and these had to be developed.

The role of Sign Supported English (SSE). There was debate over the role of SSE in sign bilingual programmes. Some teachers rejected it as not having a place in deaf education, while others saw a role for it.

In addition, over the twenty years in which the sign bilingual approach developed, the context was changing for deaf pupils, both within education and the wider world. Within education, an emphasis on inclusive practice grew and increasing numbers of schools for deaf children were closed. There were significant changes for deaf children themselves - technological advances including the internet and email, social networks, mobile phones etc. including subtitling on television. There were also technologies directly affecting access to sound such as digital hearing aids and FM systems. However, the major development influencing educational practice has been cochlear implants. These have enabled many profoundly and severely deaf children to develop useful hearing and spoken language. They were introduced in the UK at about the same time as bilingual education was developing in the early 1990s.

While cochlear implants mean that there are many more deaf children who communicate using speech, it has also become clear that, for the foreseeable future, there will always be some children who need a sign bilingual approach to fulfil their potential. Also, for a number of young people with implants, there are some contexts where the ability to sign is an advantage particularly at the secondary stage of education. Deaf young people who have implants and also sign tend to be more flexible in their approach to communication and talk about the communication needs of the situation rather than particular language practices (Wheeler et al., 2007).

The sign bilingual approach is still in a state of evolution where practitioners consider the impact of recent changes and the need to adapt to the shifting focus of an individualised approach. Their aim remains to maximise the educational opportunities for deaf children and young people and to ensure that sign language remains a relevant element in many deaf pupils’ education.