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

Revising the policy document - sign bilingual education

Ruth Swanwick

This is a report of work in progress to modernise the document Sign Bilingualism: A model by Miranda Pickersgill and Sue Gregory (1998). The revision of this document is a consultative process which is being coordinated by Sue Gregory and Ruth Swanwick. Following a national meeting and further consultation via email, much of the new document has now been drafted and this will be available to view for further comments on the BATOD website ( This short overview explains the reasons for the revisions and provides a sample of some aspects of the draft document.


The original document was the first published description of sign bilingual education in the UK which sought to clarify definitions and principles. The intended audience was educational, as it was schools and services predominantly who needed a vehicle to share terminology, principles and goals for sign bilingual education.

The 1998 document reflected the optimism about the approach felt at that time. However for a number of reasons attitudes have changed and the future of sign language in education is less clear. Seven years on it is apparent that this document needs revision to reflect the changing context of (sign bilingual) deaf education to continue to be relevant for the current educational community.

The notion of a revised document was first mooted at a meeting about cochlear implants between heads of sign bilingual schools and services and the Ear Foundation. This is significant, as these ongoing discussions reflect the current efforts by professionals, with diverse approaches to deafness, to share goals and expectations specifically for profoundly deaf pupils. This evident achievement of sign bilingual education and the changing wider educational context are catalysts for this revision.

The revised document will set out the agreed definition of sign bilingual education and describe philosophy and policy. Some extracts from this draft are below.


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.


The philosophy of the sign bilingual approach to education has its roots in a linguistic and cultural minority view of deafness and a social model of disability. It includes the following:
  1. equality of opportunity regardless of language, ethnicity, race, gender, and disability
  2. recognition of diversity in society and the value of linguistic and cultural plurality in society
  3. recognition of the language and culture of Deaf people*
  4. the goal of the removal of oppression and the empowerment of deaf people
  5. recognition that deaf children have the same potential for language and learning as hearing children and the right to access to the knowledge, skills, and experiences available to hearing children, in an appropriate and relevant curriculum.

The document will also present an overview of the changing educational context and the achievements of sign bilingualism. There will be a focus on practice which will highlight issues rather than be prescriptive and will look at outcomes, aims and expectations. We expect practitioners and the Sign Bilingual Consortium to make a significant contribution using this extract below as the starting point.


This section focuses on issues in sign bilingual practice. Rather than being prescriptive it identifies key principles upon which practice should be based.

Curriculum access

Sign bilingual classroom practice should facilitate every pupil's entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum and to full access to the assessment process.

Language use in the classroom

Classroom practice should be based on the planned use of BSL and English as appropriate for the learning outcomes; the language repertoire of the pupils and the specific learning needs of individuals.

Language support

Focused and proactive support for pupils' BSL and English development should identify and respond to diverse individual language profiles. This includes individual audiological management and attention to the acoustic/listening environment as appropriate.


BSL and English should be used as the languages of instruction and assessment as appropriate but should also be explicitly taught and assessed/ monitored as areas of learning in their own right.


The staffing structure, organisation and skills base should reflect the bilingual community of the school. Staff training should address deaf and hearing professionals’ development needs.


Parents should be recognised as essential participants within the immediate school community and as partners in their children's learning.

Deaf Culture

Deaf culture should be recognised as a central part of the school's identity and promoted through special curriculum provision and community links as appropriate.

There will be a section on the definition and use of such term as bilingualism, sign bilingualism, cross modal bilingualism, bilingual deaf education, total communication and SSE which we intend to be useful for practitioners. We also want the document to provide an overview of sign bilingual education in the UK and give an international perspective on practice and research. To this end, we are inviting schools and services to provide a description of their settings and to highlight current policy and practice issues.

We welcome any comments on the work done on this so far, either in response to this short overview of the work in progress or via the BATOD website, where we will post the full draft as soon as it is available.

* We are only using the Deaf/deaf distinction, in a limited way, and when we are clearly referring specifically to the Deaf sign language using community. Its more general usage presents problems of deciding who is Deaf and who belongs to the community.

March 2006

  • Update

    Following consultation the document, 'Sign Bilingualism', is about to be published and further details are available from Forest Books

    A signed version will shortly be in production as a DVD.