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

Total Communication - what does it mean in 2006?

Penny McDonald

Senior Advisory Teacher, Wakefield Service for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children

Over the years the term ‘Total Communication’ (TC), in deaf education, seems to have meant many different things. What does it mean to Teachers of the Deaf (ToDs) today? Do we need the term?

The Sign Bilingual Consortium, in their mapping exercise about communication options, in July 2005, found that out of 93 schools and services 29 used what they called ‘TC’ and 34 a mixture of communication modes. A mixture included British Sign Language (BSL), Sign Supported English (SSE), Signed English (SE), spoken and written English. Would this in the past have been called TC?

Denton, quoted in Evans (1982) as early as 1970, described TC as “the full spectrum of language modes, child-devising gestures, the language of sign, speech reading, finger spelling, reading and writing”.

The National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS), in their publication Deaf Friendly Teaching (2004), give the definition as 'a philosophy that involves children using different methods of communication at any one time. The idea of this approach is not that sign will replace but support the use of the oral method of communication and the use of any residual hearing, to help the development of speech and language skills. The most common sign language systems used in this approach are Signed English and Sign Supported English.'

For some schools and services TC means the use of different modes at different times including BSL, SSE, SE, spoken and written English, but not necessarily together.

Schools for children with learning difficulties also use the term TC. For them that includes multi-sensory communication (tactile, taste, smell, sound), objects of reference, non verbal communication, Makaton, SSE, spoken and written English, gesture, symbols, pictures and BSL if a deaf child attends the school.

It would seem that, as often happens with terminology over the years, the definition changes. Looking at the issue of communication in a different way we could debate what we believe are the rights of a child to communicate. My list would include the right to:

  • learn and develop according to his/her needs;
  • make maximum use of his/her potential;
  • express him/herself in a spontaneous way;
  • have self respect and identity through successful communication;
  • use modes of communication that are effective for individuals in different situations;
  • use all available means in order to understand and be understood;
  • be in a situation where successful and equal communication takes place.

I don't think people would dispute these statements but we need to be clear in our minds how a child is going to achieve this. A clear language and communication policy would give staff guidance in how to deliver to the deaf children they teach and support.

If professionals are confused about terminology then parents will have the same dilemma. The RNID advocates parental choice. On their deafness@birth website there is great deal of information for parents and professionals. Both Susan Gregory (2005) and Alys Young (2002) debate the choices parents have to make about communication and the support teachers should be giving them. One of the important points that both make is that choice can be reviewed and revised.

I'm now rethinking our communication policy in the light of my recent thinking and findings. Five years ago we were a service offering TC as defined by the NDCS but, at present, we offer a wide range of communication options dependent on the needs of the child at any one time for some this will be a Sign Bilingual approach, for others an oral/aural approach with maybe sign support if the child chooses to use it. Should we be calling it a mixture?


Evans, Lionel (1982) Total communication: structure and strategy Gallaudet College Press, Washington, DC ISBN: 0-913580-75-9 National Deaf Children's Society (2004) Deaf Friendly Teaching

Gregory, Susan (2005) website article

Young, Alys (2002) website article

March 2006