Hearing Impaired Children Deserve Bedtime Stories Too

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“Education should be concerned with the very essence of existence itself– with being, and learning, and living and doing,” David M. Denton writes in his essay, The Philosophical Basis For Total Communication, which appears in the book Sign Language Made Simple, edited by Edgar D. Lawrence. “An educational philosophy then should embrace all the areas of the individual’s development and should encompass the whole spectrum of life experiences.”

For Denton, this “total” education necessitates serious parental involvement.  “Education does not and cannot exist separate and apart from home and the community,” he writes. “It could almost be said that the school is an extension of the family and community.”

In order for children to begin developing their potentialities, they must not be shunted off to some corner of the house away from the “adult” conversations, for “one of the richest language experiences enjoyed by a child is the opportunity to learn by listening to the conversations of others around him.”

Children mostly learn – as do we all– by interacting with others.  But educational interactions, warns Denton, are only possible “under conditions where persons are able to communicate with understanding.” If there is a low level of quality in the communication between parent and child, then the child’s understanding of the world will naturally suffer and “his personality will reflect his barrenness, the emptiness, the uncertainty, and the superficiality of his relationship with parents with whom he is unable to communicate.”

A healthy, learning-filled environment, says Denton, is often unstructured” and “randomized,” but it is also “highly personalized.”

We are now beginning to appreciate the fact that the deaf child learns language under the same conditions and according to the same development sequence as does the hearing child,” writes Denton. Just as with non-hearing-impaired children, the language-development of the hearing-impaired child cannot wait until age five or six when the child typically begins official schooling. The years leading up to that age are crucial for language development, and once they are passed, they are passed forever.

It is imperative that parents and their children communicate at the highest level possible as soon as possible. And one of the best, most time-honored traditions of language-learning is parent-led reading. “The deaf infant is entitled to the right to share the traditional bedtime stories and nursery rhymes, children’s prayers that any other child enjoys,” contends Denton.

The special requirement for deaf children is that the language-learner is the PARENT as well as the child. The parent must be able to communicate with the child at a comfortable enough level that the child will feel he or she is fully a “contributing, sharing member of the family.” This will enhance the child’s feeling of self-worth and encourage intellectual and emotional growth.

Just as with the spoken language, the hearing-impaired child learns fluency in language by being free to interact and experiment with a reliable symbol system.” The child will quickly absorb symbols (for hearing children, these are often verbal symbols), and he or she will naturally begin “to generate language through experimentation.”

For a hearing-impaired child, the symbols of communication will include, among other possibilities, the standardized sign language of his culture (unfortunately, there is not one universal sign language for the hearing impaired). For young, hearing-impaired kids, an adequate knowledge of sign language will all but necessitate that a parent learn sign language also. Otherwise, the child will likely not the get the language exposure he or she needs, and can also end up feeling isolated. Most of us take for granted how much of our connection to others is centered around the words, tones, and volumes of our verbal expressions. Personally, I feel that a lack of deep-level, thoughtful communication with parents at home can stunt the mental and emotional growth of any child, regardless of their hearing abilities.  

“Deaf children will be able to develop language skills if they are provided an opportunity to interact freely with all persons around them,” writes Denton. “Language naturally develops out of meaningful dialogue,” he states, and “is self-expanding through usage.”

Denton goes even farther. He believes the education of the hearing-impaired (or, really, ANY children) should not stop with language skills, but should include spiritual and ethical instruction. Writes Denton: “An educational philosophy should rest upon a foundation of moral and spiritual principles; principles which transcend religious or ethnic differences and make possible directed purposeful, meaningful human existence.”

“If asked what my biggest concern for the future was, I would have to answer that it involves the growing insensitivity to the need for nurturing our children’s spiritual lives, and the seeming unwillingness of our social institutions to provide children with a set of moral, spiritual values sufficient to sustain them during times of personal crisis and sufficient to prepare them for lives of responsible service to the other people. I am not talking about the doctrinal nor theological aspects of religion, but rather of the recognition that deaf people do have souls.”

Instilling a sense of community responsibility is also important to Denton, who writes that a solid education should imbue children with “a sensitivity to the needs of other people, an attitude of responsible service to these needs.” He even goes so far as to say (sounding a little too fascist for my own tastes) that the proper education would help children start down the road to reaching “the long-term goals that society has established for its members.”

The remainder of the book, Sign Language Made Simple, after Denton’s essay, consists mostly of a series of lessons containing numerous simple sentences illustrated with drawings of the signs to be used. I think the best way to learn sign language is with an actual person, and the next best via video– but as far as book-learning goes, I found the illustrations in this book to be comprehensible. I would advise seeing a few videos on sign language first, and then using the book as review. That way, when you see the illustrations, they can serve more as reminder notes for what the symbols are, as opposed to you trying to figure out how the image is trying to tell you to move.

And of course, be prepared for that spiritual element Denton mentioned. The last five lessons are especially religious– and when I say religious, I mean, Christian, baby. Some people may resent the religious intrusion, but I found it comical. Also, it is only fair to point out that, historically speaking, much of the outreach to the hearing-impaired community has come from Christian organizations.

The book does not teach that sign language is more important than lip-reading– only that both methods are important for hearing-impaired children to learn.

The book, written decades ago, also touches on what must have been a heated debate in its day… Should we teach a sign language with English-language syntax or should sign language have its own syntax? Sign language, it turns out, doesn’t really need to conjugate verbs or use definite or indefinite articles. It doesn’t even need the same word order as the spoken/written language. Also, with sign language as it has developed over time, there are separate symbols for words which, in standard English, would share the same root but possess different prefixes or suffixes. Therefore, in sign language, the concept of prefix, root, and suffix is naturally not as important.  But should it be?

At the time the book was written, hearing-impaired children were just beginning to be “mainstreamed” into regular classrooms. Therefore, the authors suggest that  sign language SHOULD be taught (or at least ALSO taught) with English-language syntax.

However, judging from more modern books and videos I’ve seen on sign language, this regular-syntax approach has been largely abandoned, for all of my other sources, without exception, teach sign language as a language with its own grammatical rules. And in fact, this is the first I’ve read that there was ever even a debate about it.

I’m not convinced that sign language should NOT be taught (or at least also taught) with spoken- and written- language syntax. It seems like that this would make it all the easier for deaf people to interact with the hearing, and perhaps even add in writing ability and reading comprehension. I suppose the upside of sign language having its own syntax is that a real economy of hand-gesturing can be gained if one doesn’t have to spend time “speaking” all “proper.” But I’m still not convinced. I’m not ready to go out tilting my lance at the established pedagogical methods utilized by the educational institutions serving the hearing-impaired. I’m just with-holding judgment whilst I ponder.

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