THE ROCHESTER METHOD
The Rochester Method was a way of educating deaf students by allowing
fingerspelling and oral language only. The idea behind the Rochester Method was to make deaf communication
like English print as much as possible
(Musselman, 2000). The method was named after Rochester, the home of the first school to try to use this
method, the Rochester School for the Deaf
When Rochester School for the Deaf started in 1876 with Professor Zenas
Freeman Westervelt as superintendent, the school used the Combined Method of
signing and lip-reading (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002). Two years later, in
1878, Dr. Isaac Lewis Peet had the idea to prohibit all gestures from deaf
students’ school life (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002). He even recommended
prohibiting gestures in family life. Professor Westervelt took on the idea
and, in 1886, announced that his school was only using fingerspelling and
speech. At the school, one-third of classroom time was in lip-reading and
speech (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002). Students learned written language
more quickly because of fingerspelling (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002).
The Rochester Method was developed to integrate deaf people into the
mainstream society. America and Europe were in a big controversy about how
to best teach deaf children. On one side were oralists who wanted to rely
on speech. On the other side were the manualists who thought gestures were
the way to go. In between were the Combinists. Edward Miner Gallaudet, son
of Thomas H. Gallaudet, fought for the manualist side. Alexander Graham
Bell was an oralist. Bell was also speaking out for the eugenics movement,
which upset many deaf people terribly (Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G. and
Albertini, John A., 2002).
In Europe in 1880, a convention in Milan voted to adopt the oralist method
to teach deaf students. However, many manualist teachers did not attend,
and deaf people were not allowed to vote. Deaf people all over were
appalled and angered. Deaf people’s choices for how to communicate came to
be seen as a human rights issue. The fight over deaf education methods
became a very emotional and still is today (Marschark, Marc, Lang,
Harry G. and Albertini, John A., 2002).
“The controversy [over the best deaf instruction method] has blindsided far
too many educators and has pushed the goals of research into the
background (Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G. and Albertini, John A.,
2002, p. 32).”
After Professor Westervelt announced he was adopting the Rochester Method
for his school, Dr. Peet “expressed confidence that [Professor Westervelt’s]
attempt would either be successful or in a reasonable time, [Professor
Westervelt] would report the results and return to the old [Combined
Method] (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002, p. 12).” Professor Westervelt never
reported a failure. Other schools tried adopting the Rochester Method,
including the Louisiana School for the Deaf and the Florida School for the
Deaf (Gunsauls, 2003).
The method survived for about 70 years, but essentially died because it was
impractical. Teachers and even successful students found that
fingerspelling took too much time and energy. One former student of the
Rochester Method complained that students were “guinea pigs” and administrators did not accurately
report how effective the method was
Did the Rochester Method have any long-lasting effect? The Rochester
Method might have influenced the American deaf community by encouraging the
use of the manual alphabet. ASL uses a good deal of fingerspelling in
comparison to other sign languages. (Gunsauls, 2003) Was there any
benefits to the students of the Rochester Method? Some research has shown
that the Rochester Method produces better language skills, but modern
educators tend to agree that using different strategies according to the child’s abilities, experience and
situation is the best educational method
Bienvenu, MJ. (2003). When fingerspelling replace signs: remembering an
encounter with Visible English. Odyssey. 5:22-23.
Gunsauls, Darline Clark. (2003). How the alphabet came to be used in a
sign language. Sign Language Studies. 4:10-33, 91.
Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G. and Albertini, John A. (2002). Educating
Deaf Students: From Research to Practice. New York: Oxford University
Musselman, Carol. (2000). How Do Children Who Can’t Hear Learn to Read an
Alphabetic Script? A Review of the Literature on Reading and Deafness.
Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 5: 9-31
Rosenberg-Naparsteck, Ruth. (2002). The Rochester School for the Deaf.
Rochester History, LXIV: 1-23.