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Deaf Education:  Literacy
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by William Vicars

The relationship between literacy and ASL

The success or failure of the bilingual/bicultural approach to educating children who are deaf depends on the relationship between ASL proficiency and English literacy.  If no such relationship exists, or if a negative relationship exists, the bi/bi approach will be unlikely to succeed.

Bilingual advocates often present Jim Cummins' Linguistic Interdependence Theory in support of a bilingual approach to education. According to the Linguistic Interdependence Theory, a language user possesses an underlying set of cognitive and language abilities that are similar to the base of an iceberg.  The surface features of a language are similar to the caps of an iceberg.  If a person knows two languages, it is like having a two ice caps with a common underlying base.  As the theory goes, if you already have a language base, it is easier to acquire a second language (Cummins, 1989).

The question though is, does a knowledge of signed ASL enhance or expedite the acquisition of English literacy? 

Not only is ASL a different language than English, it is also expressed via a different mode.  English is expressed via speaking and writing.  ASL is signed. Hearing, English-speaking people tend to develop inner speech that is for the most part similar to their spoken or outer speech.  Writing is based on a person's inner speech.  If a Spanish speaker wants to become literate in English, he can use his underlying proficiency in Spoken Spanish to expedite his acquisition of spoken English.  He then has two bridges to written English.  One is to bridge from spoken English to English based-inner-speech, then to written English.  The other bridge is to utilize his underlying proficiency in writing Spanish as an aide to learning written English. Both of these bridges (acquisition of spoken English and transference of pre-existing writing skills) are, for the most part, not available to deaf children (Chamberlain, Morford, & Mayberry, 2000).

Since ASL has no widely established written form, (with a nod, tip of the hat, and polite applause to the Sutton's and their Signwriting system) it would be difficult to establish that there are any "reading and writing" skills to be transferred and applied to the acquisition of English reading and writing skills by deaf students. 

In the absence of transfer of reading and writing skills, what then is the benefit of a deaf child learning ASL or using a bi/bi approach in the pursuit of English literacy?  It seems fairly obvious that since ASL is expressed visually and gesturally that it is acquired by individuals who are deaf more readily than are spoken languages.  The acquisition and use of a language enhances and promotes an individual's cognitive and metalinguistic abilities.  These same cognitive and metalinguistic abilities then help facilitate the acquisition of written English.

Michael Strong and Philip Prinz  conducted a three year study of 155 deaf students in which they found a statistically significant positive correlation between a high degree of ASL fluency and English literacy.  What is interesting about their study is that they ranked their participants at three levels of ASL proficiency:  low, medium, and high.    Those participants who had low levels of ASL proficiency, having a deaf parent corresponded to higher English literacy skills than students with hearing parents. The participants who had medium or high levels of ASL proficiency had correspondingly good English literacy skills regardless of the hearing status of their parents (Chamberlain et. al., 2000).


Chamberlain, C., Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (2000). Language acquisition by eye. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (pp. 131-140)

Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering minority students (1st ed ed.). Sacramento, Calif. (926 J St., Suite 810, Sacramento 95814): California Association for Bilingual Education.

Emmorey, K., Lane, H. L., Bellugi, U., & Klima, E. S. (2000). The signs of language revisited an anthology to honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima. Mahwah, N.J Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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