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Sign Writing:

Renate Cooper


Children in the deaf community, in many cases, are dealing with lower proficiencies in English, low self-esteem, lack of administrative support and funding in schools. Research is demonstrating that the techniques of sign writing, along with learning sign language, are increasing children's skills in language when incorporating sign writing along side sign language. As teachers and partnering organizations increase the tools and techniques of sign writing, a child's potential to excel in English skills may increase. In this research we will look at the causes of deafness in children and a brief history of sign writing and American Sign Language. The American Sigh language has no written system. It is significant and imperative that a written language be put into place to establish sign writing and literature accessibility to everyone. 


Sign Writing for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Student

            Learning sign language and watching people sign is fascinating to many. Those people that have never signed often wonder what people communicating by signing are saying to one another. After learning sign language, one realizes much of the American Sign Language (ASL) being used is represented by symbols and ideas, not just signing letters. Not only do they use symbols and ideas for words but facial expressions and upper body language as well. As an adult, the ideas and representations of signing words make sense, but how does one teach these ideas and skills to children? Researchers are working on sign writing, along with ASL, as a technique to enhance skills for the deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) students and those having difficulties with English. ASL. Sign writing may enable students to achieve a greater connection between the two languages.

            There is continuous support in the area of sign writing, but there is also concern and obstacles facing teachers dealing with ASL and DHH in schools. According to Cecilia Flood, a teacher in New Mexico:

Explanations for this 'unhappiness' run the gamut; lack of administrative support, inequitable economic compensation, minimal participation and discipline backing from parents, discounting of previous accomplishments, criticism of sign proficiency, blame for student academic failure, over abundance of report writing, IEP goals, end of school reports, parent conferences and so on. Perhaps the more current educational paradigm shift, bilingual bicultural education, has generated the most ambivalence or 'crisis' (opportunity for change or a 'dangerous wind') among deaf educators. (Cecilia Flood)


Some of the positive aspects of the inclusion of sign writing along with ASL, according to Cecilia Flood are:

Deaf and Hard of Hearing students should learn to write the language they use for everyday interaction, that is learning to read and write signs using sign writing. This will enhance their literacy experiences in academic contexts, will effect their self-esteem development, will make them smile more, will promote a cultural and linguistic empowerment, will heighten their awareness of the power of the written word, will increase their meta-linguistic awareness and abilities, will contribute to their expressive language development, will validate the language they use everyday, will strengthen and reinforce bilingual skill development, will motivate students in their ongoing English literacy development, will provide opportunities for collaborative bi-literacy experiences and will offer insight and provide an informed perspective into the academic literacy experiences of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students.  


There are many reasons why a child can be born deaf or become deaf early in life. It is not always possible to identify the reason, but, there is information on possible causes that happen before a child is born and those that happen at birth or afterwards.

Causes before birth (pre-natal causes) Many children are born deaf because of a genetic reason. Deafness can be passed down in families even though there appears to be no family history of deafness. Sometimes the gene involved may cause additional disabilities or health problems. Deafness can also be caused by complications during pregnancy. Illnesses such as rubella, cytomegalovirus (CMV), toxoplasmosis and herpes can cause can cause a child to be born deaf. There is also a range of medicines, known as ototoxic drugs, which can damage the hearing system of a baby before birth.

Causes in infancy (post-0natal causes) As with pre-natal causes there are a number of reasons why a child may become deaf after they are born. Being born prematurely can increase the risk of being deaf or becoming deaf. Premature babies are often more prone to infections that can cause deafness. The may also be born with severe jaundice or experience a lack of oxygen at some point. Both of these can cause deafness.

In early childhood there is a range of things that can be responsible for a child becoming deaf. Infections like meningitis, measles and mumps can cause deafness. Ototoxic drugs, used to treat other types of infections in babies, can also be a cause. Occasionally deafness is caused by an injury to the head or exposure to loud noise. These can cause damage to the hearing system,

Conductive deafness or Otitis Media is the most common type. It means that sounds cannot pass efficiently through the outer and middle ear to the cochlea and auditory nerve. This is the most often caused by fluid building the middle ear. This condition is called Otitis Media with Effusion (OME) and can be referred to as glue ear in some countries. Most conductive deafness is temporary but there is a chance that it can be permanent.

Sensori-neural deafness is caused by a fault in the inner ear or auditory nerve. This is sometime called ‘nerve deafness' but this term is usually not completely accurate. Most sensori-neural deafness is caused by a problem in the cochlea. Commonly, this is because the hair cells of the cochlea are not working properly. Sensori-neural deafness is permanent. Mixed deafness is a combination of both conductive and sensori-neural deafness. For example a child may have glue ear and at the same time have a problem in their cochlea.

            American sign language defines a culture and has been accepted by members of the deaf community whether they are from different faiths, different backgrounds, or different communities. There is no deaf cuisine.  . .  . Members of the deaf community are either born into it or choose to be a part of it at various ages. (Amy Rosenberg, 1995) In 1880, the International Congress of Educators of the Deaf conference, held in Milan, decided deaf schools should focus on oralism. Oralism is an educational theory focused on the goal of teaching deaf children to speak English without the use of signs or gestures. According to Amy Rosenberg, this created an extremely poor educational setting. Without having access to sound, and without the help of Sign, learning English through writing and lip-reading was not easily accomplished and was almost never completely successful.

            Sign-writing is a practical writing system for deaf sign languages, composed of a set of intuitive graphical-schematic symbols and simple rules for combining the to represent signs. (Antonio Carlos da Rocha Costa and Gracaliz Perieira Dimuro, 2003) Although it seems like it would be just one more form of language the DHH community has to learn it is also a form of language that can be entered into and as output from a computer. I t has the capabilities of storage and retrieval, analysis and generation, translation, spell-checking, search, animation, and dictionary automation, etc. The capabilities of language processing, through the use of computers creates a whole new area of uses for the deaf sign language and the deaf community at large. 

            Deaf educators and linguists have been recommending Sign-writing as a form of language for a long time. Yet, even today, specialist in the field, are finding themselves having to prove the usefulness of a writing system for deaf children. Sign writing should be utilized as a form of communication for the same purposes the hearing community uses the written language. It is putting in symbol form the everyday language being used by the deaf community and should become a part of the ASL culture.


Carlos da Rocha Costa, Antonio & Dimuro, Gracaliz Pereira, 2003, Sign Writing and SWML: Paving the Way to Sign Language Processing, Escola de Informatica, Universedade Catolica de Pelotas, 96.101-000 Pelota, RS, Brazil {rocha, liz}

Gallaudet University Library for Deaf-relate Resources: Frequently Asked Questions, Including medical syndromes, Prepared by Tom Harrington, Reference and Instruction Librarian, May 2002

Flood, Cecilia 1999, Perspectives in education, Volume 16 #1, Sept./Oct 1997, Teacher at website: Albuquerque Public Schools, Special Education,  

Rosenberg, Amy B.A., University of Virginia, 1995, Writing Signed Language: In Support of Adopting an ASL Writing System, Masters Degree Thesis, University of Kansas, Department of Linguistics, 1999  

Also see: ELiS

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