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Enhancing the Linguistic and Cognitive Development of signing students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

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​​Dr Breda Carty

I attended the International Congress on Education of the Deaf (ICED) in Athens in July 2015. One of the most interesting sessions was a symposium about the challenges of working with signing students who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) who may not have rich sign language input outside their school environment. Children whose parents are also DHH, or exposed to other environments with fluent and consistent sign communication, are more likely to have age-appropriate academic and social skills. However, only a small minority of signing students have these linguistically rich backgrounds. The symposium I attended focussed on what teachers can do to enrich the linguistic and cognitive abilities of students who are not exposed to complex signed communication in their home or social environments.

Some presenters, such as Debbie Golos (2015), shared resources that have been developed for young children who are DHH. These resources, such as, are not intended to replace good face-to-face communication and interaction. However, the resources can provide ideas for teachers and caregivers to enhance their signed interaction with children who are DHH. The resources also provide valuable models of effective and engaging signing exchanges appropriate for different age groups. Some resources can offer rich interactive experiences for children themselves.

Another presenter, Kimberley Wolbers (2015), described strategies for using signed communication as a bridge to English literacy. The activities Wolbers describes are  currently being workshopped in Australia (e.g., Baker & Stark, 2015). Wolbers and her colleagues are helping to make the link between the two languages more explicit to address the limited linguistic ability that some children who are DHH may have if signed language is not their home language (see also Dostal & Wolbers, 2014). I will be writing more about this in my next article for the VDEI newsletter.

Other presenters at the symposium, such as David Smith (2015) emphasised the need for teachers of the deaf in bilingual classrooms to have well-developed signing skills. They also recommended  engaging their students who are DHH  in challenging interactions to strategically extend their linguistic and cognitive skills. Smith and his colleagues (e.g., Smith & Ramsay, 2004) have promoted the ‘Instructional Conversations’ approach that has been used with people from other language minorities in the USA and Canada (e.g., Goldenberg, 1992) and also the use of dialogic pedagogy (e.g., Alexander, 2004). Both approaches encourage the teacher to plan strategic conversations with students rather than focus primarily on direct instruction. The approaches require that teachers have fluent signing skills, and to develop their ability to ‘listen’ and wait for responses from students. They are also expected to challenge the student’s responses and extend to extend their understandings of subject matter. These practices can be challenging for teachers of the deaf who are not yet confident of their own signing ability.

This symposium was an example of teachers, parents and other stakeholders in bilingual education for children who are DHH sharing rigorous and creative solutions.


Alexander, R. J. (2004). Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk. Cambridge: Dialogos.

Baker, M. & Stark, M. (2015). Building connections between the signed and written language of signing deaf children. 

Dostal, H. M. & Wolbers, K. A. (2014). Developing language and writing skills of deaf and hard of hearing students: A simultaneous approach. 

Literacy Research and Instruction53(3), 245-268.

Goldenberg, C. (1992). Instructional conversations: Promoting comprehension through discussion. The Reading Teacher, 46(4), 316-326.

Golos, D. (2015). Fluent language models in early childhood deaf education. Paper presented at International Congress on Education of the Deaf, Athens, 7th July.

Peter’s Picture. (2015). Peter’s picture: An educational video series in ASL. Retrieved from:  

Smith, D. (2015). Classroom discourse practice of a deaf high school social studies teacher. Paper presented at International Congress on Education of the Deaf, Athens, 7th July.

Smith, D.H. & Ramsay, C. L. (2004). Classroom discourse practices of a deaf teacher using American Sign Language. Sign Language Studies, 5(1), 39-62.

Wolbers, K. (2015). Strategic and interactive writing instruction (SIWI) in later elementary grades. Paper presented at International Congress on 

Education of the Deaf, Athens, 7th July.​