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Teaching Writing in Sign Bilingual Programs Dr Breda Carty

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​​​​​​Across the field of deaf education, there has tended to be less research on writing than on reading.  It is still one of the least understood aspects of learning for children who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH). Mayer (2010) provides a useful historical overview of how the teaching of writing in general has changed over the last 100 years, and how these theories and practices have intersected with deaf education. She reports that children who are DHH have, on average, consistently showed delays in writing ability (as well as the more-commonly researched reading delays). Mayer points out that children who are DHH have, on average, shown some improvements in presenting content and ideas since schools adopted whole-language teaching approaches in the early 1980s. But they have generally shown little improvement in using the structural and syntactic features of written language. She considers that results have not differed significantly according to the modality of instruction. Children who are DHH have shown similar patterns of errors and delay regardless of their instruction and communication in either signing or spoken language.  

I referred to a presentation at the recent ICED Congress by Kimberley Wolbers in my last article for the VDEI newsletter. Wolbers and her colleagues have been doing some interesting research into writing instruction for children who are DHH in recent years (see references below for some examples). They have used Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI). This approach combines explicit instruction in writing ('strategic'), discussion with students about the ideas and processes involved ('interactive'), and development of metalinguistic knowledge about the language(s) being used.

Their approaches in bilingual classrooms acknowledge that students' first and second languages do not always progress independently of each other. In addition, we cannot assume that their first language is always the strongest language. There is often interdependence and 'transfer' between the two languages (e.g.,, we may see features of Auslan in the students' writing and English may also influence their signing). Recognising this factor can provide opportunities to extend students' metalinguistic knowledge about both languages.

In Australia, Baker and Stark (2015) are building on the work of these researchers and workshopping strategies for teaching writing to students who are DHH who use Auslan. The students are encouraged to interact with both Auslan and English texts. Baker and Stark develop teachers' skills in analysing the linguistic features present in their students' use of both languages. This can involve analysing an Auslan narrative, guiding students to move onto a written English version of the same narrative, and then interactively building on the linguistic features which are present in the Auslan text towards extended fluency in written English. Baker and Stark consider that an understanding of sign language linguistics is a critical and often overlooked strategy for teachers working in bilingual settings, and can be particularly helpful in the teaching of writing.

The increasing linguistic awareness and analysis evident in these teaching approaches is encouraging. However, we still have a way to go in understanding how learners who are DHH interact with text and in particular, how they create written texts. Mayer (2010) suggests that research in this area needs to focus more on "the cognitive strategies underpinning text production" than on ways of teaching writing (p. 150). The constant production of a variety of text types is becoming a feature of almost all modern workplaces. People who are DHH who are fluent writers have significant advantages for study, work, and leisure participation across the lifespan. 


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 Instruction, 53(3), 245-268.

Mayer, C. (2010). The demands of writing and the deaf writer. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education (Vol. 2, pp. 144 – 155). New York: Oxford University Press.

Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction. (nd). Center on Deafness, The University of Tennessee. Retrieved from

Wolbers, K. A., Bowers, L. M., Dostal, H. M. & Graham, S. C. (2014). Deaf writers' application of American Sign Language knowledge to English. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 17(4), 410-428.

Wolbers, K. A., Dostal, H. M., Graham, S., Cihak, D., Kilpatrick, J. R., & Saulsburry, R. (2015). The writing performance of elementary students receiving strategic and interactive writing instruction. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 20(4), 385-398.​