Use of sign language and sign systems in facilitating the language acquisition and communication of deaf students, The

use of sign language and sign systems in facilitating the language acquisition and communication of deaf students, The

Coryell, Judith

ABSTRACT: With a historical context as a foundation, the current trends, practices, and perspectives regarding the manual component of educating deaf children is examined, including Manually Coded English systems and American Sign Language. As decisions are considered regarding various approaches to sign communication, it is necessary to investigate issues that support and also question the appropriateness of any given language/ system. In addition to the sign language/systems, an equally important aspect is the instructional strategy that supports sign usage, such as Total Communication, Simultaneous Communication, and Bilingual Education. Issues affecting the selection and use of sign language/ systems conclude this article.

KEY WORDS: American Sign Language, language acquisition, sign systems, deaf students

he goals and processes of teaching deaf children have been subjected to much debate since the inception of the education of deaf students. A major focus of controversy has been the use of sign language to teach deaf students. The trends in Deaf education have vacillated from one extreme of communication philosophy to another-from pure oralism to bilingual applications of English and American Sign Language (ASL).


The first public school for deaf children was established in the late 1700s in France by Abbe de I’ Epee (Bernard, 1987). In that environment, the use of sign language was considered to be the most effective way to teach deaf children. Instructional activities within the school were conducted in a standardized sign language. This was a departure from previous practices in private programs that emphasized the development of oral skills as the sole avenue for deaf children to receive education. This pedagogical shift set off several controversies that are still debated today, including the incorporation of sign language in Deaf education and, when used, the type of signing most appropriate for teaching. (For complete historical reviews, see Moores, 1987; Scouten, 1984; and Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989.)

The instructional use of sign language in the United States began in 1817 with the arrival of a French teacher who was deaf, Laurent Clerc, who, with Thomas Gallaudet cofounded the first American school for deaf children in Hartford, Connecticut. The school began a long-standing tradition in this country of using sign language to teach deaf children. It also served to preserve the role of sign language in schools in the face of the oral revolution during the last part of the 19th century. Central to this movement was the International Congress on Education of the Deaf held in Milan, Italy in 1880, which proclaimed that sign language had no place in the education of deaf children. Although sign language was not totally eradicated from schools in the United States, it was routinely delayed until the later school years.

It was not until the mid-1960s that recognition was given to the value of sign language in educating deaf children. During that period, it was noted that limited academic achievement was prevalent among many deaf students, prompting a congressional investigation in 1964 that resulted in the Babbidge Report. This report documented the chronically poor quality of education for deaf children and recommended massive changes in the way these children were educated.

In light of these findings, several philosophies emerged that emphasized the return of sign language to classrooms. The new philosophies and approaches were not grounded so much in empirical foundations, but rather were based on assumptions regarding language development and the accessibility of language input. For example, the Total Communication philosophy espoused the belief that each child had a right to be educated in a mode that is most individually beneficial. This would include sign language, fingerspelling, speech, speechreading, and any other appropriate form of communication. During the same period, several versions of Manually Coded English were created (e.g., Seeing Essential English-SEE I and Signing Exact English-SEE II) with the goal of improving literacy skills among deaf children by making English visible.

The transition to the use of signs for the instruction of deaf children was enthusiastically embraced by schools across the country. However, the Total Communication philosophy was implemented not as it had originally been conceived, but rather as signing and voicing at the same time (simultaneous communication) to the exclusion of other modes of sign usage, such as ASL.

Yet another congressional report in 1988, prepared by the Commission on Education of the Deaf, described a continued bleak picture of Deaf education (Commission on Education of the Deaf, 1988). One of the major criticisms in the report was the lack of recognition and exclusion of ASL in the education of deaf students. This document fueled the sentiment for the bilingual movement, which promotes the incorporation of ASL and English (in printed and spoken forms) in the teaching of deaf children.

At present, Total Communication in a variety of forms is the policy of approximately 70% of school programs serving deaf children in the United States (Woodward, Allen, & Schildroth, 1985). This implies that sign language in some form is a critical part of instructional activities at these programs. However, because of the vague interpretation of the Total Communication philosophy, it remains unclear exactly what constitutes practice of the philosophy in these schools. It is evident that there is increased interest in investigating the benefits and pitfalls of various sign systems and their impact on language acquisition and communication development.


The extensive literature regarding the patterns and practices in language development are beyond the scope of this article and yet have an important influence on the use of sign with deaf students (for reviews, see Kretschmer & Kretschmer, 1978; Moores, 1987; Quigley & Paul, 1984). Issues regarding the selection and use of various sign systems within educational settings cannot be discussed in isolation, but rely considerably on concepts of language development in general and for deaf children in particular. Critical elements of these concepts are derived from the literature and outlined so that sign usage can be viewed in a more complete context. Language is acquired interactively through modeling, experience, and use in a rich linguistic environment. Language is an expression of individuality-not a rote presentation of rules. Its use becomes increasingly complex and it develops best when acquisition begins during the earliest years of life.

In this regard, Bochner and Albertini (1990) described the importance of appropriate linguistic input (or the linguistic environment) for the potential for linguistic intake or the processing of that input. Factors such as hearing status and cognitive differences might alter the potential for intake, whereas the type of linguistic signal (verbal or sign) or its structure can affect the appropriateness of the input. For example, if the quality and quantity of interaction with competent signers (language models) is severely limited, the result would be an impoverished linguistic environment, restricting the experience and use of language in deaf children. In the process, deaf children would miss a critical period for language acquisition.

An additional consideration in the selection of sign systems is the manner in which languages are processed. Slobin (1977) identified certain cognitive prerequisites for language-a language must be clear, humanly processible in ongoing time, quick and easy, and expressive. As will be seen, each one of these variables, by virtue of individual sign skills, can either contribute to or cause confusion in the processing of specific sign systems/languages. For example, the signed message may be potentially processible, yet the production by the parent or teacher may be either unclear or so laborious as to detract from the clarity and comprehension of the utterance.

Finally, there is much to be learned from the theoretical perspectives described in the area of bilingual education, its application to language acquisition, and the selection and use of sign systems. Over the past decade, there has been discussion regarding the value of a bilingual approach to language development in deaf students-that is, fluent development in a primary/first language (ASL) and transference of that language knowledge to fluency and literacy in a second language (English). The Cummins’ Model of Common Linguistic Proficiency (Cummins, 1984) identifies two levels of language development within the primary and secondary languages (LI and L2), emphasizing natural and interactive acquisition processes.

This model differentiates two sequential areas for the development of proficiency in a language-basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP). BICS is described as the language that is used for daily communication in a familiar context. It incorporates the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of the language. This provides the linguistic foundation for developing the CALP aspects of the language. The CALP level of language is highly decontextualized and relates to the literacy skills that are needed in academic situations. Cummins suggested that there is indeed a progressive development of language competence and that one must develop proficiency at the BICS level in order to effectively perform at the CALP level. Furthermore, he proposed that skills developed in L1 also serve as a foundation for the transition into L2. In examining sign language and sign systems, the development of competency is of critical importance.


In order to analyze sign systems and sign language options (such as Manually Coded English, Pidgin Sign English, or ASL), five major areas need to be consideredapproaches (a description of the language or mode), assumptions (the theoretical foundation on which language is built), advantages, areas of concern, and actual practice (the current patterns of usage). In addition to the discussion of sign communication options, models of instructional strategies (Total Communication, Simultaneous Communication, and Bilingual Education) will be examined.

SIGN SYSTEMS AND SIGN LANGUAGE Manually Coded English Systems (MCE)

Approaches. There are currently three major sign systems used that can be categorized as Manually Coded English: Seeing Essential English (SEE I), created by Anthony and Associates (1971); Signing Exact English (SEE II), created by Gustason, Pfetzing, and Zawolkow (1972); and Signed English, created by Bornstein, Hamilton, and Saulnier (1980). Each system, using ASL signs as the foundation, was designed to represent the English language following word order and grammatical inflections. Both SEE I and SEE II follow a “two-out-ofthree” principle. There are three possible aspects to determining a sign match for a word-the word’s spelling, pronunciation, or meaning. If a word in English has two of the same aspects as another word, both words are signed the same. A common example is the word “right” and its many meanings (e.g., correct, legal claim, the direction opposite of left). Because each of those meanings is spelled and pronounced the same (two of the three aspects), they would be signed the same. This is in contrast to ASL, which has a separate sign for each of these concepts.

A second characteristic of MCE systems is that they provide the visual detail of certain parts of English that are either implied or embedded in ASL, such as gender-specific pronouns, verb tenses, affixes, and articles. For example, development would be signed as two separate signs, develop and -ment, and running would be made by two signs, run and -ing. Each system has created a set of invented signs that adds the hand shape of the initial letter of an English synonym. In SEE II, for example, the base sign beauty is signed as the word beautiful in ASL; pretty is signed similarly with the initial “P,” and lovely is initialized with an “L.” This differs from ASL, which has only one base sign for these three words, but the sign may be inflected by the addition of facial expression and/or intensity of sign production.

Assumptions. With each of these systems, there are basic assumptions. They all acknowledge the difficulties in the acquisition of English by deaf children and attempt to remedy the situation. Making English visible on the hands is done to replicate the experience of children with unimpaired hearing who have auditory access to English by providing deaf children with constant exposure to the grammar of English. Specific features of English words are added to signs in order to create a more complete representation of the English language (Luetke-Stahlman & Luckner, 1991; Maxwell, 1990; Maxwell, Bernstein, & Mear, 1991 ).

Advantages. Because of their contrived nature, the MCE systems are systematically designed and consistent in their replication of English words, contributing to the standardization of the MCE sign selection. Extensive dictionaries (e.g., Signing Exact English) act as a valuable reference for parents and teachers who are learning and using the sign system. Additionally, because MCE systems adhere to English syntax and morphology, they build on a familiar language pattern and so may be viewed as less intimidating to learn by parents and teachers. Rather than learning a new syntactic system, rote learning of the sign vocabulary is seen as adequate for communication purposes. In this way, parents may begin to communicate with their children during the critical early years of language development, therefore supporting the essential interactive nature of language acquisition. Additionally, children’s story books have been published that represent English in manual codes, thereby reinforcing the connection between the sign and the printed English word.

Areas of concern. MCE systems have received much criticism from educators, linguistic scholars, and the Deaf community. The critics consider MCE systems to be artificial and cumbersome, violating the basic premises of language acquisition (Hoffmeister, 1992; Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989; Supalla, 1993). Following Slobin’s charge regarding language properties, MCE systems are seen to be overly complex, difficult to process cognitively, and often lacking in the expressive nature contained in the grammatical inflections of ASL. Additionally, MCE systems are not used by any linguistic community and thus do not have any native language models.

A major concern is the inability of MCE signers to accurately represent spoken English in manual form. High rates of production errors have been documented in studies of teachers using MCE in the classroom (Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989; Kluwin, 1981; Marmor & Petitto, 1979; Strong & Charlson, 1987). Furthermore, teachers often do not incorporate a complete system, but rather use a mix of signs from various systems, thereby hindering the “natural” acquisition process of English (Quigley & Paul, 1994). However, others have documented more accurate representation of manual English once commitment has been made to a specific system (Gustason, 1988; Luetke-Stahlman, 1988a, 1988b).

Regardless of the potential for proficiency in teachers’ production of MCE systems, the question is raised as to the potential for deaf students to process the visual representation of a spoken language. In coding a spoken language into sign, the auditorily based linguistic system of English has been converted into a visual medium (Hoffmeister, 1992; Supalla, 1993). A question has been raised regarding whether the eyes can efficiently process spoken languages (Quigley & Paul, 1994), particularly the important suprasegmental aspects, because some deaf children do not seem to extract the structure of English from purely visual representations.

A recent study on the “learnability” of MCE suggests that there are many aspects of English that are learned by their sample of deaf students using MCE and some that are not (Schick & Moeller, 1992). Specifically, their subjects consistently incorporated English rules of word order, sentence embedding, argument structure, prepositions, and pronouns, but demonstrated weak skills in auxiliaries, copulas, and inflectional morphemes.

Yet another concern is the differences in the forms of the two languages. The English language, as with any spoken language, is essentially presented in linear form, which differs significantly from the spatial morphology of a naturally occurring sign language such as ASL (Gee & Goodhart, 1985; Supalla, 1993). Despite the sequential nature of MCE systems, even students exposed only to these sign codes tend to refine sign production to conform to the spatial nature of ASL (Supalla, 1993). Lastly, in the 20 years since the transition to Total Communication, MCE systems have been used to enhance English abilities in deaf students and yet there has been no clear trend toward improvement in English competency as measured by achievement scores (Quigley & Paul, 1994).

Actual practice. The transition from the oral era to the Total Communication period occurred primarily during the 1970s, with almost 70% of the programs reporting the use of some form of sign language in classes (Jordan, Gustason, & Rosen, 1979; Woodward, Allen, & Schildroth, 1985)-a percentage that has remained fairly consistent (Allen & Karchmer, 1990). The majority of such programs indicated a preference or policy favoring MCE, and many identified SEE II as the specific system in use. However, program policy and actual practice can vary significantly. In a recent national study of over 1,000 teachers of deaf students, only 16% indicated that they use what can be considered uncontaminated (non-ASL) MCE (Woodward & Allen, 1993).

American Sign Language (ASL)

Approaches. American Sign Language has a linguistic foundation that was derived in large part from French Sign Language, which was introduced in the early 1800s (as much as 60% shared vocabulary), as well as from other varieties of indigenous signing in North America (Groce, 1985; Woodward, 1978). ASL has been refined over the years by the language users in the Deaf community.

Unlike MCE systems, ASL is a distinct language with its own rules and grammar that are different from English (Baker & Cokely, 1980; Klima & Bellugi, 1979; Wilbur, 1987). Beginning with the work of William Stokoe (1960) and continuing with investigation by numerous linguists and educators, ASL has been recognized as a legitimate language by the academic community and the “defining characteristic of the Deaf Community” (Moores, 1987). However, even within the academic community, there have been disagreements among deaf people concerning how ASL should be defined and whether there is such a thing as pure ASL that is free from any influence from English (Bragg, 1990; Goodstein, 1990; Jacobs, 1990; Valli, 1990).

Assumptions. Many deaf people consider ASL to be the most natural and accessible language for them because of its visual properties. Learning ASL as a first language provides a strong language base through which a second language (English) can be learned more readily. This premise is based in part on studies in the 1960s and 1970s that reported that deaf children with parents who are also deaf demonstrate superior linguistic abilities and academic achievement (reading, vocabulary, and written language). These children have had the opportunity for early and consistent exposure to communication (see review in Moores, 1987). ASL has not been promoted to be used in isolation in educational settings, but rather in a bilingual context along with English. (See the section entitled Bilingual Education.)

Advantages. Whereas the MCE systems seem easier for hearing parents and teachers to learn, ASL can be acquired quickly and easily by deaf children provided they have fluent adult models who interact with them (Livingston, 1986) and ASL is efficiently processed through the visual mode (e.g., Bahan, 1989a; Bellugi, 1991; Supalla, 1991). When ASL is acquired naturally by deaf children, its acquisition is strikingly similar to the spoken language acquisition process in normally hearing children (Newport & Meier, 1985; Petitto & Marentette, 1991).

ASL seems to satisfy Slobin’s charge that a language be clear, processible, quick, easy, and expressive. As noted, the major advantage to ASL is that it can serve as a first language on which to build a second language-English (Johnson & Liddell, 1990). In the academic environment, content can be delivered clearly and completely in a visually accessible form, in essence “unlocking the curriculum” (Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989).

There is strong support from national leaders in the educational and Deaf community for deaf children to be educated in ASL (Bowe et al., 1988; National Association of the Deaf, 1994). Likewise, there is an extensive linguistic community for ASL into which many deaf children could tap for language models. For deaf children, ASL helps to foster positive feelings about themselves and pride in the language and culture of the Deaf community (Holcomb, 1993).

Two other factors provide support for the use of ASL by families of deaf children, teachers, and community members. Both as a reference and as teaching tools, there are numerous ASL dictionaries as well as several texts/ curriculum materials for teaching ASL to non-signers. In addition, there are university graduate programs that include master’s degree programs in the teaching of sign language. There is also a national association of teachers of ASL, called the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA), which provides certification for sign language teachers.

Areas of concern. Although there is an expanding body of linguistic analysis of ASL, there has not been a parallel growth of empirical findings related to the effectiveness of ASL as the language of instruction and its transferability to the acquisition of English (Drasgow, 1993). It has been suggested that the increasing support for the use of ASL in the classroom is founded in Deaf community empowerment issues rather than effective research approaches (Stuckless, 1991). For the most part, research on second language acquisition does not take ASL into consideration, which makes the transferability of ASL into English questionable to some people. In addition, opportunities for speech development are a concern because, unlike with MCE systems, it is not possible to speak English and sign ASL simultaneously. Focus on spoken English occurs outside of the academic classroom. An additional concern of supporters of ASL/English bilingual education is that ASL is not supported under the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 (Strong, 1992), and support for its inclusion suggests the need for greater recognition and acceptance of ASL as a minority language (Kannapell 1978; Lane, 1990; Strong, 1992).

Actual practice. It has been estimated that as many as 80% of adults who are prelingually deaf use ASL as their primary language regardless of their educational and communication backgrounds (Schlessinger & Meadow, 1972). The most fluent users of ASL are children of deaf parents and those deaf students who enter residential schools at an early age (Hoffmeister, 1990). In addition, competence in ASL is the major identifying factor in determining inclusion as a member of the Deaf community. Within many residential schools, ASL has long been used as the unofficial language of instruction at the secondary level, as well as the conversational vehicle within the residential component of such educational settings. Prior to the 1990s, ASL was reported to be used in as few as 1% of classes for deaf students . Currently, at least 15 large special schools for deaf students have adopted ASL as the language of instruction.

The documentation of actual classroom use of ASL is widely varied, owing in part to the lack of a clear description of what sign forms constitute ASL. In one study (N = 1,888), 7.4% of teachers self-reported the use of ASL (Woodward & Allen, 1987), but the accuracy of the selfperception was questioned. By eliminating English influence in the signing, it was estimated that possibly 1.4% or, more likely, 0.4% were actually using ASL. In a more recent study of 1,123 classroom teachers (Woodward & Allen, 1993), a significant majority of teachers in residential schools reported signing practices that “closely approaches ASL in both channel (no voice) and in grammatical code.” Of those, only 1% reported no influence of English in their signing.

Pidgin Sign English (PSE)

Approaches. The combination of various elements of English and ASL is often referred to as Pidgin Sign English (PSE). Although it is not a true Pidgin in the linguistic sense (Cokely, 1983), PSE is a mixture of the forms of the two languages that preserves the conceptual integrity of ASL while integrating English syntax, although usually omitting function words in English. Valli and Lucas (1992) described it as including word order, idiomatic expressions, fingerspelling, and the mouthing of English words (with or without voice), as well as ASL signs, nonmanual signals, and ASL use of space.

Unlike MCE systems that are contrived to represent English, PSE is a contact language that facilitates communication between deaf people (ASL-using) and those who are hearing (English-speaking, nonnative signing). In this way, it has naturally evolved as a representation (albeit partial) of English using ASL signs. Because of the blending of the two languages, PSE is widely variable, depending on the individuals’ language background or competence, the degree of bilingual fluency (e.g., ASL, English), and the purpose of the interaction (e.g., instructional, conversational). Other terms describing this type of signing include Pidgin American Sign Language (PASL), Contact Language (Lucas & Valli, 1989), Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE), or Sign English (Woodward, 1990).

Assumptions. There does not seem to be any pedagogical movement to actively promote the use of PSE in academic settings, nor is there research intended to document educational success resulting from this type of sign communication. However, support will be found for the use of what some would call PSE and what others would label a variation of ASL (Bragg, 1990; Goodstein, 1990). PSE provides conceptual sign representations of spoken English (e.g., as used by sign language interpreters) and so is a compromise for academic interactions between students who use ASL and teachers who speak English. It is also assumed that deaf students would be exposed to the grammar and syntax of English while enjoying the naturalness and richness of ASL without being saddled with the artificial rules of MCE systems. Additionally, proficiency in PSE may be seen as more manageable than ASL for many people who learn sign later in life (Colonomos, 1990; McKee & McKee, 1992).

Advantages. A major advantage of the use of PSE in academic settings is to allow for personal signing styles with variable influences of ASL and English. Although the complete comprehension of the signed message is possibly compromised, PSE may be understood by both deaf people and those who have normal hearing-it is somewhat accessible to ASL users through the preservation of the conceptual component of ASL signs and to English-speaking signers with familiar English grammatical characteristics. (Other advantages of PSE with voice are described in the section entitled Simultaneous Communication.)

Areas of concern. Because of PSE’s inconsistent and varied forms, there is no uniform presentation of either language (ASL or English), and therefore it is thought not to provide complete and complex linguistic input for developing a first language. This may contribute to the inability of deaf children to acquire English due to poor modeling of either ASL or English. Consistent replication of PSE provides problems for classroom application because there is no standard sign vocabulary nor grammatical constraints.

Actual practice. Because of its flexible definition, it is difficult to determine the extent of use of PSE, but it seems to be widespread. In a recent study of 1,187 teachers across the United States of deaf students (Woodward, 1990), approximately 50% reported using various forms of sign English or PSE. A similar study of 1,123 classroom teachers by Woodward and Allen (1993) described more than 80% of the teachers signing in English word order with varying degrees of additional characteristics of English code (initialized signs, tense marking, prefixes and suffixes). It is interesting to note that those teachers in residential school programs reported signing with less English influence, and those in nonresidential settings signing closer to an English representation. In other contact situations between signers who are deaf and those who are not, the extent of PSE use is unknown.


Total Communication (TC)

Approaches. Total Communication as it was originally conceived was an inclusive educational philosophy that advocated that the unique communicative needs of each deaf child be met. The communication strategy of choice was to be whatever was found to be beneficial to the child (Holcomb, 1971). In theory, this includes the appropriate and selective use of speech, speechreading, amplification, signs, and fingerspelling, as well as gestures and mime, writing and drawing, and so forth. However, in practice, it has come to represent the simultaneous use of speech and signs, also known as Simultaneous Communication, or SimCom.

Assumptions. The fundamental perspective of TC is that each deaf child has individual needs and no one system will satisfy all students’ needs. In this way, each person’s strengths will be reinforced and their communication skills will be developed in various areas. Programs or teachers who adopt the TC philosophy should be prepared to meet those individual needs and be competent models in all areas. In this way, exposure to both sign language and oral training would be assured.

Advantages. TC is intended to be child centered and to recognize the individual strengths of each student. It provides the flexibility necessary to make accommodations and adjustments to meet students’ unique communication and educational needs. It also has a more subtle advantage: It is a philosophy that was proposed during an oralonly era, when the state of Deaf education was viewed as failing (Babbidge, 1965), and one that proponents hoped would appease both those who advocated oral approaches to educating deaf students and those who advocated manual ones.

Areas of concern. A major criticism of TC is that this type of communication approach cannot be everything to everyone, and that it is unable to optimally address the individual needs of each student (Scouten, 1984). Similarly, a teacher cannot be everything to everyone-developing proficiencies in each and every mode when addressing each student in his or her preferred mode (Bahan, 1989b). A second and separate concern is the misinterpretation of an inclusive philosophy into an exclusive practice-that of using signs (often MCE) and speech simultaneously. SimCom provides input in two modalities, but it is not individualized to meet a child’s unique needs.

Actual practice. Because TC is often misapplied as SimCom, data regarding its use are unreliable. Since 1975, TC has been the predominant means of instruction in classes for deaf students (Moores, l985). As noted, the use of TC was estimated in one study to be in place at approximately 70% of the schools and programs serving deaf students (Jordan, Gustason, & Rosen, 1979), which probably describes the simultaneous use of speech and signs rather than an inclusive instructional philosophy.

Simultaneous Communication (Sim-Com)

Approaches. Simultaneous Communication, or Sim-Com, is the practice of speaking and signing at the same time, following English word order. It is most often used in interactions between deaf individuals and those who are hearing. In combining the two modes (speaking and signing), English is the spoken language, and either PSE or one of the MCE systems (e.g., SEE II) is the signed component.

Assumptions. A major assumption in the use of SimCom is that it is possible to represent spoken English manually (sign and speak at the same time) and that neither sign production nor the articulation of English deteriorates when combining the two modes. In this way, Sim-Com provides maximum exposure to oral skill development at no expense to content learning. It is considered beneficial to combine signals, thus giving the variety of deaf students the opportunity to receive a signal that is complementary to their individual needs. Studies indicate that even though there is often a mismatch between speech and sign production, the message remains intact (Maxwell, Bernstein, & Mear, 1991). (For a comprehensive review of the foundations of Sim-Com, see Maxwell, 1990.)

Advantages. Sim-Com affords students the opportunity to use speech consistently and, when speech is used by the parent or teacher, provides auditory input to the deaf student. Using both signing and speech allows one system to supplement the other. It is viewed as presenting the best of both modes of communication in educational as well as social settings. When in a mixed group of people with varying abilities in spoken English and sign, Sim-Com is sometimes used because it provides bimodal communication so that no one is left out. One study done with deaf professionals at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf suggested that Sim-Com “can be an effective medium for communication” when done by an experienced communicator and effective signer (Newell, Stinson, Castle, Mallery-Ruganis, & Holcomb, 1991).

Areas of concern. The major area of concern is that it is impossible to speak in English and sign in ASL at the same time; therefore, Sim-Com is merely compromised communication combining selected aspects of the two languages. Sim-Com has been described as ineffective and cumbersome and as a difficult cognitive-motoric task-even with concentrated efforts at developing proficiency in its use. When speaking and signing at the same time, the rate of speech production is reduced by approximately 25%, with numerous omissions. When signing and speaking with one-to-one correspondence, the speech rate is reduced by 50% (Baker, 1978).

Questions abound as to Sim-Com’s effectiveness as a mode of communication or as a method for teaching English. Numerous studies have documented major compromises in the areas of clarity, ease, and expressibility, and include problems of cognitive overload, frequent omissions, a tendency to simplify the message, and distorted pace (Baker, 1978; Erting, 1985; Marmor & Petitto, 1979; Strong & Charlson, 1987). If teachers are unable to produce a clear message, then students will obviously be unable to maximally benefit from the message conveyed (Drasgow, 1993). Additionally, there is no clear evidence of positive impact on English competency development, in part due to the individual approaches to combining speech and sign (McAnally, Rose, & Quigley, 1994). Refer to MCE descriptions for similar areas of concern.

Actual practice. Sim-Com has been widely used in schools since the 1970s. Over 90% of teachers using sign in the classroom report signing and speaking at the same time (Woodward & Allen, 1993). It is the official policy of many programs, but is often referred to in this regard as Total Communication. This is not a communication mode that is used frequently among deaf people.

Bilingual Education (ASL/English)

Approaches. In the Bilingual Education model, ASL and English are maintained as two distinct languages, with ASL serving as the primary language of instruction. ASL is introduced at an early age as the first language, and English is learned as a second language, primarily in its print form. Lane (1992) described it as “student-centered education conducted in the child’s most fluent language (ASL)…while fostering his literacy in English.” Teaching strategies include bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) approaches. This model uses both the language of the Deaf community and that of the Englishspeaking community and includes deaf and hearing professionals as language models.

Assumptions. The Bilingual Education model acknowledges that some deaf people belong to both the Deaf community and the mainstream society. It affirms that both languages are presented at their best, with maximum clarity, and that it is not possible to effectively sign in English nor is it cognitively beneficial to process simultaneous input. Early interactions (with quality and quantity input) provide complete access to natural language for the normal acquisition of LI (ASL). This approach supports Cummins’ Model of Common Linguistic Proficiency (Cummins, 1984), establishing ASL as the first language on which to build a second language (English). In this sense, Bilingual Education for deaf students is seen as a true “least restrictive environment,” devoid of communication barriers. Lastly, the concept of Bilingual Education was supported by a national task force-the Commission on Education of the Deaf-which recommended that “the Department of Education should take positive action to encourage practices under the Bilingual Education Act that seek to enhance the quality of education received by limited-English proficiency children whose native (primary) language is American Sign Language” (Bowe et al., 1988).

Advantages. An ASL/English bilingual approach has the support of many members of the Deaf community and professionals in the field (Barnum, 1984; Johnson & Liddell, 1990; Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989; Kannapell, 1990; McAnally, Rose, & Quigley, 1994; Strong, 1988). It uses the language used by the majority of adults in the United States’ Deaf community. As a result, it helps to provide a strong self-identity to deaf students during critical periods of development. Bilingual Education emphasizes the mastery of content areas (including English language development) rather than the rehabilitation of English deficiencies. In support of this mastery learning, there is a growing library of media support such as videotapes and curriculum materials.

Areas of concern. Despite extensive literature indicating support for Bilingual Education, there is limited research data as to the impact of the bilingual approach in teaching deaf students-both in terms of academic and English language achievement. The transferability of Ll (ASL) to L2 (English) and the relationship between the development of ASL and English fluency has only recently been empirically demonstrated (Strong & Prinz, 1997). Preliminary support instead has been inferred from studies indicating that deaf children with deaf parents demonstrated similar language development patterns to children who have unimpaired hearing (see review in Moores, 1987). Because of a lack of exposure or fluency in ASL, and concerns regarding the effective transfer of linguistic competence in ASL to English literacy, Bilingual Education is controversial but is receiving growing support from many parents and educators. Opponents of Bilingual Education are primarily concerned that time on task for English development and speech training may be limited by a bilingual approach.

For programs making the transition to a Bilingual Education model, there is the problem of a limited number of proficient language models in ASL, as well as the lack of preparation of professionals in Bilingual Education approaches. Only recently have a small number of university teacher preparation programs incorporated these issues and strategies in their curriculum. Because of the recency of support for this approach, there is a scarcity of instructional strategies and materials for bilingual applications specific to ASL/English. Therefore, as Lane (1992) cautions, there may be initial imbalance in the attention given to the two languages-English being slighted in relation to ASL. There may be zealous overreaction from professionals who are deaf to years of perceived oppression, which might make a balanced critique difficult because a bilingual approach may be viewed as a seeming betrayal of their central mission.

Furthermore, the instructional staff may not yet be adequately fluent in ASL to provide a truly bilingual model. There needs to be solid commitment by administration and staff for an effective bilingual program, as well as opportunities and support for parents and other family members to learn a new language (ASL).

Actual practice. Bilingual Education for deaf students has been discussed for the past 20 years (e.g., Kannapell, 1974). Outside the educational setting, ASL/ English language models can be found in the homes of many families with parents and other members who are deaf. Since the late 1980s, there has been growing academic support, and several large schools for deaf students have adopted this approach (e.g., The Learning Center, Indiana School for the Deaf, California School for the Deaf).

Bilingual Education for deaf students is currently being practiced successfully in Denmark and in Sweden (DanishSwedish Sign Language/Danish-Swedish) (Davies, 1991; Svartholm, 1993). Models for program development are also receiving attention and being described in the literature and discussed in professional conferences (e.g., Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1989; Paul & Quigley, 1994; Philip & Small, 1991; Reynolds & Titus, 1992; Strong, 1990). The first International Conference on Bilingual Education for Deaf Students was held in Stockholm in 1993. Bilingual Education for deaf students is probably the major issue in the field today and is being actively examined by parents, teachers, and the Deaf community.


Regardless of professional training, personal belief, and theories, it is critical that several factors be considered before a specific system and/or language is selected. These considerations are necessary in order to maximize the language acquisition process and cognitive development of the deaf child. It is important that the unique personality, learning style, and communicative needs and/ or preferences of the child be recognized, respected, and reinforced. Therefore, the selection of a specific system or language should be centered on the child while realistically considering the family and educational resources available to that child.

Visual Accessibility

The sign system or language that is used must not only provide access to communication in a clear and comprehensible manner, but also allow for the precise presentation of content information. Production errors in the sign such as hand shape, position, and movement, or omissions in linguistic information, will compromise the message and consequently the quantity/quality of academic input.


The resources in the community must be examined to determine if they can support the selection of a system. If ASL is determined to be the most appropriate language to use, ASL classes need to be available for people to develop skills in that language. Language models need to be available to provide consultation and consistent modeling. Teachers and paraprofessionals who are themselves deaf and are fluent ASL users should be actively recruited by the schools to serve as those language models in educational contexts.

Skill Level

Regardless of the language/system chosen, the commitment must be made by professionals and parents to develop proficiency in the language and/or system. More specifically, language development depends heavily on language models, and deaf children need to interact with adults who are fluent communicators. For example, teachers and parents need to be competent in MCE or ASL in order to provide a deaf child with a sign model.

There are formal assessment tools that have been developed to evaluate sign competency that are currently being used in schools for deaf students to assess teachers and staff and in teacher preparation programs to assess preservice teachers. Examples of assessment tools that have been used include the American Sign Language Proficiency Interview (ASLPI, Carter, n.d.) and the Sign Communication Proficiency Interview (SCPI, Newell, Caccamise, Boardman, & Holcomb, 1983).

Furthermore, it is critical that efforts are made to discover efficient methods for teaching sign language or systems to teachers, parents, and other professionals who will be communicating with deaf students. Support, encouragement, and often incentives (such as monetary rewards) must be provided from the school and community in this endeavor.

Many programs and schools serving deaf students offer sign language classes on site as part of professional development and often reward staff fluent in sign with additional salary. For families of deaf children, sign language classes can be offered at a reduced rate or at no cost and child care can be provided as needed. In some programs, parents and siblings are given a refund of class tuition for successful completion of a community sign language class.

Parental Involvement

The appropriateness of a sign language/system for a deaf child often depends on parental involvement, especially when the child is young. Ideally, the school would be working closely with the family in providing consistent modeling of the targeted language. Parents need to be committed to learning the system and developing competency and use it consistently. Videotaped stories in sign language (by professionals, the teacher, or deaf students) that are assigned for homework can be motivating for both the student and parent. Using this strategy, common vocabulary is developed and parents have access to more proficient signers through videotape presentations.


The input of language needs to be made consistent in order to promote unrestricted access to the language. This is problematic when the classroom is using one form of communication, students are using another form in play, and the family is using yet another form at home. Moving from one grade to another also poses challenges for students who have to acclimate to perhaps a different form of sign communication by individual teachers. Schools and programs are beginning to adopt communication policies within the educational environment that address this concern. Enforcement of this type of policy has met with resistance in some instances.


As can be seen, each language/system or instructional model has strengths that would support its adoption to further language acquisition and foster classroom communication. However, all have potential limitations that hinder the facilitation of language acquisition and use by deaf children. In examining the use of sign language/systems in the education of deaf students, we have discussed the strengths and weaknesses of various communication systems. It would not be possible to disregard external factors that have direct impact on the decision-making process regarding the selection of a sign language/system. Existing resources in the community, commitment from the family and educational setting, and the personality and hearing status of the deaf child will influence the selection of the most appropriate system. Whatever the choice, however, language learning must still occur in a rich linguistically interactive environment where everyone is dedicated to communicating with and around the child.

Note: In this article, sign language will refer to naturally occurring visual/ gestural languages such as American Sign Language (ASL). Sign systems will be used to refer to artificially contrived systems of signs used to represent a spoken language such as English (e.g., SEE II).


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Judith Coryell

Western Maryland College, Westminster, MD Thomas K. Holcomb

Ohlone College, Fremont, CA

Contact author: Judith Coryell, PhD, Deaf Education Program, Western Maryland College, 2 College Hill, Westminster, MD 21157-4390. Email:

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