Heidi Givens

Heidi Givens

I spent Christmas Break catching up on some professional reading. Yes, I am an incessant learner. There are so many advances in our field that if we do not keep abreast of the recent research and practices, we are doing a disservice to our students. One book in particular that fascinated me is How Deaf Children Learn by Mark Marschark and Peter Hauser, published in 2012. Sure, after being a teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing children (DHH) for 18 years, I have a pretty good idea of how they learn. However, this book takes all the current research on deaf cognition, language, and literacy and puts it in practical terms for parents and teachers. 

While reading this book, I found myself reflecting on my teaching practices and on how DHH children are currently being educated in Kentucky. Many questions came to mind that I want to share. My intent is not to answer the questions, but for all of us who teach or support DHH children to think about them.  By figuring out the answers, we may be able to figure out, as a professional learning community, how to stop the cycle of having these children graduate high school reading at a fourth grade level and finally make these children college and career ready.

According to Marschark and Heuser, “for deaf children to succeed academically they need language: effective communication with their parents and others, fluent language skills to support literacy, and the internal language involved in reasoning and problem solving.” Those children who are successful in school and are better readers are those who have a fluent first language, whether it is spoken or signed.

We know that DHH children enter school several years behind their hearing peers in language and school readiness. What as a profession can we do to reduce this gap AND teach academics at the same time? We know there is a plethora of research showing that learning sign language does not hinder spoken English development but supports it.  Sign Language gives DHH children an avenue to quickly learn language while they are learning to speak (if appropriate). What are we doing to educate parents, caregivers and the community about this? What are we doing organizationally to provide DHH children with peer and adult language models in either or both languages?

Research shows that those students, hearing or deaf, who have more language experiences with a variety of language partners have richer vocabulary and develop fluent language. Research also shows that “language fluency is necessary for optimal executive functioning development.” Is putting a DHH child in a classroom with an interpreter giving them language experiences with a variety of adults so that their language, executive functioning, and other cognitive skills can soar? Are we providing all DHH children with enough language experiences to increase their brain cells’ flexibility and number of branches and interconnections of their brain cells to result in higher academic achievement? 

“Deaf children in regular school classrooms often report feeling more isolated and lonely than students in schools or programs designed for deaf students, even if their parents think they are getting along just fine. In programs designed for deaf children, they can find others who are like them, even if the hearing world is still all around them.” What are we doing to address this?

Cognitive differences have been found between deaf and hearing children. Fluent signers have better visual spatial memory and oral deaf and hearing children have better sequential memory. The authors said, “Deaf individuals notice more quickly than hearing individuals when something appears in the peripheral visual field or if it moves. They also are faster at shifting their visual attention to the periphery and then shifting it back.” These differences are the brain’s way of adapting to being deaf. Are DHH children being taught how to use their visual attention appropriately so they are not distractible? Are we mislabeling DHH children as having ADHD because their environment is not set up to lessen the distractions in the periphery? Are we capitalizing on the deaf child’s stronger visual spatial memory when we teach them or are we using the same strategies as we do for hearing children?

What can we do starting today to look at how DHH children learn, where we educate them, and how we teach them? What can we change right now so that these children are given an appropriate education in the least restrictive (language) environment?

There is much we can do, but where do we start? We can start by looking inward at our teaching practices and looking outward to see if we are truly offering a continuum of services that allow for rich development of deaf children cognitively, linguistically, psychologically, and socially. Let’s all start today!

Heidi Givens, an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard-of-hearing in Daviess County schools, was selected as the 2013 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year on Oct. 17, 2012.  She and Allison Hunt, an AP Human Geography teacher at Manual High School in Jefferson County and the 2013 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year, will alternate monthly column-writing duties throughout their reigns. Their columns will run the last Thursday of each month.