Literacy in a School for the Deaf

Lessons are taught in a mixture of English, SSE (Sign Supported English) and BSL (British Sign Language) depending on the subject being taught and the needs of the class.

Literacy lessons are very visual. Just like in a mainstream school, teachers make use of cartoons and film clips to stimulate writing – the only difference is that here they  have to stand at the front of the classroom and interpret the film.

Independent activities are the same as ones you would see in a mainstream school: sequencing activities from film stills, comparing and contrasting two settings from a film and writing a word or sentence about them, drawing and labelling a superhero. The younger children copy words from a mini whiteboard (lower ability) or find the words they need in their own wordbooks. Older children write by themselves, asking for spelling as required. Words are recorded in wordbooks in writing (for spelling) and with a picture of the relevant sign (for recognition and understanding).

The children are also taught sentence construction, just as they would be in a mainstream school. They begin in the lower years by identifying the subject, verb and object and constructing simple sentences like “Jack plays ball”. Those children who have been brought up in a BSL household need practise with this order as it is different in BSL (which has the object first, then the subject then the verb). Each word is colour-coded, and the children have coloured cards blu-tacked to their tables to help them remember English word order.

Higher up the school they will come across words such as “a”, “the” and “is” – all tricky words for deaf children because they just don’t exist in BSL.

Many deaf children find it hard to understand that a thing (not just a person) can be the subject of a sentence, so this is something else that is covered in grammar lessons: The teddy bear is old. The ice-cream is cold.

Further up the school they learn how to use connectives, but again in a very visual way – for example pictures of various objects to choose one they like and one they don’t: I like ice-cream but I don’t like carrots. Connectives are also colour-coded, and those children that understand how to use them have the relevant coloured cards blu-tacked to their desks to help them order words correctly.

Related posts: Phonics in a School for the Deaf   Numeracy in a School for the Deaf xx

Phonics in a School for the Deaf

As a teacher who has been learning sign language (BSL) for the last few years, I have often wondered how you would teach a deaf child to read. Recently I was lucky enough to find out, when I spent a few days observing and teaching in a school for deaf children.

The first lesson each morning was visual phonics.

Each sound has a sign associated with it which is related to the relevant fingerspelling sign and to whereabouts in the mouth the sound is made.

The children do have time each week with a speech therapist, but as they obviously spend more time in class, the class teacher also has responsibility for this aspect of their learning. She gets them to touch her throat so they can feel how the sound is made, and then they touch their own throat to see if the movement is the same. They also put their hands in front of the teacher’s mouth to feel whether or not air is expelled for that particular sound, and they concentrate on the shape the lips make. All this means that even if they can’t make the sound properly, they can replicate the lip patterns, which is essential for BSL.

There are a range of hearing abilities in the class – some of the children are profoundly deaf and have been from birth; others wear hearing aids or have cochlear implants and have some hearing. Before lessons begin each morning, all hearing aids and cochlear implants are checked to make sure that they are working correctly.

Just like in a hearing school, the children practise the sounds they have already learnt before learning a new one, and the phonics lesson is split between oral practise and writing words containing those sounds. They find blending the sounds to form whole words difficult, especially those who are profoundly deaf. The children in this school will do the same national phonics test as their peers in hearing schools. However, because it is harder for them to learn, their phonics lessons continue into KS2.

The teachers and teaching assistants ‘listen’ to the children reading – the children read their books and sign each word to show that they recognise the word, and in a guided reading lesson the other children in the group are expected to follow, just as they would be in a hearing school. As you would expect, the teachers will question the children to check understanding, and they are expected to predict, make inferences etc just the same as their hearing peers in mainstream schools.

Related posts: Deaf Awareness Week  Singing in a School for the Deaf   Literacy in a School for the Deafx

Singing in a School for the Deaf

Recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days in a school for deaf children, and this is what I learned…

On my first day I was amazed to discover that first thing on a Monday morning was whole school singing. That’s not a typo for signing, I mean SINGING! I couldn’t imagine what it would be like, and couldn’t wait to get into the hall to find out….. They had the words up on an IWB (Interactive Whiteboard for the non-teachers reading this) and the headteacher led the children in a singing and signing session.

The singing helped the children with their pronunciation – the headteacher emphasised the vowel sounds and endings – and the signing helped with understanding. She also used visual phonics  to help the children understand which sound they should be making. Some of the songs were done more than once so that the children could practise particular sounds, and there was plenty of praise for those children who made an extra effort with their speech.

Before I arrived I had imagined that the school would be extremely quiet, but it is no more so (perhaps even less so) than a mainstream school. My biggest surprise was how much speech some of the children have.  Not all of them are profoundly deaf – many of them wear hearing aids or have cochlear implants and can access quite a lot of speech. Some of them spoke so clearly that had I seen them in a different context I would never have know that they were deaf. However, for some of the others, communication in English is difficult, even impossible, and so this is why BSL (British Sign Language) and SSE (Sign Supported English) are also used in the school.

Related posts: Deaf Awareness Week    Phonics in a School for the Deafxx

Deaf Awareness Week

This week is Deaf Awareness Week. 1 in 6 people in the UK have some form of hearing loss, and about 800,000 are severely or profoundly deaf. There are approximately 45,000 deaf children in the country. Statistics are taken from Action on Hearing Loss. There are approximately 50,000 people in the country for whom British Sign Language (BSL) is their first or preferred language.

I have achieved my level 2 certificate in BSL, and this year I have been privileged to spend a few days observing Teachers of the Deaf at work in a school for the deaf, followed by a few weeks working as a supply teacher in the school.

One thing I have become really aware of while working in this school, is the number of online educational games where the “reward” for a correct answer is a silly noise. Or where the only way you can tell if the answer you input is right or wrong is by a clapping or booing sound before the next question comes up. This is, obviously, completely lost on the children I have been working with.

My wish for Deaf Awareness Week is for educational games designers to become more Deaf aware and to make the rewards for correct answers more visual.

Back to the Classroom

This year I enrolled in a British Sign Language evening class. I’ve already passed levels 1 and 2, so now I’m beginning Level 3.

It’s always strange to be back in the class part of the classroom rather than in the teacher role, and every time I do it I rediscover how it feels to be a child in class.

The teacher puts hand-outs in front of us, and of course I pick it up and start reading it. Oops – now I’ve missed the teacher’s signing so I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing. Perhaps I’d better ask the person next to me. Uh-oh – caught talking!

Later we have to give presentations to the rest of the class. As soon as we are told to prepare, all my ideas fly straight out of my head and I can’t think of anything to say. By the time I have enough ideas to begin, it’s time to stop writing and begin presenting one by one. I try to write and watch at the same time, but that’s impossible. Reluctantly I put my pen down, but as soon as the first presentation is over, I start writing again, as quickly as I can before the second person is up.

When it’s my turn I’m not really happy with what I’ve done. I know I can do better, but it’s too late – the teacher has made her judgement about my ability.

At the end of the lesson the teacher starts to explain our homework. She’s signing really fast and I miss a bit. Oh no! I’ve missed a bit! What did that sign mean? I think I recognise it but I just can’t remember. Oh no! I’ve been worrying so much about the bit I missed that I miss a bit more. I try to concentrate, but I’ve missed so much that I’m really lost now.

I look around the room and the rest of the class are smiling and nodding. Have they understood it all? Am I the only one that didn’t? Does that mean I’m stupid? I can’t admit now that I didn’t understand or the whole class will know that I’m the stupid one. I start smiling and nodding along with the rest of the class.

The teacher finishes signing and asks if there are any questions. I hope someone else asks her to explain it again, but nobody does so I shake my head like the others. She asks if we all understood and I nod. I’m sure she’s going to ask someone to repeat it (that’s what I’d do) and I panic in case it’s me she picks. She doesn’t though – she just dismisses the class.

As we pack away the person next to me whispers, “I didn’t get that homework. Did you?”

I still won’t be doing my homework as I still have no idea what it is, but at least I know I won’t be the only one. I’ll certainly be more understanding of my class in future, although I still don’t have a solution to stop them daydreaming. If anybody has any suggestions please do leave them in the comments below. I’ll try them on myself first to see if I can concentrate more!