Numeracy in a School for the Deaf

From the time I spent observing and teaching in a school for the Deaf, I found that maths lessons were the ones most like lessons in a mainstream school. The main difference is the fact that because class sizes are so much smaller (between 5 and 9 children), lesson objectives are more targeted for each individual child rather than having the same objective for a whole class or whole set.

There is also more support – two to three TAs in each classroom – so during independent activities each group still has an adult to support them. The children are mainly below the level of their peers in mainstream schools, because of their delay in language acquisition. However, teachers still have high expectations and lesson plans have both age-expected learning objectives, to make sure that staff bear in mind where these children *should* be, as well as realistic objectives.

To help the children catch up, they have two maths lessons a day – an hour-long one in the morning in their own class,  and a 15 minute ability-grouped one in the afternoon which focuses on particular areas of weakness such as mental calculations and maths vocabulary.

Teaching is, obviously, very visual and kinaesthetic and happens mostly in English with signs to support.

In the lower school, children can choose whether they record their maths in figures or pictures. Some  are happy to write 4 + 3 = 7, but many prefer to show this as

and either is considered acceptable. Higher up the school they record their work in figures only.

One thing I became very aware of during maths lessons, is that for some children, having BSL as their first language hinders their maths. For example, hearing people naturally count on both hands whereas counting in BSL is done on one hand only: you start with your thumb for one and put up an extra finger for each number up to 5; then you come back down again, so 6 is represented by just the little finger, 7 by the little finger and ring finger together and so on. Now imagine trying to do 7 take away 2 on your hands: you put up two fingers to show 7, and then take away 2……  Hardly surprising that 7-2=0 appears so often in their books…

With so many extra obstacles in their way of their learning, it’s a true testament to their perseverance, and their teachers’ dedication that they manage to learn.

Related posts: Literacy in a School for the Deaf    Deaf Studies in a School for the Deaf

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.

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.

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.