Deaf Awareness Week – What Can You Do?

Today is the last day of Deaf Awareness Week 2013, so it’s time to look at how you can be more Deaf aware.

First of all, to gain the attention of a deaf person, tap them lightly on the shoulder and then wait for them to look at you. If you need to gain the attention of a roomful of deaf people, flash the lights, and wait for them to look at you.

That’s great. You’ve got their attention. Now what?

Contrary to popular misconception, not all deaf people can lipread. Lipreading is a skill, and it’s actually incredibly difficult. Stand in front of a mirror and say, “cot dot hot lot not”. Can you tell the difference between them? It’s not easy is it? Now imagine that you are trying to follow a whole conversation just by watching someone’s lips. Some Deaf people I know are very good at it – my old BSL teacher was so good she could lipread from the side! – but others find it difficult or impossible, so don’t assume that they can. If you know that the person you are talking to can lipread, make it easier for them. Always stand in good light. Never stand with your back to a window as this puts your whole face in shadow and makes it difficult to distinguish your features.

Be aware that not all deaf people can read or write. Of course these skills are taught in schools, but they are not easy to learn.  For most of us, we learn our first language purely by being exposed to it. We hear our parents and wider family speaking it. We hear it on the TV or radio. We hear it spoken in shops when our parents take us out in prams or pushchairs. Imagine if you hadn’t had that exposure. Imagine if you had to learn to read without having any idea what sounds the letters made. Would you have found it so easy?

For many Deaf people, English is not even their first language – those born into Deaf families may have BSL as their first language. Think about what your school life would have been like if your parents spoke English, and then when you went to school your teachers spoke only Chinese, and all your books were written in Chinese. It’s really not surprising that some deaf children leave school without being able to read or write.

In short, don’t assume that you can communicate with a deaf person by speaking slowly for them to lipread, or by writing things down.

So, what can you do?  How about learning some BSL? Many adult education centres offer a short (about 6 weeks) introductory course for just a few pounds, where you will learn the basics such as fingerspelling,numbers and introducing yourself. You could also follow @BritishSignBSL  on Twitter to learn one new sign a day.  Once you have a few signs under your belt, have a go, and don’t be afraid to mime things to get your point across.

Deaf Studies in a School for the Deaf

Throughout Foundation Stage (Nursery and Reception aged children are mixed together) children are exposed to both English and BSL. Some of the teachers have English as their first language, and some have BSL as their first language, so the children have good models for both languages from the very beginning of their schooling. The children can choose whether to speak or sign – some do both, some neither, but none of them are forced one way or the other. The thinking is that by exposing them to good examples of both languages at this young age, even if they choose not to use them, they will have a better understanding in KS1 when more formal teaching begins.

In Year 1 the children begin formal Deaf Studies. One of the staff with BSL as their first language leads the lesson. In the session I observed, the children first practised their fingerspelling – spelling their own and their classmates’ names. After this, the teacher gave the children a picture story and they took it in turns to sign the story as best as they could. When they had all had a go, the teacher signed the story herself, demonstrating how to add extra details and to use facial expressions. Some of the more confident children then had a go, using some of the additional features they had picked up from the teacher. The whole lesson was taught in BSL.

Storytime in Year 1 takes place in both languages. In the morning the children have a story which is read in English but with a few signs to support understanding. In the afternoon they have the same story but told entirely in BSL.

Higher up the school, Deaf Studies includes playing memory games, and practising lip-reading skills as well as BSL. Children are also introduced to some of the gadgets that will be useful to them in later life when they are old enough to live independently. They are taught about smoke alarms that cause their house lights to flash instead of beeping. They are taught that they can have their doorbell connected to the lights so that they flash when someone rings the bell. They are taught about vibrating devices attached to alarm clocks that they can put under their pillow when they don’t have mom and dad to wake them up anymore.

One of my favourite lessons was watching the Deaf adults teaching the children how to use FaceTime so that their social interaction doesn’t have to stop when they leave the school premises.

Related posts: Numeracy in a School for the Deaf    Deaf Awareness Week – what can you do?

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   4+3=7

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.

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