For anyone who does not have English as a first language, developing native-like usage and fluency is challenging.  For hearing speakers, this is applicable from approximately the age of 12 or 13.  For someone with significant, early life deafness, this is applicable from any age and is the case even for those who have been born, raised and educated in Australia.

This statement seems to not make sense.  If they are born and educated in Australia, how can English not be their first language?

If you think about the information you may have already read elsewhere on this site, you will begin to realise what factors come together to make this the case for people born in Australia with significant, early life deafness.  And this is regardless of whether or not their primary language is Auslan or English, through oral communication.

In essence, someone with significant, early life deafness cannot readily access the English language because they cannot adequately hear it.  This means they are trying to learn English by trying to decode it through its written form.

However, they are trying to learn to read it without knowing the language first.  This is different to all other learners of English – even foreign born learners – who learn to speak and understand the language before learning to read and write it.

Place yourself in this scenario:  you have moved to Japan and have never spoken Japanese.  In order to learn it, you are placed in a soundproof booth and your teacher(s) stand outside the booth holding up Japanese characters for you to learn.

Whilst not entirely representative of how a significantly deaf child learns English, it hopefully creates for you a mental picture of the challenges involved.  As you progress with your Japanese, how will you know if you are pronouncing words correctly?  How will you know the correct word order?  How will you understand the use of idioms or the culturally appropriate way to phrase things?  How will you develop native-like Japanese?  The answer is, most likely you will not.

English is not a language that can be learned simply by memorising the rules of grammar and structure.  It has far too many exceptions.  It is renowned for its peculiarities, for example:

  • to pluralise, it is not a matter of simply adding “s” [we have knives, not knifes and we have mice, not mouses]
  • to make something past tense, it is not just a matter of adding “ed” [we have slept, not sleeped and to know if “read” is present or past tense, we work it out from the context – present “I read well” versus past “I read a good book”]

As well, English relies heavily on idioms which can never be understood by the individual words (for example, “it is raining cats and dogs”).

These factors, and others, mean that native-like fluency can be very difficult to attain – not just for people who have significant, early-life deafness, but also for anyone trying to learn English as a second language.

For some deaf students, this may also translate into identifiable literacy challenges.  It is well-documented worldwide that people who are born significantly deaf – or who become significantly deaf early in life, prior to learning language – may struggle to attain literacy skills in the spoken language of the country in which they reside.  This is an indication of how difficult it is to learn to read and write a language which you cannot hear and do not know fluently.

Think about your own learning experience.  If you are Australian-born, you most likely did not begin to learn to read and write English until you were the age of four or five; perhaps three if you were very advanced.  And when you did begin to try to read and write, you already knew English.  Similarly, if you were born in a different country, you would have learned how to speak your native tongue prior to commencing formal education and learning to read and write the language.

What does this means for you in relation to your deaf student?  It may mean that you wish to have the student undertake an English literacy assessment.  Talk to the Disability Liaison Officer at your institute to find out more about how your institute can support you and your deaf student.

It is important to understand that the literacy difficulties that your deaf student may be experiencing are not an indication of either intelligence or capacity to learn.  Rather, they are an indicator of how challenging it is to learn to read and write English when you cannot hear the language.

Literacy issues can present a wide-range of challenges and so it is important not to simply assume what the deaf student can and cannot do.  The first step in assessing this is to recognise that reading and writing are two quite separate and distinct skills which are taught in school independently of one another.  Again, think back to your own early education.  The skill of reading was tackled first, followed later by the task of writing.

So, it is important to be mindful of the possible literacy challenges in relation to:

  1. the delivery structure of your course and how much you may be expecting students to read, and
  2. the assessment structure of your course and what the students may be asked to write.

You may need to consider the following accommodations for your deaf student:

  • providing any written material in a different form and/or providing direct support to your deaf student in assisting him or her to access and learn from a written form,
  • allowing for extra time – both reading and writing – in written exams,
  • for those who use Auslan, allowing for an interpreter to be used during written exams to have the questions interpreted and, in some instances (for example, a multiple choice exam), the answers also interpreted,
  • reading any written exam responses or any essays for content rather than for grammar and structure; in other words, has your deaf student actually demonstrated his or her knowledge of the topic, even if it is in a written form that would not usually meet your expectations of how your students should write,
  • allowing your student to sit an “oral” exam to demonstrate his or her competence with the required material.

You can get further support from deafConnectEd to assist you in managing these challenges, if they arise with your deaf student.  Feel free to ring us on (03) 9269 8306 or email us by filling out the form here.


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