Education Week - July 19, 2017 - 16
Debate Over Sign Language's Use for Some Deaf Students
English. But before Grace received her implant
at the age of 11 months, Kowal said she used
sign language-and she doesn't regret it.
"It was really good to feel like I was doing
something with her until she could access
sound," she said. The study, she said, seems to
For Carol Katarsky, a Philadelphia mother
of a 3-year-old son with cochlear implants, the
findings offered a sense of relief. She said she
has felt some pressure to use sign language
with Nicholas, who received his cochlear implants a day after his 1st birthday. But she had
struggled with learning the complex visual
language, and within a few months of the implants' activation, Nicholas stopped signing. His
mother followed his lead.
"If the only deaf person in the family doesn't
want to sign, I don't see a lot of benefit to
spending a lot of time with it," she said.
And in her son's preschool, which focuses on
developing listening and spoken language skills
in deaf children, she said it's her sense that children who focus solely on oral language master
it better than parents who use a mix of oral
communication and sign language. Katarsky is
not against the use of sign language, however.
"I feel like a lot of trouble could be avoided
if people were saying, 'This is what's best for
me.' It doesn't mean that's what's best for everyone," she said.
Learning a Language
Every year, around 10,000 children in the
United States are born with some level of
hearing loss, most of them to hearing parents.
The majority of those parents opt for cochlear
implants for their children with severe or
profound deafness. While the devices are approved for use in children at 1 year old, some
surgeons are performing cochlear implant surgery in children several months younger.
The study followed nearly 100 children nationwide who received cochlear implants between 2002 and 2004. They were divided into
three groups: one group whose parents never
used sign language with them; a second group
whose parents reported using sign language
for up to a year after the cochlear implants
were activated, and a third group who said
they used sign language for three years after
their child received implants.
Scores Dip For
Many ELLs on
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language skills in four domains-
listening, speaking, reading, and
writing-to achieve the same proficiency-level scores.
Student scores in many states
dipped under the more demanding
standards this past spring, extending the time that many will need to
remain in support services, such as
In Nevada, state administrators estimate that only 2 percent,
or 1,500, of the state's 75,000-plus
English-learners will move out of
all language-development courses
this year. In past years, between
Erin Irwin/Education Week
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Isabella Sterling, 11,
Kendall Frederick, 11,
Grace Kowal, 15, and
Nora Silvergleid, 11, are
junior counselors at a camp
run by the River School, a
private school in Washington,
D.C. that offers a "total
immersion" oral program for
deaf and hard-of-hearing
12 percent and 14 percent of students moved out.
"We anticipated that there would
be a drop," said Karl Wilson, Nevada's program supervisor for ELLs.
"We were surprised that the drop
was so significant."
Figuring out whether students
need that support and when they
no longer require it is crucial to the
success of English-learners. When
moving students out of languagesupport services-commonly called
reclassification-occurs too early,
English-learners can find themselves struggling.
If the process happens too late,
students may be restricted from taking higher-level courses that would
prepare them for college.
The scoring change-rolled out
in the spring to reflect the new language demands in the more-rigorous academic standards adopted by
states in recent years-is the first
for WIDA in more than a decade.
16 | EDUCATION WEEK | July 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org
The study found that 70 percent of children
without sign language exposure achieved ageappropriate spoken-language skills, compared
with 39 percent of those exposed to sign language for three or more years.
All of the groups had reading comprehension
scores that were on par with hearing children
while they were in early elementary grades.
In later elementary grades, however, children
without sign language exposure had a statistically significant reading advantage over children in the long-term sign group.
The differences between visual language
and oral language could be the reason, said
the study's lead author, Ann Geers.
"Lots of literature has come out saying that if
you can get sign in very early, it will help bootstrap spoken-language acquisition," said Geers,
a research professor and developmental psychologist at the University of Texas in Dallas.
"It just didn't come out that way in practice."
Parents who are signing frequently with
"What's being asked of students,
not just English-learners, is categorically different than it was in the
past," said H. Gary Cook, the director of research for the WIDA consortium, a group of education agencies
that share English-language-proficiency standards and assessment
for ELLs that are aligned with the
Common Core State Standards. "If
the education system doesn't change
accordingly, I don't foresee progress."
ELL Performance Is Critical
The consternation over the test
scores comes as schools brace for another monumental change.
This coming school year, the performance of English-language learners
will have a much greater impact on
how schools are judged under the
federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
It is another signal that the significance of English-learners-who now
make up nearly 10 percent of K-12
their children may not be providing them all
the auditory stimulation they need to maximize the use of their cochlear implants, she
suggests. Unlike putting on a pair of eyeglasses, using a cochlear implant does not confer an instant benefit-it requires continuing
speech and auditory therapy for children to
make the most out of the devices.
The study does not focus on children who
have deaf parents, who presumably use sign
language fluently. For children who have hearing parents, its understandable that parents
"want you to grow up with the language they
use, and they want you to join their society,"
Geers said. "It's achievable for most kids, if you
start early enough."
Peter C. Hauser, a deaf clinical neuropsychologist, said that Geers and her colleagues are
making unjustified and sweeping conclusions
in the study that run the risk of depriving children of language.
"Too often, we see parents, educators, and
enrollment-is on the rise as this
population grows and the changes in
federal law mandate a more precise
measurement of how those students
are performing in school.
"States are paying a tremendous
amount of attention to this issue and
really working hard to figure out how
to get this ... right," said Scott Norton, the director of strategic initiatives in standards, accountability, and
assessment for the Council of Chief
State School Officers.
For WIDA-member states, getting
it right includes setting the cutoff
scores that students earn to transition out of English-learner services.
States have the discretion to set the
cut scores that students earn to transition out of English-learner services.
Tennessee plans to temporarily adjust its English-learner exit criteria
to avoid "unnecessarily" retaining
students in ESL classes.
"Almost all of our state's Englishlearners would be retained in ESL
programming because they didn't
meet our state's exit criteria," said
Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the
Tennessee education agency.
To set its permanent criteria, the
state plans to study the relationship
between student scores on the
ACCESS 2.0 exams and state tests
in other subjects. Maine is among
the states that have already lowered
their exit criteria in response to the
ACCESS cutoff-score changes.
The shock that states are experiencing is similar to the adjustments
made when adopting the commoncore-aligned assessments known as
the Partnership for Assessment of
Readiness for College and Careers
and Smarter Balanced.
"Moving from one test to another
and raising standards ... is not really a new thing," Norton said. "It
takes a while for everybody to adjust,
both on the instructional side and
on the student-expectation side. And
it usually causes some concern out