Communication Modalities

I am only in my 4th year of teaching, but when it comes to communication modalities within Deaf and hard of hearing programs I think I may have seen them all, from various U.S. sign languages all the way to oral/aural.

My student teaching was at a school for the Deaf that followed the bilingual/bimodal modal, or claimed to. It was supposed to be American Sign Language instruction in all classes except English Language Arts, Reading, and Speech. ELA supposed to use Signed Exact English, Reading was to use Signed Exact English and then be translated into ASL, and speech was speechreading and oral expressive communication. However, what actually happened was all instructors signed at their level in whatever sign modality they were familiar with, which was mostly various degrees of Pidgen Signed English and attempts at Total Communication/SimCom. I don’t think anyone used Signed Exact English, and the only teachers who were pure ASL were the ASL and Deaf History teachers. It was a messy conglomeration. I wish I had a chance to see an actual bi-bi system in action.

When I was itinerant, I taught ASL and auditory verbal therapy, trying to create as close to bilingual/bimodal instruction as I know how. I was in no way an expert of either system, but I worked closely with experts through video communication to make sure I was teaching everything correctly. American Sign Language is a beautiful, fully accessibly language to everyone without vision impairments, and it is my personal favorite, if only for the fact that it is its own language and can be taught as such with all the benefits of a brain that is fluent in more than one language. I also saw excellent success with auditory verbal therapy in students who had cochlear implants, both those who also signed and those who were only oral/aural. Spoken English language developed quickest in those who were strictly oral/aural, but there was often something missed at times. With those who also signed, they had visual spatial language to fall back on, and when that signed communication was PSE or a version of SEE provided by an interpreter, it was often well synchronized with the speech of the original speaker.

I am now in a program that uses Cued Speech. It is one of the largest Cued Speech programs in the nation, and it is the only such program in our state. Learning and implementing Cued Speech has been highly enlightening to my instructional practice. I have found both strong pros and strong cons for the system as it’s used in my district. I think Cued Speech is a fantastic reading instruction tool and opens up decoding strategies for students who would otherwise be limited to their current vocabulary sight word knowledge. This phonics access is a tremendous benefit! However, I think that it is only a reading tool for many students. Some students could use Cued Speech as a communication modality successfully provided they meet the 12 diagnostic criteria set out by Orin Cornett when he was developing the system. However, I think somewhere along the way someone decided to ignore Cornett’s list of qualifications for successful use of Cued Speech as a communication modality and applied Cued Speech to all DHH students indiscriminately. This is, in my opinion, unfortunate, and while I know some would disagree, I am not seeing the successes with all students that I do with those that match the criteria.

I think the field of Deaf education has been polarized so long that many professionals, and thus many families, seem to believe that there is only one correct answer, whether that is sign language, oral/aural communication, or Cued Speech. I, for one, feel that this has greatly hindered progress in the field. Why can we not offer students with all the tools we have available? Surely each modality has its best situation and best candidate. Can we not find ways to combine our systems and create well-rounded students with a full set of resources readily available to them to help them in success in the world after school education?

Where do you stand on the communication debate? What successes have you seen with various modalities? Do you strongly prefer one over the others? If so, can you share your strategies and results? If you use a combined approach, what results have you seen? Which do you prefer on a personal, as opposed to professional, level?

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