Later Intervention: Meeting the Language Learning Needs of Students
Far Past Preschool


By Lorna Irwin, Idaho Hands & Voices

It has long been recognized that there exists a “critical period” during which a child can easily learn any language to which he has access. Between the ages of 18 and 36 months most children prove to be language-learning geniuses, rapidly mastering vocabulary and grammar. Recent research indicates that deaf children who are identified at birth and begin high-quality intervention services before the age of six months are able to acquire language at very close to the same rate as their hearing peers, while children receiving intervention services after the age of six months show a greater lag. This indicates that something important is going on long before the child starts to demonstrate that he is acquiring language. The ability to acquire a first language diminishes as a child becomes older, finally disappearing around the age of 12 or 13. Early identification and intervention are now seen as absolutely essential for children with hearing loss.

Yet for many reasons this early intervention may not be ideal, or may not happen at all.  Even with newborn screening, some types of hearing loss go undetected, or develop later. Most children start preschool around age three, nearly at the end of their “genius” period, and the amount of time spent there is only a small fraction of their life. Early language development is almost entirely dependent on parents and other caregivers, who may or may not have the resources and ability to devote themselves to the special language needs of a child with a hearing loss. Within schools, programs for children who are deaf or hard of hearing vary widely in quality; rural school systems, in particular, often lack the needed expertise and funding. 

What can be done when early intervention fails a child?  Often the answer is to refer him to a residential program for the deaf. The Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind, like many other state residential schools, frequently enrolls older children who are years behind in their language and communication skills, socially isolated and failing academically. 

A few years ago “Alice” (not her real name) and her family emigrated from a third-world country to Idaho. Deaf since birth, Alice’s prior education had consisted of sitting in the classroom at her local school without instruction. There were no other deaf children, and no teacher of the deaf, so she had never acquired any formal language, only a few home signs and gestures. She was 13 years old. Clearly she needed intervention beyond what the middle-school classroom could provide. Two ISDB staff members, Betsy Holt and Heather Fultz, started to work with her daily one-on-one for an hour each. They began by labeling things, but ran into problems when they started to introduce directional verbs and pronouns. They decided to join forces in order to better model these concepts, and suddenly Alice’s language blossomed.

Betsy, the communication specialist for ISDB, had been developing an assessment of communication skills to help determine how well a student uses whatever language they have, be it sign or speech, to engage in conversation. There were several other middle-school students who could benefit from the same kind of attention Alice was getting.  The next fall, the Language Immersion Class at ISDB was born, with Betsy and Heather teaching as a team.

Language development is the primary focus of a preschool program for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, but by middle school course content takes priority.  Teachers of the deaf become adept at putting the pieces together to understand students with compromised communication skills, and students learn to bluff understanding when they run into unfamiliar concepts. Both students and teachers make assumptions about communication which fall short of reality, and in many cases there is little time in class for “communication clarification side trips” when math or history must be taught. 

What Betsy and Heather have created could be called “Preschool for Teens.”  There are no textbooks; they simply communicate. They begin each day with a calendar to talk about time concepts and feelings; after that they often introduce a subject to get a discussion started, and then go with the flow. They also prepare lessons to address specific skills such as classifier use, use of space, vocabulary expansion, and use of non-manual markers and facial expression. By continually checking for understanding, they identify concepts that one or more of the students do not understand, and use whatever means they can to provide in-depth explanations. These can include drawing, finding images on Google, acting out scenarios, role-playing, and physically moving to the environment being discussed in order to do “hands-on” work. They keep communication theatrical, creative and spontaneous. If everyone doesn’t “get it” by the end of the class, they try to find a way to re-introduce concepts in a future class. The kids in turn are encouraged to use mime, drawings and other means to communicate.  Betsy and Heather also continually model and work with students on conversational skills such as eye contact, signing clearly, turn-taking, asking for clarification and maintaining topic. And above all—no bluffing allowed!

Unlike the majority of the classes at ISDB, the immersion class is conducted voice-off to put all participants on an equal footing, including hard of hearing children who have speech but are learning to sign for the first time. This also allows them to move closer to the ASL end of the sign language spectrum, borrowing features such as facial grammar, use of space and classifiers. While the class is sometimes referred to as “ASL Immersion,” Heather and Betsy prefer to call it “Language Immersion,” since neither of them is a native signer and they also address English, particularly idioms, and compare ASL and English structure.

The class has been tremendously successful. The students love it, and have been caught running to class despite school regulations. Almost every day Betsy and Heather receive feedback from teachers about one of their students doing or saying something new and surprising. Parents have also been very happy with the class; the teachers journal with parents on a weekly basis and even send journals and cameras home for the summer so that parents can send information back to them.

Linguistic growth has meant other growth for their students. One dramatic turn-around involved “Ben,” who came to ISDB at the age of 12 with a secondary diagnosis of “possible autism.”  He was withdrawn, made minimal eye contact with others, and didn’t seem to know that language was happening, even though he had been in a public school deaf program since preschool. He spent his days on the computer rather than participating in life. Once in the class, he began not only to acquire communication skills, but became much more social. In general, all the students have experienced gains in confidence and self worth.

By the middle of the first year, ISDB added a class for high school students. One of these was “Charlie,” who was in his late teens but still did not know the names of his brothers and sisters—nor did he understand that some of those “brothers and sisters” were the spouses of his siblings! Last year the program suffered from forced growth into four classes, so this year they have scaled back a bit as they re-work the idea. Two more teachers have joined the team.

Heather and Betsy feel that they have hit on something unique. They’ve gone across the country to New York and across the Pacific to New Zealand to present to conferences.  What makes the program work? Both teachers have fluent sign skills; while both of them are teachers of the deaf, Heather is also a nationally-certified sign language interpreter. They also cite great team chemistry—their skills and background knowledge complement each other—and “awesome” administration support. They have worked to make each class a safe place for students to experiment with language, where students respect and support each other. 

Late language learning is not a new thing in deaf education; indeed, it is a very old problem. In the early years of deaf education it was common for students to arrive at school for the first time, years past the age of preschool. The first school for the deaf in the United States, in Hartford, Connecticut, opened with students ranging in age from 12 to 51. Their teacher, Laurent Clerc, started school in Paris when he was 12; one of his teachers there, Jean Massieu, was nearly 14 when the Abbe Sicard began to introduce him to formal sign language and written French. There are still many children like Alice who are born in countries where deaf education is minimal or non-existent.  In his book Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks recounts several cases in which children deprived of language either through deafness or social isolation were able to learn it much later in life—or not. He comes to the conclusion that those who were successful often had at least some exposure to a form of language, even if only a rudimentary home sign system, and (in the case of deaf children) had been accepted and included in family life. 

Most of ISDB’s Language Immersion students do have a language base, even if their communication skills are compromised. However, Alice is not the first student to arrive at the school with extremely limited language. Betsy and Heather attribute her rapid success despite her “advanced” age to being an essential part of her family: “Poverty demands participation.”  While a middle-class American child may be allowed to retreat into solitude, as Ben did, Alice’s family needed her contribution, and basic communication evolved from that, setting the stage for the later acquisition of formal sign language.

Clearly, early intervention along with family involvement, high-quality educational programs and careful follow-up to make sure a child is being successful is the best of all worlds. But until we live in that perfect world, there will also be a place for later, creative interventions like the Language Immersion class at ISDB. 

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