Marschark Citings

An interview with Marc Marschark, PhD., Director of the Center for Education Research Partnerships at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at RIT, Rochester, New York.
By Leeanne Seaver

Marschark Attack

The first time I ever heard of Marc Marschark, he was the bearer of bad news. His was the name (complete with a second syllable that sounds like the voracious ocean predator) that I'd associated with the statistic that froze my blood: deaf students graduating from high school with a third grade reading level. The news was so bad I wanted to cross myself, and I wanted to confront this man to see if he had it wrong. Could he recalculate? Maybe deaf third graders had the reading level of a high school graduate? Turns out I was the one who had it wrong, as you'll read in the interview below. But I'm not alone. There's always been a feeding frenzy when it comes to deaf education research-every body ripping off the piece that best represents their school of thought. So how do we know what's spin from reel? (Ok, real, but I'm having fun with this metaphor.)

I decided to follow my initial instincts and talk directly to the man himself. I tracked Marc Marschark all the way to the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) 2005 in Europe this past July. His powerful keynote, "Literacy of Deaf Children: About More than Literacy?" ought to be delivered everywhere deaf educators convene. I caught him again recently on campus at NTID/RIT. Marschark invited me to his office, brewed me a coffee, (from a special blend of Kenyan AA and Sumatran that he roasts himself), and he indulged every baited question I could pose. I liked him a lot; enough to forgive him for publishing his vanguard, Raising and Educating a Deaf Child , without virtue of having performed this feat himself. Snaps for nerve. In all fairness, the book appears comprehensive, highly recommended, and I haven't read it yet. The second edition will be published in late 2006 and available from Oxford University Press ( It's probably brilliant, and I'll be schooling around it with everyone else.citing anything that slides out of his mouth.

Setting the Record Straight

Seaver : As the evil reporter of nasty statistics like "the average reading level of deaf high school graduates is grade level 3.9," you want to tell us the rest of the story?

Marschark: First let's be little more specific: it's true that people say "deaf high school graduates are reading at a third to fourth grade level, that comes from an article by Carol Bloomquist Traxler (2000) where she reported the norming of the SAT 9 Reading Comprehension subtest. In fact, what she showed was that the median (meaning 50% above, 50% below) was essentially the fourth-grade level or 3.9. Thus when people say "the average deaf student," that's not exactly true, nor is it true that "deaf students are graduating" at that level. That's a convenient way to say it, but it's really an oversimplification because part of the story is that 50% of deaf high school graduates read above the fourth-grade level. The way that you phrased it emphasizes everybody who's below the fourth-grade level. That brings us to the second part in which you are looking for the good news about this. Since about two years ago when I went to an ethics and deafness conference in Australia , I decided that I'm not going to "spin" anymore. You can't start spinning in one direction (I'm looking for a metaphor here) without sometimes bumping into something that's going to send you in the other direction. Eventually, you're going to get dizzy. In other words, you can't complain about one side not giving the whole truth and nothing but the truth if you're not willing to do it yourself.

The other issue about the median reading level being the fourth grade is that we have done and continue to do a lousy job of teaching deaf kids to read. Notice that not much has changed since 1974. Whatever else you might want to say about mainstreaming, it didn't exactly raise reading levels. Whatever else you might want to say about English-based signing like SEE, it didn't raise reading levels! Research has never shown that kids raised with SEE read better than kids raised with ASL (but that opens another can of worms).

The Problem of Misunderstood Research

Marschark: My current soapbox is that if we haven't made any progress in teaching deaf children to read over the last hundred years, maybe we've been looking in the wrong place. And one of my major points at ICED was that some very well-intentioned misunderstandings and oversimplifications of research related to literacy have misdirected us to look in the wrong place. That's the fault of no one except the researchers and people who don't bother reading original sources (in part because often we don't write them in a way that people can read them). Instead, we end up playing "telephone" and the message gets lost. There is no good spin to reading at the fourth-grade level (except for the fact that 50% of kids are reading above that level). For me the good news is that--and you are really going to hate this because it sounds like the bad news--we have found that deaf students, regardless of parental hearing status, have exactly the same challenges in understanding sign language as they do in reading. In other words, it's not about reading English; that's just convenient for people to point to and say 'oh yes, well that has to do with spoken language.' Rather, this has to do with, at a minimum, K-12 education and the fact that deaf kids (regardless of school placement) are not getting the cognitive tools necessary to benefit from either the written word or the signed word (let alone the spoken word that they don't get with good fidelity). The reason why I think that's good news is that together with research on problem solving (where you see exactly the same challenges as in reading, understanding sign language, and language comprehension in general), I think everything is pointing in the same direction and we are now getting a handle on the cognitive underpinnings of comprehension and language to the point where I think we are about ready to make significant strides across all of these domains.

Seaver: So what do we really know about the kids who are reading at grade level compared to those above or below?

Marschark: That reminds me of a question that a teacher asked me last week when I was doing a presentation at a school for the deaf. She asked whether it was "realistic" for us to expect deaf children to be reading on grade level. At that point, I gave up on my PowerPoint presentation and pulled up some data from a school I'm working with (another school for the deaf) that has focused on reading comprehension (and language at large) over the past four years. At this school, the classes of 2008 and 2009 are now reading on grade level. I'm talking about SAT9 reading comprehension scores being on grade level. It's not the case that they simply had two years of "star" students coming into the program, because their SAT mathematics scores are around the national median. So I know it's possible for deaf children to read on grade level -- I know it's realistic! What makes the kids at or above grade level different from those, let's say, below grade level? The answer to that will make some people crabby. First, in contrast to the mantra that we often hear, there is no evidence that deaf children of deaf parents read significantly better than deaf children of hearing parents simply because of that parental hearing status. Deaf children who are exposed to both sign language early and spoken language (and/or print) read better than deaf children who are exposed to only one or the other. The key is early language--not early sign language, or early spoken language, or parents who are deaf or parents who can stand on their heads. It's early effective access to language.

The Parent Factor

Marschark: I know of only one study that tried to isolate what's different about the "good readers" from everybody else. It was a study done here at NTID a few years ago. Although it was only a preliminary study, my own observations and the data available convinced me that it is 100% correct. What they did was to take the top 10-20 deaf readers/writers on campus, interview them, throw test batteries at them, and try to answer essentially your question. There were three key variables that distinguished the good reader/writers from everybody else: #1 Parents, #2 Parents, and #3 Parents. We know from research involving hearing children that parent involvement in both curricular and co-curricular school activities is associated with higher academic achievement. (And, interestingly, we also know that deaf and hearing parents participate very differently in those kinds of activities... but that's not the question.) Just as I mentioned that parents who expose their children to both early sign language and spoken language/print have kids who read the best, the point is that parents who are most involved in their children's early education--both formally and informally--are likely to have the children who have the best outcomes. To be fair, I fully recognize that not all parents have the same levels of motivation, not all are equally "able" to give the time and energy that other parents can give, and the psychological adjustment that parents have to do after discovering that their child is deaf is not as simple as I might make it seem here. I may be a non-parent, (hopefully tempering the extent to which parents actually believe what I'm saying) and I'm not picking on hearing parents. Nobody ever said having a deaf child was going to be easy. Most parents did not plan on or bargain for a deaf child with the responsibilities and challenges that child would entail. But both children and parents are remarkably resilient, and, as I said ICED, "We can do this!"

Seaver: So it's boiling down to parents doing the right thing for their deaf child based on misunderstood research and a host of complex, unknown factors. Welcome to my world!

Marschark : My point is only that we have learned a lot in 100 years, and yet many professionals continue to only cite literature that meets their own philosophical inclinations. Whether they are people on the "right" or "left," they continue to be selective in both what they are willing to read, and in what they tell parents who are in a very vulnerable position. As long as we are unwilling to give parents "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," we are doing them and their children a great disservice. I fully understand that people have the best intentions and really believe that they are doing what's best for deaf children. But too many of the claims and counterclaims are based on what we know here [pointing to his gut] rather than what we know here, [pointing to his head]. A lot of the data out there are 100% clear, but many people are not willing to accept it. From deaf parents not really having children who read better, to sign language not really interfering with spoken language for children with implants, the facts make a lot of people very nervous.

Seaver: If you became the parent of a deaf child, what would you do?

Marschark: Interestingly, my view on that has changed quite a bit since 1997 when I wrote the first edition of Raising and Educating a Deaf Child. At that point, there were no data indicating that cochlear implants were of significant benefit to children with early or congenital hearing losses, and in my view, the possible benefits did not outweigh the risks. Since the second half of 2000, however, a wealth of evidence has clearly shown that most deaf children will benefit from cochlear implants, even if many of them will not benefit specifically with regard to spoken language (hearing environmental sounds can have important cognitive and social implications that should not be dismissed). So, now that I've seen the evidence, I would seriously consider a cochlear implant for my child, even if, at the same time, I would push for the acquisition of ASL as a first language and use some English-based signing as a bridge to English print. At the same time, I used to be a radical advocate of mainstream education for young deaf children. Having done the research that I have over the past 12 years since I came to NTID, my view on that has changed as well. I believe it is now clear that deaf children do not learn the same way as hearing children, and education in a mainstream classroom by a hearing teacher with material structured (created and delivered) in a form intended for hearing students seems unlikely to optimize learning and match the strengths and needs of deaf children. Although I might like to change a lot about the way many schools for the deaf work, my own pendulum has now swung back to programs that take into account what we know about how deaf children learn, modifying instruction and instructional materials to match the way they think. I honestly believe that for many, if not most deaf children, this would be a way to allow them to reach their full potential. Yet, I realize that the social/economic/legislative pendulum is not likely to swing back this way in the near future.


Marschark : The evidence has convinced me, more than ever, that there is never going to be a "one size fits all" solution for deaf children either educationally or in language. That's why I think Hands & Voices is so important: it emphasizes to parents that deaf children have to be seen as individuals, and we have to do what works . I would love to see a day when all deaf children are bilingual. I recognize that this is not likely to happen anytime soon, but as I have said, I think we could be doing a much better job of it than we have. It all starts with parents, and Hands & Voices seems to advocate the kind of flexibility that deaf children (and their families) really need while being willing to tell parents that it really is complicated... that there are not very many simple answers. Honestly, I am not saying that because this interview may go into The Communicator. The 2006 edition of Raising and Educating a Deaf Child says that more clearly than I have here... I have learned a lot in the last 10 years.

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