Gaining Access To Literacy In A Classroom For Deaf Children

This article by Claire Ramsey and Carol Padden describes the differences between native ASL signers and other deaf students who are not fluent in ASL and how this can affect their literacy in a classroom.


For the purposes of this article, Ramsey and Padden analyzed the progress of 12 deaf students in a third grade classroom at a residential school for the deaf. The children had different levels of experience with ASL and those differences affected their ability to learn. Six of the children were native signers that likely had other dear family members, from whom they learned to sign. Two of the students were not native signers but had been at the school for a few years and had picked it up there. However, “newcomers,” or those who did not have previous experience with signing lack the knowledge base that would allow them to successfully participate in the class. 90% of deaf children have hearing parents, so there are generally more newcomers than native signers.


This school is an interesting example because is teaches in ASL while most schools insist that children learn English first. It is a difficult transition because English and ASL are not related, although some words in ASL originated from the finger spelling of English words. Schools for the deaf, much like this one, serve as symbols to the deaf community, and therefore the use of ASL and the requirement for all staff to know ASL is important.


Ramsey and Padden spent 20 days with the third grade students over the course of 4 different visits. They noticed vast differences in the way native signers and newcomers were able to interact in the classroom. Students like Beth, who were native signers, were able to recognize who held the floor during discussion, predicting when the teacher would turn the floor over to students, detecting the turns of other participants, noting when the teacher calls on a student and then watching the student respond. They also observed common signing etiquette, such as standing in the front of the room when signing and waving to get the attention of the teacher.

One of the newcomers, Danny, needed additional help from the teacher and sometimes stopped paying attention because he could not keep up with the discussion. When it came time to write the newsletter, Danny had trouble moving from signs to finger spelling to English and kept trying to get the attention of the teacher. He was unable to keep focus after the teacher helped him once, and had to go back to her multiple times for the same answer. This was partly because he was unable to manage the classroom activities, like paying attention to the speaker long enough to understand the message, and then turning away.


This article was a valuable look into the dynamics of a classroom for deaf students. I think it helps to clarify misconceptions about the prevalence of ASL and proves the point that deaf students who lack a background in ASL have to learn to sign as well as learn content in the classroom. It also shows that ASL is its own language, and just as any other student who could not understand the language used to teach a class, students who cannot sign have trouble absorbing the material.

Ramsey, Claire and Carol Padden. (1998). Natives and Newcomers: Gaining Access to Literacy in a Classroom for Deaf Children. Find the attached article below under the files section.

Posted by Theresa Garcia de Quevedo