The Literacy of American Sign Language Users

I am admittedly struggling to help my deaf student this semester. Her grammar and such are not horrible, but communication is definitely an issue. She’s not quite understanding what I mean by “argument,” and I can’t move her past a five-paragraph structure. In short, I am struggling to communicate effectively with Heather.

As I was sharing these frustrations with a colleague, this week’s readings came to mind. One of Escillima’s very first criticisms humbled me: “…language minority students are by default defined as not normal and as ‘behind’ from the onset” (435). At that moment is occurred to me that my student is bilingual. She “speaks” American Sign Language (ASL), but reads and writes in American English. When I look at it that way, it put things into a different perspective for me. Heather is the one who is capable in a way that I am not. That, dear classmates, is a wake-up call for me. I need to remember that Heather—and all of my plurilingual students—hold literacies that I do not. It is simply my job to make them more literate in standard written English. Interestingly, that’s exactly the same job I must fulfill with my native English speakers.

Having read Ong, I am now finding Deaf culture and language particularity interesting. ASL is essentially an oral culture; it’s not a written language. With that in mind, I began to research the literacy issues of Deaf students. Ben Behan, professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, does indeed argue, “It is safe to say then, that many of the patterns of the oral and signed face-to-face traditions are similar and that only the mediums are different.” He also notes that “most, if not all, members of the Deaf World are ASL-English bilinguals to varying degrees.” In this way, deaf students clearly are similar to my students who come from a variety of language backgrounds; as Escillima points out, “bilingualism, not monolingualism, is now the global norm” (436).

My research into the literacy issues of deaf students led me to one very interesting piece of scholarship. The researchers investigated improving deaf adults English skills by taking a bilingual approach to teaching them. The students studied various pieces of English literature and wrote assignments in English, but all instruction was conducted in ASL. When the study began, eight of thirteen students reported that they “found writing a little boring and only did a little writing at home.” Also, six students considered themselves “not good at all” when it came to writing. They reported similar feelings about reading poetry and short stories (Enns 11).

After completing the course together, eight students reported that they were “somewhat good” writers, which the researchers thought was a vast improvement for the students. Nine of the students actually reported they were “having a lot of fun writing” by the end of the course (Enns 13). Author Charlotte Enns explained that the ability of the students to work together using their native language made the difference: “The importance of shared communication and the role it plays in creating true, meaningful dialogue in the classroom cannot be overemphasized. Without this kind of interaction between teacher and students and among the students themselves, real knowing and learning is not possible” (16).

Enns’ work definitely paralleled what we read this week about other plurilingual literacy experiencs. As noted in the Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, “Studies that compare bilingual instruction with English-only instruction demonstrate that language-minority students instructed in their native language as well as in English perform better, on average, on measures of English reading proficiency than language minority students instructed only in English” (Escillima 437). In this way, Enn’s investigation with ASL students reiterated what is already known about how to teach students seeking fluency in English as their second language.

What was really interesting is how Enns and her colleagues helped to facilitate their students’ acquisition of English skills: self-reflective artwork! Students were asked to complete self-portraits at the beginning of the course as a way of understanding how they felt about their return to school (Enns 10-11). As the students progressed through the school year, many also did ASL “read alouds” of the literature they read for their classmates (15). Enns reported that the original self-portraits often reflected fears and worries (11), but the “read-alouds” became moments of empowerment and connection for the students (15). Enns’ experiences clearly mirrored what Stile and Prasad found by integrating multi-modal projects into plurilingual students learning experiences: “…such initiatives highlight openings and agentive social movements within which students and their teachers can enact change and resistance to dominant and potentially marginalizing monolingual, monocultural approaches to English language teaching. Together, the teachers and students reshaped educational practice through their work” (619).

One of the best things I discovered in my research was how the digital age has made the transmission of ASL literature possible. W.J.T. Mitchell explains that ASL literature (much like Homer’s epic poems) once depended solely on face-to-face transmission and memorization to be preserved. However, beginning in the 1960s, with the wide availability of video tape, the “publishing” of ASL literature became possible. Now, electracy has made it possible for ASL poets to create, perform, record, and distribute their work as never before. In fact, Paul Bernella and Summer Crider Loeffler, adjunct professors of ASL at Austin Community College, have created a great video abstract that introduces ASL literature, shows some great examples of the genre, and provides a call to revive the art form. It also touches a great deal on our discussion this week:


Works Cited

Bahan, Ben. “Face-to-Face Tradition in the American Deaf Community: Dynamics of the Tale, the Teller, and the Audience.” Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature. Dirksen Bauman, Heidi Rose, and Jennifer Nelson, eds. Berkeley: U of CA Press, 2006. Ebook.

Bernella, Paul and Summer Crider Loeffler. “Reviving ASL Literature.” YouTube, 21 July 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Enns, Charlotte. “Critical Literacy: Deaf Adults Speak Out.” Exceptionality Education International 19.2 (2009): 3-20. ERIC. 30 Jan. 2017.

Escillima, Kathy. “English Language Learners: Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth.” Rev. of English Language Learners: Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners by Diane August and Timothy Shanahan. Journal of Literacy Research 41 (2009): 432-452.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Preface: Utopian Gestures.” Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature. Dirksen Bauman, Heidi Rose, and Jennifer Nelson, eds. Berkeley: U of CA Press, 2006. Ebook.

Stille, Saskia and Gail Prasad. “’Imaginings’: Reflections on Plurilingual Students’ Creative Multimodal Works.”TESOL Quarterly 49.3 (2001): 608-621.