Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Importance of Fingerspelling

A Deaf individual's receptive and expressive fluency of fingerspelling (FS) is critical for ASL and English literacy mastery.  There is a wealth of research that shows Deaf adults incorporate fingerspelling into their use of ASL and just as much research showing that deaf children need to be exposed to fingerspelling in order for them to be successful readers and writers.  Unfortunately, most teachers of the deaf and hard-of-hearing use minimal fingerspelling in their signing and instruction.  Why?  Hearing people find FS hard to 'read' and hard to produce.  Additionally, hearing people are under the impression that using a sign is better than FS, even if it means inventing a sign.  I cringe whenever a teacher tells me they didn't know the sign for a word so they made up one.  Why not just fingerspell it???

I am not going to spend time reviewing literature here.  That is something you can do.  Instead, I am going to share my experiences with FS, what I have seen, and how I incorporate it into my daily interactions and daily instruction.  My goal is that those teachers and interpreters who read this blog will immediately start trying a few techniques in their ASL expression and in their instruction.  Once you try a few, you will quickly see the benefits and hopefully do more.

Several years ago I had a hearing teacher tell me that fingerspelling doesn't need to be introduced to Deaf children until kindergarten, when they start learning the alphabet and spelling words.  That is completely untrue.  Deaf parents of Deaf children start using FS with their children before the age of 2.  Deaf children start producing FS words soon after.  Here is a perfect example from my own experience.  One DHH preschool teacher that I worked with used to use the initialized sign for BUS.  I encouraged her to use the lexicalized sign #BUS anytime she talked to her class about getting ready to go home, riding the bus.  Pretty soon her 3 and 4 year old students were signing 5-S repeatedly to mean BUS.  They were able to recognize the movement of #BUS and approximated the handshapes.  With continued modeling, over time these students began to sign it correctly.  What was also noted is that these same students were using #OK and #DO without anyone realizing it.  The moral of this story is...start using fingerspelling with all the children you work with, whether in a parent-infant program or in a high school setting.

An important note is that when fingerspelling, it is imperative to spell with a natural rhythm.  You are doing a disservice to a child by slowly fingerspelling one letter at a time.  It is unnatural and inhibits the child's ability to master an important feature of ASL and will disrupt their learning of written English.  They also need to see them used in sentences, not only in word isolation.

Here are some ways that I incorporate more fingerspelling into my interaction and instruction, in no particularly order:
  • I try to use as many lexicalized signs as I can: #BUS, #CAR, #EARLY, #BACK, #BANK, just to name a few
  • When it's time to line up for lunch, I call on a student 1 by 1 to line up, fingerspelling a child's name in natural flow.  I may have to do it several times for them to recognize who I am calling on.
  • When kids have mastered recognizing their name FS, I do the same activity above but with their last names then middle names.  Then I mix it up so they really have to pay attention.
  • When teaching concepts in math, science or SS, I NEVER make up a sign.  Instead, I FS the word and give an explanation.  Once I know the students have grasped the concept, I only FS the word from then on.  4th grade students quickly grasp what C-O-N-V-E-C-T-I-O-N means by repetitive exposure to the FS word along with picture cues and explanations.  Then after 1 or 2 days, I only have to FS the word.
  • I rarely make up name signs for characters in stories we are reading.  For younger children, I will FS shorter names, such as Bob or Mary, and as a class create name signs for longer names.  However as the children get older, I FS most character names.
There are 2 fun games that I play a lot with my students to practice their receptive FS.  For each of these games, it is important to clear a large area of desks and chairs so no one gets hurt.
  • I have students stand in a line side by side.  I then fingerspell an action word such as S-I-T.  I will FS it several times until finally someone knows what I spelled and sits down.  Then the others follow suit.  I then will FS S-T-A-N-D repeatedly until someone stands up.  I do this numerous times until everyone has mastered these 2.  Then I add in other words like J-U-M-P, R-U-N, S-L-E-E-P, and so on.  The kids LOVE this game.  It is fascinating how quickly even the youngest children catch on.
  • For this game, I mix in written English.  I make 2 columns on the board and write down many words.  Since I usually have multi-grade classes, I will include 3-7 letter words.  Repeat the same words list in the 2nd column.  Then I divide the class into 2 teams ensuring that when they line up, the 2 people competing are comparable in age or ability.  I then will fingerspell a word on the board.  The students have to quickly recognize the word then run up to the board and point to the word.  I give a point to whoever points to the correct word the fastest.  This is a class favorite game.
I hope this post has given you things to consider, has allowed you opportunities to reflect on your own use of fingerspelling, and has opened your eyes to the limitless possibilities for incorporating it into your daily use of ASL and in your instruction.  I plan on following up this post with one dedicated to deaf children's use of fingerspelling to improve their writing ability.

For teacher friendly information about fingerspelling, I suggest you look at a few issues of the Odyssey from the Laurent Clerc Center. One in particular is the Fall 2003 issue. Click on this link to download that edition. You will find a few articles regarding fingerspelling and references to research.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Reading Milestones - Part 2

I am frequently asked how I teach reading to Deaf children.  There is no simple answer to that question; it would probably take pages to fully answer that.  However, as I stated in my previous post, I will share effective strategies that I use in conjunction with the Reading Milestones program that I started using with my students last January.

In this post, I will focus on reading sentences, paragraphs, and pages.  I'll discuss vocabulary instruction at a different time.  When I teach children to read, I scaffold in 4 phases.  I cannot put a specific length of time to stay in each phase.  It really depends on the child and his progress.

The first phase is for beginning readers, regardless of age; I have them read word for word.  Now don't scream just yet!  My goals are vocabulary recognition, developing reading confidence, and using picture clues.  As they read, I use teachable moments for those words that are not in the ASL lexicon.  I do not use any form of manually coded English, no invented endings and no English initialization.  After a child reads a sentence in English (on the first reading) I then sign it back to him in ASL order.  I then use questioning techniques to ensure comprehension.  During this first reading, if there are any word chunks or multiple meanings, I guide the student through discovering the correct meaning.  For example, in a story a child recently read in the Blue book, the sentence said "The frog jumps high." After the child read each word, I asked her to look at the picture and describe how the frog jumped.  The child used the signed JUMP, but instead of the frozen sign, she added inflection by having the Bent-V sign go high in the air.  COMPREHENSION! Each time she came across this word pair, she made 1 sign instead of 2!  As the students reread the story, I encourage them to restate in ASL and I remodel if needed.

In the second phase, I have the student read a sentence silently then retell to me in ASL.  When they start this phase they will often just recite what they remember in English word order.  This is OK for the first reading.   I teach them to read the sentence to themselves, close their eyes, and visualize what they just read (visualizing is taught in a separate lesson).   After they feel they have a good visual image, I ask them to retell the sentence.  I then will read the sentence back to them, translating into ASL.  We then have similar discussions about conceptual accuracy and such.  Yes this takes a long while to get through a story, however the more time you spend developing their metalinguistics (using their knowledge of ASL and applying it to English) the more successful they will be in reading.  We'll tackle metalinguistics in another post. 

In the third phase, I have students read a paragraph silently then retell what they read.  I need for them to tell me what they feel is important from the paragraph.  I am not looking for every specific detail but just what they feel is important AND that it flows from the previous paragraph.  I, again, will model to them how I retell a paragraph.  And some point though, I stop retelling each paragraph, instead just giving them feedback on what they said and including those teachable moments.

Finally for the fourth phase, I want the child to silently read the entire page and SUMMARIZE what they read.  Yes at this phase I do not expect them to tell me everything they read but to summarize what they feel is the key features.  This is an important skill and part of the reading standards.  I do teach summarizing in a separate lesson also. 

Through each phase I do a lot of questioning as we read and take advantage of any teachable moment I see.  I find more success with tackling the reading standards by incorporating as many of them as I can into that guided reading time instead of as separate lessons.  This allows for frequent and repetitive coverage of the standards.

The good thing about Reading Milestones is that in the earlier levels there is a lot of repetition and highly structured sentences.  This makes it easier for deaf children to quickly comprehend what they read and move through the scaffolding phases.  I do need to emphasize though, when using Reading Milestones or any other program with high structure, you MUST include  typical literature and informational text into your daily instruction.  This can be done via read alouds and shared reading.  If you do not give these children the opportunity to experience 'normal' text, you will not be giving them a quality education - you are denying them the rich language of English (i.e. metaphors, similes, idioms, etc.) and hence setting them up for failure.

I would love to know your opinions to my posts.  Please leave comments :-)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reading Milestones - part 1

I have never been a fan of Reading Milestones, a highly structured reading program designed for students who are deaf and hard of hearing.  I thought they were too simplistic, too structured, showed unnatural language, and demonstrated low expectations for our Deaf kids.  I've seen many DHH children succeed in this program but never able to confidently read literature.

Last year, my principal and special education director wanted me to try out this program since it is research-based and all the laws, regulations, and best teaching practices say to use research-based reading programs.  So I borrowed the program from a colleague who has been using the new 4th edition with her DHH students with success.

While looking at the stories and the workbooks in this new edition, I thought "Wait a minute.  This isn't the Reading Milestones that I knew from years back."  I could see current reading standards being addressed.  I saw that in the Red Books the sentence was all on one page.  I saw a lot of informational text.  Hmmm....maybe.

So I started using the series last February.  Within a few weeks I saw a dramatic change in my students' reading confidence and independent work habits.  Within a few months I was sold.  The kids would bring home their book, which includes 6 stories, to read for homework only to come back and tell me they read all 6 stories.  The kids were excited to get to the next story.  I even saw their vocabulary retention, ability to determine context clues for multiple meanings and better translate from English to ASL.  The students improved on their spring MAP tests, especially in the area of language usage. 

This year their new teacher has pushed them even harder by challenging them with more higher reading level and they are excelling at the challenge.

I decided to use Reading Milestones with 3 of my middle school students, 2 of them have cognitive disabilities.  In 1 semester's time, 1 student's reading has increased at least 1 year and 1 child whose reading was too low to test on the STAR reading test now is reading in the range of 0.9 to 1.9.  The 3rd student hasn't been tested yet.

I see these kids wanting to read picture and chapter books like I've never seen before.!

I have shared with other people that sometimes I feel like I short changed my students' education by not introducing them to Reading Milestones sooner.  But then I realized (with colleague's help) that they probably wouldn't have flourished with the old editions.

In a separate post I'll share as to how I use Reading Milestones with my signing kids, incorporating all those bilingual techniques that have made me a great teacher and have always given Deaf students best access to reading any piece of text.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

High Expectations

Throughout the history of deaf education, and still today, many teachers have low expectations of their students.  For some reason teachers think that just because a child cannot hear, they can't learn or achieve as their hearing peers.  WHY?  These children have the same cognitive capabilites as their hearing peers (sometimes even better).  They have the ability to do ANYTHING as long as there is no ceiling placed upon them.

Today the 3rd Annual Regional DHH Spelling Bee took place in Bowling Green, KY.  I LOVE this day.  Deaf and hard of hearing children (signers and non-signers) grades 1 - 12 from around western KY participate in an academic competion.  I've been the lucky one to develop the lists of 100 words for each competitive group which are used in the Bee.  The first 2 years we used the same lists since we were just getting our feet wet.  This year I decided to make the lists challenging for all grades - setting the standard high.  I borrowed words from Scripps National Spelling Bee lists and countless other hearing Spelling Bee lists that I could find via Google.

All the teachers received the lists at the same time - about 1 1/2 months ago.  So all students were starting to study with no advantage to anyone.  Well, would you believe that some teachers complained that I made the lists too hard?!  Of course I made them hard.  It's a Spelling Bee.  They are supposed to be hard and I have high expectations for all DHH children regardless of whether or not they are my students.

What was phenominal was watching those students getting the words right one after another!  There were 3 students left in the 5/6 grade group.  I thought there would never be a winner; they kept getting them correct over and over.  Eventually we did have a winner, but I was incredibly impressed with the amount of preparation they did and confidence they had in spelling words like 'government', 'potential' and 'deoderant'.

I believe that every deaf and hard-of-hearing child has the potential in them to accomplish anything they set their mind to.  We just need to believe they can!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What makes me a good teacher?

I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out where to start with this blog.  I have so much to say, so much to teach, and so much to learn that there is no good starting point.

For the past month since winning 2013 Kentucky Elementary Teacher of the Year, I have been interviewed for various TV news shows, newspapers and magazines.  One question that I find interesting that they all ask is, what sets me apart from other teachers, or why do I think I was chosen above others?  Well, I have to say that even though I do so much and give so much to my students, these are hard questions to answer.

I do what I do everyday for the sake of the students I serve.  Even though I put out a strong and confident persona, I think I'm just a good teacher that has a job addiction problem.  I don't see myself as an extraordinary teacher but just as a dedicated one.  I still am concerned about how others view me and if others think I'm good enough.  But I guess this award is the proof I need now to truly accept that I am a pretty darn good teacher!

So the answer to this question and one that I share with current and future teachers is that teaching is not a 9-5 job.  I strongly believe that in order for students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to be successful academically, psychologically, and socially, I need to make a positive impact on them, on their families, and on other professionals they encounter.  I need to set up experiences for them to interact with other Deaf peers and Deaf adults.  I need to plan family outings to Deaf events so their parents can see the world their children can aspire to.  I need to advocate for access for them.  I need to educate others on how to work with them and communicate them.

Yes that is a lot of "I needs"; however it starts with me.  I can do whatever is in my power to improve their lives (not just their learning) and hopefully others will look at what I have done and try it themselves.