The debate over whether to teach deaf children how to speak is unlikely to wane, educators say, despite a recent study showing that reading scores were strongly higher for those able to speak.
"It's a very emotional controversy," said Jean Moog, principal of Central Institute for the Deaf, where the federally funded study was done last year. "I think what we're trying to do is bring some rationale to the topic."In the study of 100 profoundly deaf 16- and 17-year-old students who had been taught speech, reading scores were five grade levels higher than the third-grade nationwide average for profoundly deaf students. Thirty of the 100 read at or above the 10th-grade level, said Ann Geers, who led the research.
"That means they were functioning for all practical purposes like normal-hearing adolescents, which is rather outstanding considering the severity of their deafness," Geers said. Profoundly deaf people, even with powerful hearing aids, cannot understand speech without special training.
The report has been well received by supporters of teaching the deaf to speak, but Moog said those who favor total communication, combining speech and sign language, are less enthusiastic. That is used in 90 percent of schools.
Sign language is easier to teach than speech, but may be of little or no use except among other deaf people. According to Helen Bayer, coordinator of the St. Louis County Special School District deaf education program, choosing between the two extremes and a myriad of choices between depends on factors such as intelligence, other learning disabilities and family support.
In the typical total communication program, research has shown that students depend too much on sign language, Moog said. "They make noises, they vocalize, but speech is not intelligible without the signs."
"The profound effect will come within the next 10 years when all deaf children being educated in total communication programs are not talking," said Geers. "There will be an entire generation of deaf children who will be angry that they were not given the instruction to talk."