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Children Get the Silent Treatment

Teachers communicate only with their hands at Ohio preschool for deaf and hearing youngsters to achieve goal of sign language immersion.

August 10, 2003|Jonathan Drew | Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Three-year-old Mallory Eichler sits quietly on a purple rug, her eyes wide and unblinking. As other children move around the room, Mallory waits with her hands in her lap. It's story time.

Wordlessly, teacher Cindy Kause opens a book, pointing to a picture of a bunny. She places the edge of her hand to her temple, palm facing back, moving two fingers up and down.

Mallory, who is not deaf, grins and makes the same gesture. "Rabbit," she's saying.

The two are communicating in American Sign Language at the Alice Cogswell Center, a preschool for deaf and hearing children. To achieve its goal of immersing preschoolers in sign language, teachers communicate only with their hands.

At most schools for the deaf, teachers accompany their signs with spoken English.

"The philosophy with the 'voices-off' program is that the deaf children are not at any disadvantage," Principal Sharon Kellogg said. "They truly have equal access to the communication."

Speaking preschools are an increasingly common option for deaf children as more infants are outfitted with amplification devices. By school age, a majority of deaf children join their hearing peers in local school systems.

The hearing children at the Cogswell center have deaf family members, and most already have experience signing.

Instead of calling on students by name, teachers point to the children and sign. When a teacher wants the attention of the entire class, she waves her hands or flickers the lights.

"It's different from teachers who can talk out of the sides of their mouth while they're doing things," said Janet Lineberry, the center's parent liaison. "We have to wait to get eye contact."

Classes are kept small. There is a maximum of 12 students in the 3- to 5-year-old group, 10 in the 1 1/2- to 3-year-old group and six infants in the nursery. Deaf children outnumber hearing children 2-to-1 in most classes.

On a recent Wednesday morning, 3-year-old Lennette Butler, who is deaf, sat on a small plastic chair with a dry brush in hand, watching teacher Sherrette Estes unload a plastic crate. Slowly, Estes placed plastic jars on the table, each a different color of paint. Estes paused to identify each color with her hands. Lennette and her classmates mimicked her motions.

After Estes placed the final jar on the table, she stopped and pointed. What color was it?

"Orange," Lennette signed, making a shape in front of her face, as if squeezing a piece of fruit.

Most schools for the deaf use "total communication," in which words are mouthed or spoken as a sign is formed, said Michael Bello, director of the Learning Center for Deaf Children near Boston. Like the Ohio preschool, his school keeps sign language separate from spoken and written English.

"We believe that language acquisition is critical for the cognitive growth of children and that the only way to do that is through a purely gestural language," he said. Bello said his program and the one at Cogswell are rare at a time when 80% of deaf children are taught in mainstream schools.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 encouraged mainstreaming deaf students, saying special education children should be with other students as much as possible.

Hearing aid and cochlear implant technology makes this integration possible, said K. Todd Houston, executive director of the Washington-based Alexander Graham Bell Foundation:

"Those children who can hear better and develop spoken language tend to have higher reading levels. That's why mainstreaming them is critical and not putting them in a separate school that focuses on signing."

He said mainstreaming and speech acquisition should occur as early as possible, instead of teaching signs. Without exposure to speech, it's easier for deaf children to fall behind their hearing peers in terms of literacy.

"You work on spoken language first and get as far as you can," he said.

But Kellogg argues that deaf children who learn in a speaking environment are at a constant disadvantage. "If you have a deaf child in a classroom where everyone is talking, no matter how good the amplifications are, they will miss something; they won't have full access," she said.

The Cogswell center, which opened two years ago, is in a renovated dormitory at the Ohio School for the Deaf. Enrollment at the school, which serves kindergarten through 12th-graders, averages about 150 students, and more than four-fifths of the students are boarders.

Deaf children pay no fees to attend the state-subsidized preschool during the academic year, while hearing children pay a fee. All students must pay to attend the summer program.

Josh Hawley's 4-year-old daughter, Callie, who is not deaf, was able to converse with her deaf grandparents soon after enrolling in the center at age 2.

"She divides her stuffed animals into deaf stuffed animals and ones who can hear," Hawley said. "She'll tell me that this stuffed animal can't talk to that one and she has to translate."

Noah Beyer-Hermsen, 3, who is deaf, recently received a signing lesson from classmate Lennette. He was spreading yellow paint on a grocery bag, the sum of his strokes resembling a plump dinosaur. He paused to proclaim that the color was yellow, but he used too many fingers.

To his left, Lennette grabbed his hand and pushed down the extra digit, helping him to form the proper gesture.

Later, Noah stood up to indicate that he was finished. Estes placed his work on a metal rack near the windowsill and asked what he'd do once it was dry.

"I'm going to give mine to my mom," Noah signed.

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