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Hearing Kids Benefit From Sign Language

February 1, 1998

Lauren Warak (N 99)

A two-year study from Newcomb College Nursery School shows that hearing 3-year-old children who learn English Sign Language have a significantly higher vocabulary than their peers who are not taught to sign. Researchers and teachers from the nursery school published this study in the December issue of Teaching Exceptional Children, a journal for special education teachers.

"When sign language instruction was integrated in a naturalistic way into the regular preschool curriculum, both hearing and non-hearing children benefited," says Diane Manning, a professor in the Department of Teacher Certification and coordinator of this research.

The project began five years ago, when the Bright School for the Deaf in New Orleans sent a hearing-impaired 3-year-old to the nursery school. A program was designed to integrate the child with hearing children in a normal classroom setting. A donation by the child's grandfather allowed the teachers to learn sign language and the nursery soon began teaching English Sign Language to the hearing 3-year-olds .

"We were amazed at how quickly the children took to the signing and picked it up," says Debbie Pavur, assistant director of the nursery school. "They would even make up signs if they did not know a particular one."

The ability of the hearing children to learn sign language and adapt it to their own needs moved Manning and Irma Heller, one of the nursery school's head teachers who died last February, to implement a study of the possible positive effects of signing on the hearing children.

Karen Wagner (N '97), a Newcomb College senior at the time, and several graduate students in psychology agreed to design the two-year pilot study, administer the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and analyze the results. The PPVT is a way of testing expressive language by having the children identify pictures.

The test was given to 54 students in four classes, and consisted of 29 hearing children who could sign and 25 hearing children who were not taught sign language. The pre-test, given in late September 1994, showed that all of the children were at the same level.

The May 1995 post-test, as well as the tests given the following year, produced very different results. The scores showed that signing children had significantly higher scores in language development than their non-signing peers.

"We were not even looking at a year's difference, but in that short span of time, we were able to get a significant difference in the children's vocabularies," says Pavur. The benefits of the program are many, researchers agree.

Pavur, who looks forward to continuing the relationship with Bright School, says, "Hearing-impaired children can have the social experience of participating in a typical preschool setting. This is beneficial to the typically developing children as well because they see that not everyone is alike and a difference is just a difference. It is not bad or worse, it's just different."

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