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Dr Susan Gregory

University of Birmingham

This paper was originally prepared for presentation at "Bilingualism and the Education of Deaf Children : Advances in Practice", a Conference held at the University of Leeds June 29th 1996. The full Conference Proceedings (ISBN 0900960868) are available from Pam Knight or Ruth Swanwick, School of Education, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT. email


In this paper today, I will describe and define bilingual education, discuss why it has come about, and consider the goals of this approach. I will also talk about some issues that arise in its implementation.

A definition:

Bilingual education is an approach to the education of deaf children which uses both the sign language of the deaf community and the written/spoken language of the hearing community.

In the UK, these two languages are British Sign Language (BSL) and English.

For children from homes using languages other than BSL and English, further languages may have to be taken into account.


Recognition of BSL as a language

Before the late 1960s and early 1970s, sign languages were not seen as proper languages but as crude systems of mime and gesture. This was despite the fact that sign languages had been used for many years by deaf people; see, for example, the description by Augustine (AD 354-430) and the first documentation of sign language in Britain by Bulwer (1644).

Recognition came first in the USA through the work of Stokoe in the 1970s, and Mary Brennan, who coined the term BSL - or British Sign Language - in 1976 for the sign language used by the Deaf community in the UK. This recognition meant that, for the first time, the use of sign language in education became a possibility.

Poor attainments under oral approach

At around the same time as sign languages were being recognised as true languages, dissatisfaction with oralism was growing. Crucial to this dissatisfaction was the seminal study by Conrad, which looked at a cohort of deaf school leavers in the 1970's. He found that deaf pupils left school with median reading ages of nine; with poor speech intelligibility and with lip-reading skills no better than those of the hearing population, despite their training in this area (Conrad, 1979). Such poor achievements were also demonstrated in other studies from other countries.

A recent interview study, by myself and two colleagues, of a non-selected sample of deaf young people, found that one in seven did not have adequate linguistic skills in any language to participate in an interview. These were all young people born in the late 1960's and educated under the oral system (Gregory, Bishop and Sheldon, 1995).

Success of deaf children of deaf parents

There have been many studies of attainments of deaf children, a number of which indicated that deaf children of deaf parents were more successful academically than those with hearing parents. These results emerged in studies of reading, writing and academic achievement and, in some instances, spoken English. Attributing this to the early use of sign language in these families lead to the conclusion that sign language could be beneficial in the education of deaf children.

The issue is, of course, more complex than this. For example, some have argued that this greater achievement could be because the deafness was due to genetic, rather than other causes, which were more likely to be associated with other additional disabilities. Alternatively, or in addition, it may be that deaf parents are better at establishing the general pre-linguistic skills that are essential for later language development, and this facilitates higher levels of attainment. However at the very least it could be said that the early use of sign language with deaf children does not inhibit intellectual and linguistic development.

The finding is reinforced in other studies. A recent book published in the USA, based on a review of 208 studies involving 171,517 deaf people, found a superiority of those born to deaf parents on a number of scales from non-verbal tests of IQ (Braden, 1995).

Preferred language of deaf school leavers

In the study of young people already mentioned, it was shown that, at the time they were interviewed, 38% used British Sign Language as their preferred or only language, demonstrating a significant role for this language in their lives (Gregory, Bishop and Sheldon, op cit) and having implications for the education of deaf pupils.

Changing ideas of bilingualism in general

In the 1960s, when there was a rise in immigration in the U.K. of families with a range of different first languages, the first reaction to this was to assert the need to teach English to these children. Their mother tongue, or home language, was seen as a disadvantage which could confuse and inhibit development. They were labelled as non- English speakers and research seemed to show poorer attainments in children from other language-using communities.

However, this finding was overturned by the work of a number of researchers, including Cummins in Canada. He showed that, for children using French and English, bilingualism was an advantage. Language development was not inhibited and greater cognitive flexibility was achieved in some tasks (Cummins, 1978). This changed the underlying view of bilingualism as a disadvantage.



The initial period after bilingual education was introduced could be termed a 'honeymoon' period, where teachers were delighted to have pupils with whom they could communicate easily. It seemed that possibilities in the education of deaf pupils were opened up in terms of literacy development and access to the wider curriculum.

However, many people now realise that it is not that straightforward. Bilingual education raises complex issues of educational practice, staff training and administration which need to be addressed. This is not an expression of the failure of the bilingual approach, or of the need to dilute it, but a recognition of the work needed for it to progress further.

I will mention twelve issues that occur to me, some in more detail than others. These arise from both research and practice. In discussing these, I shall draw on the study we carried out at the Open University, which followed 25 children of seven to nine years of age over a period of one year. The researchers in this project were Sandra Smith and Alison Wells, and the participating groups were the Deaf and Hearing Impaired Support Service Leeds, and the Royal School for the Deaf, Derby.


Firstly, two theoretical concepts.

1. The notion of bilingual education

The basic premise in bilingual education is that knowledge of L1 (the first language). British Sign Language, can be transferred to and facilitate the development of L2 (the second language) English. This notion arose from the work of Cummins, amongst others, and is known as the linguistic interdependence model.

But when we consider the bilingual development of deaf pupils, questions arise as to what is transferred. Where there are two spoken languages, it is speech in one language that facilitates the development of speech in the other. More unusually, writing in one language facilitates the development of writing in the other. Bilingual education with deaf children assumes there can be a transfer of skills from signing in BSL to reading and writing in English, but there is no evidence from other languages to suggest that such transfer is possible.

However, that is not to suggest that such transfer cannot take place. There could be a general linguistic competence, such that the early development of language is itself important, regardless of modality. There is informal evidence for this as deaf children of deaf parents are reported, in many studies, as doing better, both linguistically and academically, than deaf children of hearing parents. This could imply that some linguistic transfer is possible.

2. Thinking and deafness

A second relevant theoretical finding which needs to be considered is the notion that deaf sign language users think differently. Braden established that deaf children of deaf parents score higher on performance tests of IQ than hearing children, which could be attributed to different spatial ability. If this is the case, it has significant implications for bilingual education.

3. Criteria for bilingual education

As bilingual education becomes more established, more and more authorities are claiming to offer it. In addition, because of the pressure on local authorities to educate all pupils within their area, many are trying to provide all possible approaches to the education of deaf children. However, what is offered seems to vary, and in some instances cannot be called bilingual education. But without an established definition and criteria, it is difficult to contest this.

Those involved in developing bilingual education need to set up criteria to say what must be in place for an approach to be called bilingual. It is interesting to think what the minimum requirements would be. I suggest these would include the involvement of native users of BSL, delivery of at least some curriculum areas in BSL, and explicit approaches to using BSL to develop reading and writing skills.

A fuller definition might specify other elements, such as BSL curricula, BSL material to support all areas of the curriculum, the presence of at least two native users of BSL, qualified deaf teachers of the deaf, etc. which would mean that, at best, we would all be in the position of saying we were working towards offering bilingual education.


4. BSL development in children

The Open University research suggested that pupils achieved good communication in sign language, but not all were developing complex structures necessary for high level education.

When we consider the language models available, this may not be surprising. Most young deaf children have hearing parents, thus they learn their sign language from people who are themselves learning it. At school, most of their teachers will be hearing and thus, although they may have good signing skills, are not native users of the language. In addition, those deaf people who work in schools and are native users of the language may adjust their signing to take account of the hearing people with whom they work. The other children with whom they come into contact are mostly in the same position, and thus they do not always provide good models of the language.

In the past we have assumed that exposure to sign language was enough, and the fact that pupils picked it up so quickly endorses that view. However, if we are to develop deaf pupils' signing to a high level, in order that they may have access to the complex ideas within the curriculum, we may need to develop specific teaching methods for the teaching of sign language. It is salutary to compare the attention paid to teaching BSL to deaf pupils with that paid to teaching English to hearing pupils.

5. The BSL curriculum

In order to facilitate the development of BSL and to teach it effectively, we need a BSL curriculum, but this needs to be based on research which currently does not exist. We do not know what is the normal process of BSL development in children. We need to know this in order to develop a curriculum to stretch BSL skills and to correct errors appropriately.

Research in this area is complex, as a rigorous research project would have to be based on children who are native users of sign language learning from native users of sign language, which means we are looking for two, if not three generations of deafness in the family. This must be a priority when we are looking at the research required to support bilingual education.

6. Assessing BSL development

In order to facilitate the acquisition of BSL skills in children, we must also find ways of assessing development. This too is dependent on research which charts the normal development of BSL of deaf children acquiring it as a first language from native users of BSL.

Currently, much assessment carried out is inevitably based on procedures for considering pupil's English language skills, but this is not appropriate. We know, for example, that English assessment often focuses on use of tense or prepositions, but these are differently realised in BSL and may well have a different place in the development of the language.

Assessing BSL development is not only important in developing children's skills but also in order to demonstrate the overall progress of children in bilingual education. At, times, the major development of pupils in any period is in their use of BSL. Unless we have evidence of this we cannot expect it to be either within the system or in the formal inspection and appraisal assessment systems that are currently utilised.

7. Intervention in the early years

If we are to achieve age-appropriate language development, we must start with children as young as possible. The Open University research demonstrated that most pupils arrived in school with limited linguistic skills in either BSL or English and the initial work with them had to focus on basic language development. Inevitably this set them behind their hearing peers in other aspects of the curriculum. Our aim should be to achieve age appropriate language development on entry to school so that deaf pupils can fully access the school curriculum.

In the UK there are initiatives in pre-school provision for deaf children in Leeds, Bristol and Derby. These are all slightly different in emphasis but represent a growing concern in the early years period and appropriate provision for the families of deaf children. Research in other countries indicates similar concerns and currently pre-school work in is the focus of new developments in a number of places including Holland and Russia.

8. Working with parents

Part of the work in the pre-school period must include working with parents to develop early language skills in their children. When the parents are hearing and the language their child is developing is sign language, particular issues can arise. Alys Young, working in Bristol, studied the way in which deaf adults were introduced into the homes of families of deaf children to facilitate the development of BSL . One of the important questions she considered was the appropriate language expectations of hearing parents whose children are being educated bilingually. She suggested that it is not BSL skills per se that were seen by deaf tutors as critical but the overall attitude to deafness and modes of communication.(Young 1995)


9. Reading and writing and speech

The main way in which bilingual education will be judged is in terms of achievement in English, particularly the assessment of literacy skills . This makes it a crucial area for bilingual programmes.

Our research at the Open University suggested that for the pupils it was easier, at the early stages, to focus on writing rather than reading. There seems a possible explanation for this observation. For a deaf child whose first language is BSL, writing allows them to think in their first language and control the use of the second as they choose the elements to be written down. Reading, on the other hand, means having to work from their second language, where they have no direct control over the material and then translate back to their first language. Of course, many approaches to reading recognise this and ensure that a child's first reading is of material that they have prepared themselves.

Reading raises a number of questions about which language should be used. Is the use of voice essential or can a child read directly into BSL? Is some form of English procedure required first? In Sweden, in the interests of equality, voice is not allowed in the bilingual classroom. Would this be a help or a disadvantage?

Our analysis of English written work suggests that many of the errors deaf children make relate to the structure of BSL, suggesting that this factor has an influence on those skills. Rather than seeing this as a disadvantage or a problem, we suggest that it could be facilitative in that the first language, BSL, may be used to discuss and develop the second language, English (Gregory,Wells and Smith 1995)

Within the development of some bilingual programmes, speech has, in the past, been given a low profile. Some approaches prefer an emphasis on general communication skills with hearing people, where speech is one aspect of a range of strategies to use with hearing people.

However more consideration is now being given to the role of speech and how it should be encouraged and taught. Discussion of speech skills is easier when students have command of BSL and thus a language in which to discuss the issues around the use of voice and the development of spoken language. The impact of increasing numbers of children with cochlea implants has raised questions in this area which are likely to result in more systematic approaches to the development of spoken language.

10. Developing curriculum areas and resources

Increasingly, under the National Curriculum pupils are encouraged to find things out for themselves and to explore a variety of resources, most of which will be in English. Bilingual programmes need to consider how the resources to support the National Curriculum could be developed. This is likely to require the development of material to support the curriculum on video or CD ROM which pupils can access and use themselves.

11. Assessment of bilingual children

Once we recognise the right of deaf pupils to be educated in BSL, which for some of them will be their preferred language, it follows that some will request or require to be assessed in BSL at all levels - SATS, GCSE and 'A' Level.

This raises a number of questions. How should sign language be used in assessments and how can its use be evaluated? Is it appropriate to use it at the higher levels as most resources at this level are in English and students will need English competence to access the majority of the material which supports this curriculum. However, some Universities (The Open University, Durham and Bristol University) have developed assessments at University level which could be considered here.

12. Training to work in bilingual settings

In order for bilingual education to continue to develop, the number of courses which train teachers to work within a bilingual philosophy must be increased. Currently there is the course at University of Leeds to train teachers of the deaf. This includes elements relevant for teachers who wish to work or are already working in bilingual educational settings. It still remains difficult for deaf people to enter the teaching profession.

There is a need for further clarification on the training needed for assistants/support workers both hearing and deaf who are working in bilingual educational settings.


There has been little evaluation of bilingual programmes in the UK, and only limited research from those countries who have had bilingual programmes for a longer period of time. Both Sweden and Denmark have carried out some evaluation, suggesting that bilingual education is successful in developing literacy skills as well as the sign language of their community.

However, there are a number of difficulties in evaluating deaf education. The use of control groups is difficult in that it is not possible to compare groups of pupils in bilingual programmes with groups in different programmes. The reason for their placement in the various programmes indicates that the children are likely to differ from each other in significant ways which would effect the results of the study. Also the polemic nature of much of the research work that has been carried out; the idea that the reason for doing research is to prove that a particular approach works, or is best rather than evaluating what is happening; influences the research climate.

The newness of bilingual education means that the aim of research is more likely to be an account of what occurs when bilingual education is introduced than a demonstration of outcomes. There is a further problem in that the aims of bilingual education may differ in emphasis from oral/aural education, and social and emotional aspects may be given more status.


Bilingual education is in a state of evolution. Its continued development will depend on how it fits into the wider education system. There is a need for much research, especially into the development of sign language.


BRADEN, J. (1994) Deafness, Deprivation and I.Q. London : Plenum Press

Conrad, R. (1979) The Deaf School Child London : Harper Row

Gregory, S., Bishop, J. and Sheldon, L. (1995) Deaf Young People and Their Families Cambridge University Press : Cambridge.

Young,A. (1995) Family adjustment to a Deaf Child in a Bilingual Framework PhD Thesis submitted to the University of Bristol