Against longstanding tradition held among schools for the deaf, which typically advocate ASL-only or ASL/written English bilingual education, the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD) began using Cued Speech in selected high school classrooms for reading and language instruction in 2010. After observing increases in reading levels, they expanded its use into selected elementary school classrooms.
ISD, a state-supported public school for deaf and hard of hearing students between three to 21 years old, was founded in 1839 and is located in Jacksonville, Illinois. ISD Superintendent Dr. Janice Smith-Warshaw and pre-K-8 Principal Angela Kuhn estimate that ISD currently serves approximately 230 deaf and hard of hearing students in early intervention and pre-K-12th grade school programs. Its philosophy is to be “an accessible ASL/English bilingual community in which people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing learn and work together without language and communication barriers” (Full policy: http://morgan.k12.il.us/isd/communicationpolicy.html).
To ensure ISD students are receiving a truly bilingual education, Kuhn said that “the separation of ASL and English is emphasized in the ASL and English Bilingual Professional Development (AEBPD) program. When both languages are used together (i.e., Simultaneous Communication [SimCom]), one language suffers. Separating the languages allows the user to present a clearer message for educational purposes. For example, a teacher may present a lecture to students using only ASL. Then, follow up questions from the lesson may be achieved in only printed English. The goal is to preserve the integrity of both languages, while also increasing students’ knowledge and use of each one.”
In January 2006, several administrators from ISD attended a meeting of the Illinois Supervisors of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals group, during which Dr. Beverly Trezek, a researcher and associate professor of Literacy and Specialized Instruction at DePaul University, presented about literacy. Dr. Trezek’s research focuses on the reading achievement among students who are deaf and hard of hearing. “She emphasized the importance of a phonological approach to teaching reading to deaf students through the Direct Instruction curriculum using Visual Phonics,” Kuhn said.
Visual Phonics is a system of 46 hand signs and written symbols used in phonics instruction to foster the connection between written and spoken language. It is an educational tool employed to help any student, deaf or hearing, who has difficulty internalizing English phonemes, learn to read.
After the presentation, Dr. Trezek was invited by ISD administrators to serve as a reading consultant, a position she still holds today. “Dr. Beverly Trezek, our literacy consultant, was consistently identifying a need to intensely address English vocabulary and syntax,” Kuhn said. The decision to look into Cued Speech was made when limitations within Visual Phonics became clear to Dr. Beverly Trezek as well as ISD administrators and educators.
Dr. Trezek said, “Within a sign bilingual setting, we found that students were making gains in their phonological skills as a result of receiving instruction from the Direct Instruction curricula supplemented by Visual Phonics. However, we were not seeing comparable increases in reading comprehension due to the demands of English syntax and grammar.”
“Since Visual Phonics provides sublexical (phoneme) and lexical (word) representations only, a spoken or signed form of English would need to be used to attend to the syntactical features of English.
This prompted educators to explore Cued Speech since it was more closely aligned with a sign bilingual philosophy.”
Aaron Rose, a native cuer and educator for the deaf and hard of hearing in Aurora, Colorado, agrees that Visual Phonics has limitations. “I recognized the benefits for direct instruction in the area of phonemic awareness, decoding, and articulation. However, I struggled to see how it would support overall language acquisition since,
based on my training, there was no way to convey spoken language fluently in real time,” said Rose.
“I couldn’t match the same rate of spoken language expression with Visual Phonics that I could through Cued Speech….
Because Visual Phonics is not a consonant vowel system, it is not able to convey spoken language syllabically. As a result, Visual Phonics doesn’t show co-articulation in running speech, while Cued Speech has the ability to convey spoken language at a natural rate.”
Kuhn also noted that, for teachers, Visual Phonics “was difficult to use in demonstrating multisyllabic words… It was also not conducive to use when monitoring students’ decoding abilities beyond single words or simple sentences.”
According to Kuhn, educators at ISD “saw [in Cued Speech] the potential to intensely address English vocabulary and
syntax, implement the phonics-based reading curricula with fidelity, and maintain the integrity of our school’s bilingual framework calling for separation of English and ASL.”
After two teachers learned Cued Speech, ISD ran a pilot study using Cued Speech in one high school reading class in the 2010–2011 academic year. When the pilot study showed potential with Cued Speech, ISD administrators expanded the pilot during the 2012–2013 school year by adding Cued Speech into its pre-K-8th grade program as part of its phonics programs and reading curricula. “We asked all teachers in the [pre-K-8th grade] program last year to introduce the students to Cued Speech using direct, systematic phonics programs that are part of our greater reading curricula,”
During the recent school year, ISD administrators collected the majority of their data from one elementary class that used Cued Speech during reading and language instruction. Over the course of the school year, its three deaf and hard of hearing students “saw an average of two years’ gain on the reading subtest of the Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA). These gains were similar on the Renaissance STAR Reading assessment. On the Developing Writer’s Assessment (DWA), these students improved four levels in one school year,” Kuhn said.
When asked how using Cued Speech helps cover the gap between providing sublexical and lexical information to providing
syntactical information, Dr. Trezek said, “Cued Speech provides a visual representation of both the phonology and
syntax English, which allows educators in a sign bilingual setting to present the Direct Instruction reading, writing, and language lessons with greater fidelity. In other words, the lessons can be presented in English as
intended, rather than interpreted in American Sign Language (ASL). This maintains the integrity of literacy instruction and avoids reading and writing becoming a task of translating from English to ASL and vice versa.”
While the initial results of the pilot are promising, Dr. Smith-Warshaw and Kuhn recognize that the use of Cued Speech at the school varies and thus refrained from making broad conclusions at this time. “Use of Cued Speech is determined by multiple factors, including linguistic accommodations documented in student IEPs, subject, and teacher proficiency. In one class, a majority of reading and language instruction is provided through Cued Speech. In other classrooms, Cued Speech is used to support vocabulary and phonics instruction,” Kuhn said.
Following the introduction of Cued Speech at ISD, parental responses to its use have been varied and Smith-Warshaw
and Kuhn are sensitive to parents’ preferences for their child’s development: “[S]everal parents have expressed support and requested their child be given an opportunity to learn and use [Cued Speech],” Kuhn said. “On the other hand, we’ve had parents request their child not use [Cued Speech], and we respect their choice.”
“For the most part, the students have been receptive to the Cued Speech implementation. Students who [have] learned
the system have asked teachers to cue new words and challenged themselves to use Cued Speech in new contexts. This isn’t to say it hasn’t been challenging for them to learn a new mode of communicating English in reading and language class. Some students have been uncomfortable using [Cued Speech] expressively, and we’ve respected their feelings.”
To assist with improving literacy levels at the school, Kuhn said the ISD administration strives to provide most students in the pre-K-8th grade program with a Cued Speech-trained teacher for reading classes. Kuhn asserts that administrators will continue to observe, record and analyze data on its use before making further changes.
“As we continue to monitor student growth and gather teacher feedback, we will be prepared to make further decisions regarding the use of [Cued Speech]. It is our hope the [Cued Speech] implementation helps us improve our student literacy levels on the path toward accomplishing ISD’s vision ‘to educate responsible, self-supporting citizens’.”
The Illinois School for the Deaf is accredited by the Illinois State Board of Education, the North Central Association, and the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf.
Note from the Editor: Teachers and staff at ISD are generally not permitted to speak with journalists or media outlets unless approved by the Department of Human Services (DHS). On Cue was able to obtain permission to correspond with Superintendent Dr. Janice Smith-Warshaw and pre-K–8 principal Angela Kuhn. We thank them for their support of this article and willingness to interview with us.
Note from the Associate Editor: I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit ISD in the summer of 2012. I have no doubt that the majority of educators at the school are committed to providing their students with a solid ASL and English bilingual education. They are keenly aware that the use of Cued Speech in a school for the deaf is rare, and are very sensitive to not only the needs of each student, but their families’ needs and desires as well. I applaud them for the work that they are doing.