New Approach on Deaf Literacy Heartening

The Associated Press
Thursday, July 20, 2006; 5:13 AM

WASHINGTON -- Advocates are heartened that a system of teaching deaf children English is beginning to take hold, despite fears among many in the deaf community that it diminishes their culture.

Advocates say a phonetically based technique called cued speech can improve literacy rates among deaf students even if not used primarily for speaking. They point out that the average 18-year-old deaf high school graduate reads on a third- or fourth-grade level.

The system is gaining popularity with new research, a grass-roots movement and new funding aimed at improving reading scores under the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Advocates will mark the 40th anniversary of the system's creation at a conference beginning Thursday in Towson, Md.

American Sign Language has its own vocabulary and grammar, different from English. But cued speech, a phonetically based technique, uses eight hand shapes to make lip reading easier.

For deaf people who may not be able to differentiate between the sounds of the words "bed" and "pet," for instance, the corresponding visual cues help make the English language complete.

However, the idea of cued speech is sensitive in the deaf community, where many consider American Sign Language the central part of deaf culture. Protests erupted this spring at Gallaudet, the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf, over the incoming president, partly because she had not learned to communicate with sign language until later in life.

"Often in the deaf community, it is thought that cuing is used only for speech purposes," said Amy Crumrine of Germantown, Md., who is among the first generation of deaf adults who grew up using cued speech. "This is not the main purpose of cuing _ it's for literacy."

Research shows that learning about word sounds and how they fit into language are critical elements of learning to read and write, said Gallaudet professor Carol LaSasso.

Crumrine organizes cued speech clinics and family camps as a volunteer and is planning the five-day conference in Towson, which begins Thursday. It honors Dr. R. Orin Cornett, who created cued speech in 1966 while serving as vice president of Gallaudet.

The idea for the new way to teach English came when Cornett, who died in 2002, found few students were reading on campus, said Cornett's son, Robert, an astronomer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He wanted to provide the same elements of spoken and written English for deaf people.

But use of the communication system has faded at Gallaudet, and the clinics that taught Crumrine's parents and others about cuing are no longer regularly offered on campus.

"His feelings were very hurt by that," Cornett's son said. "This was the thing that he contributed most."

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