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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Aimee Walker Pond, left, Derek Pond and McCall Cannon talk with friends in American Sign Language.

OREM — Some researchers of deaf children advocate students learn to read in English before tackling American Sign Language.

But not Marlon Kuntze, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley.

"I'm proposing they've got it backward," he said at a recent deaf studies conference at Utah Valley State College attended by about 375 people, some coming as far away as England, Ireland and Greece.

He used his two sons as examples. They're CODAs — children of deaf adults. They can hear but grew up in a house where they communicated with ASL.

Yet, they started reading before their peers. And their English vocabularies were more expansive.

Kuntze believes his children were ahead because of the cognitive development they received from knowing ASL, which is considered a different language than English. More research should be done in the area to understand how it works, he said.

ASL

It's difficult to pinpoint how many deaf children know ASL, considered the lingua franca among the world's sign languages.

ASL is not a written language, per se. If deaf people want to read classical literature or a grocery list, they must learn the spoken language of the society in which they live.

In the United States, hearing parents are increasingly teaching their hearing babies sign language as a method of communication until the children learn to talk in English.

But sign language in hearing households only occurs when parents have resources to learn it and teach it to their children.

More common are hearing parents

who do not know sign language but have deaf children. Only a small percentage of deaf children under age 5 know ASL, because they live in houses where English is the first and sometimes only language, Kuntze said.

Many deaf children are exposed to ASL in school. But not all children who know ASL are considered fluent in the language.

For instance, many deaf students know signs but use English rather than ASL word order, Kuntze said.

People who advocate learning English before ASL believe the emphasis on signing prevents deaf people from gaining a sophisticated English word recognition, said Kuntze, who disagrees.

"Word recognition is not the issue," he said. "It's the thinking."

English

Any literate person can correctly "decode" any word encountered on a shopping list, Kuntze said. But most material people read requires interpretation and understanding — what he calls "high-order thinking."

That's why ASL is necessary. Deaf children should have access to ASL before they begin school — at the same time their hearing peers experiment with spoken English — to develop cognitive skills needed to interpret the knowledge of the world as it confronts them.

Waiting until kindergarten is too long and practically guarantees a deaf student will struggle with reading and comprehension, he said.

Kuntze challenges the prevalent belief that English is learned first through spoken form, followed by written form. It's common for teachers to "give up" on deaf students because of that belief, Kuntze said.

People can be considered fluent in Latin, for instance, just by their ability to read the dead language. A person's speaking ability in Latin is never judged. The same logic should be applied toward English, Kuntze said.


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com