The relationship between Kenyan Sign Language and English literacy
Lillie Josephine Aura
Moi University, Kenya
Grady Venville and Ida Marais
The University of Western Australia
This paper presents results of an investigation into the relationship between Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) and English literacy skills. It is derived from research undertaken towards an MEd degree awarded by The University of Western Australia in 2011. The study employed a correlational survey strategy. Sixty upper primary deaf students from four residential schools for the hearing impaired participated in the tests that evaluated their KSL proficiency and English literacy skills. KSL skills were tested using an adapted American Sign Language Proficiency Assessment tool while the English literacy skills were evaluated using a combination of five selected sub-tests of the Test of Reading Comprehension-Fourth Edition-TORC 4 and the Test of Written Language-Fourth Edition-TOWL 4. Additional data were collected from participants' audiograms and a questionnaire completed by parents. Data were analysed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) computer software package. A significant positive correlation was found between participants' proficiency in KSL and their English literacy scores. The results suggested KSL has a role to play in English literacy acquisition.
Learning to read is a language process and successful acquisition of literacy is dependent upon an established language (Gerner de Garcia, 2003; Goldin-Meadow & Mayberry, 2001; Wilbur, 2000). A literacy activity like reading requires two related but separate capabilities: (a) familiarity with the language and (b) understanding the mapping between that language and the printed word (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000; Goldin-Meadow & Mayberry, 2001; Luckner et al., 2005/2006). To understand the mapping process, it has to be between "the language they know and print" (Goldin-Meadow & Mayberry, 2001, p. 226). In the case of deaf children, the language they know is often sign language which is their first language.
Deaf children generally find it difficult to read and write because of problems they face in the acquisition of a conversational form of language, either orally or manually. Most of these children are born to hearing (non-signing) parents from whom they cannot learn language, converse or communicate with. Further, they lack exposure to conversational language since they are often surrounded by non-signers or signers who are not proficient, among them family, peers and teachers (Adoyo, 2002; Goldin-Meadow, 2001; Hlatwayo & Muranda, 2015; Hlatwayo & Taurai, 2014; Kimani, 2012; Kuntze, 1998; Musselman, 2000). The ability to communicate enables one to explore the environment and, in the process, acquire literacy (Kuntze, Golos & Enns, 2014; Svartholm, 2010). Indeed deaf children who acquire sign language from birth, are able to converse, thus access knowledge about the world around them. Deaf children born to hearing (non-signing) parents need to be exposed to proficient deaf signers early, for natural first language acquisition to occur.
Deaf children of deaf parents acquire language naturally, then develop literacy. Exposure to their deaf parents offers them a rich language environment that facilitates early and timely acquisition of sign language. They "do not have to learn a language, learn to communicate using the language, and obtain content information from the language at the same time" (Hoffmeister, 2000 p. 147). Accordingly, they outperform deaf children of hearing parents on reading achievement. In fact, studies consistently indicate that deaf children who are proficient in sign language have relatively good literacy skills (Andrew, Hoshooley & Joannise, 2014; Prinz & Strong, 1998; Singleton et al., 1998), an outcome that has been attributed to natural language development. These children, however, form a small percentage in comparison to the 90 percent of deaf children born to hearing parents who lack experience in deafness and have no sign language skills (Goldin-Meadow & Mayberry, 2001; Kuntze, 1998; Musselman, 2000).
For deaf children of hearing (and non-signing) parents however, acquiring language and developing literacy are processes whose linkage is inextricable (Gerner de Garcia, 2003; Svartholm, 2010; Swanwick & Watson, 2005). These children form a cohort of "unique children in the world that cannot easily or naturally learn the language their parents speak" (Mellon et al., 2015, p. 170). Their development of literacy starts when they barely have any language, signed or spoken (Gerner de Garcia, 2003; Luckner et al., 2005/2006; Marschark, Lang & Albertini, 2002; Marschark, Schick & Spencer, 2005; Mayer & Leigh, 2010). Learning to read is a language process and for them to succeed in acquiring literacy, they must have a firm base language (Andrew, Hoshooley & Joannise, 2014). An English literacy activity like reading, therefore, turns out to be a language learning process for these children (Gerner de Garcia, 2003; Goldin-Meadow & Mayberry, 2001; Wilbur, 2000).
The utilisation of a sign language to facilitate literacy acquisition is a concept that is gaining momentum in deaf education. The impetus behind this concept is the Cummins theory of linguistic interdependence (Cummins, 1991) which proposes that a common proficiency allows for transfer of cognitive-academic or literacy related skills from the first language to related skills in the second language. In other words, a well-developed first language is the spring board to the acquisition of a second language. This implies therefore, that deaf students who use Kenyan sign language as a first language and are proficient in it are more likely to develop literacy.
The applicability of the interdependent theory to deaf bilingualism, however, has been surrounded with some controversy. While most researchers generally support the use of sign language in literacy acquisition, they differ on modality. It has been argued that the use of sign language and written English, which are two different languages in two different modes, (one signed and the other written), is more theoretical than practical (Evans, 2004; Mayer, 2007; Mayer & Leigh, 2010). Some of these researchers argued that using sign language (which has no written form) directly with written English would not facilitate English literacy acquisition in deaf students. Researchers aligned to this line of thought suggest that manually coded English systems be used as bridges between English (in written form) and sign language (Mayer, 2007; Mayer & Leigh, 2010).
Another group of researchers on the other hand have suggested that native sign languages be used for instructional purposes, with translation to English being done conceptually rather than literally (Evans, 2004). These researchers pointed out that whereas spoken English is mirrored in written English, thus enabling hearing children 'crack the code' (Luckner, et al., 2005/2006, p. 444) between spoken and written English, then proceed to read, sign language has no direct connection to written English that would enable code cracking. It should be noted that these researchers were not against the use of native sign language to facilitate the acquisition of English literacy; rather, concerns were about modality. More recently however, studies carried out to establish linguistic interdependence between sign language and English indicate that both the threshold hypothesis and linguistic interdependence theory may be applicable to sign language and English (Andrew, Hoshooley & Joannise, 2014; Ausbrook, Gentry & Martin, 2014).
Strong and Prinz (1997) investigated the relationship between American Sign Language (ASL) and English literacy in 155 deaf children aged between 8-15 years. The sample, made up of participants with severe hearing loss, came from one school. The researchers found a significant positive correlation between ASL and English literacy. Deaf children who attained the higher two levels significantly outperformed those in the low ASL ability in English literacy, regardless of age and IQ (Strong & Prinz, 1997, 2000).
Similar results were found by Padden and Ramsey (1998) in their investigation of the relationship between ASL and reading skills in 31 profoundly deaf children. ASL competence was assessed using three tests: verb agreement production, sentence order production and memory measurement. Scores of the most recent Stanford Achievement Test (SAT)-HI administered by the schools were used as a measure of reading ability. Padden and Ramsey (1998) found that there was a correlation between the three ASL tests and reading comprehension, regardless of the status of the parents. Moreover, two further tests revealed that fingerspelling and initialised signs also correlated with reading comprehension.
In a related study, but with a larger sample, Padden and Ramsey (2000) investigated the role played by American Sign Language (ASL) in reading development. The sample, involving 98 elementary and middle school deaf children, was drawn from a residential school utilising ASL-based approaches for instruction and a public school making use of the total communication approach. A significant correlation was found between performance in reading and three of the five sub-tests used by the researchers to examine particular ASL skills: verb agreement production, sentence order comprehension and imitation of ASL sentences. The two remaining sub-tests: initialised signs and finger spelling tests also correlated with reading skills, but only modestly. Consequently, Padden and Ramsey (2000) concluded that "knowledge of specific ASL structures correlates with reading achievement" (p. 167).
Hoffmeister (2000) investigated the relationship between ASL knowledge and reading skills in 78 deaf students: 17 with deaf parents and 61 with hearing parents. The participants whose ages ranged from 8-15 years were drawn from a residential and a day school program. The different settings were chosen to enable corroboration of findings. Hoffmeister (2000) first assessed the ASL knowledge of the students using three receptive language measures: ASL synonyms, antonyms and plural quantifiers. Secondly, he evaluated the reading comprehension of 50 of these participants using the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-HI) normed for the deaf children. This second refined sample had two sets of participants: one group with intensive ASL exposure (n = 21) and another with limited ASL exposure (n = 29). Additionally, 36 of these participants had hearing parents while 14 had deaf parents. All 50 participants had a minimum of severe hearing loss. Hoffmeister (2000) found that students exposed to a rich ASL environment performed better than those exposed to a poor one. Furthermore, when he partialled out the effect of age, he found significant, positive correlation between the performance on ASL tasks and reading scores on SAT-HI. In a more recent study, Freel, Clark, Anderson, Gilbert, Musyoka & Hauser, (2011) also found a positive correlation between American Sign Language (ASL) and English literacy. These researchers investigated the bilingual abilities of 55 deaf individuals examining both the ASL competence and English reading skills.
This body of literature indicates consistently that there is a relationship between native sign language and English literacy acquisition. The reliability of the findings in these studies confirmed by the similarity of results across the tasks and studies (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000). One limitation of these successful corroborative studies, however, is that they have been carried out in developed countries deploying advanced technology including "superior amplification mechanisms - cochlear implants and newborn hearing screening that ensures detection of hearing loss within a day of birth" (Mayer & Leigh, 2010, p. 182). One would, therefore, be hesitant to generalise these results to developing countries, like Kenya, which lack advanced technologies that would ensure early identification and intervention.
|School||Grade 8||Grade 7||Grade 6||Total|
The five sub-tests that made up the English literacy test were individually administered and measured sentence completion, text comprehension, word recognition, vocabulary and English language basics as follows.
The participants' Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) proficiency skills were assessed using the following sub-tests:
The scoring process was followed by analysis of the KSL data. After each child participated in the three sub-tests (story retelling, interview and peer interaction) of the adapted American Sign Language Proficiency Assessment tool, the child's video recording was analysed by three assessors who were KSL signers with considerable linguistic competence. As the assessors viewed the three discourse segments of the video, they searched for 20 KSL target features. A single occurrence of a target feature prompted the assessor to enter a "1" in the box associated with the target feature on a record sheet. Once the target feature had been identified, the assessor moved on, no longer needing to search for that particular target in the child's discourse segments. If, after reviewing the three discourse segments, the target feature was not observed, the assessor entered a "0" in the corresponding box. A child's individual score was then determined by adding up the total number ones. The results from the three assessors were then averaged. The results defined three levels of KSL proficiency: Level 1 - lowest proficiency category (0-9 marks), Level 2 - moderate proficiency category (10-14 marks), Level 3 - highest proficiency category (15 marks and above).
|Gender||Kenyan Sign Language (KSL)||Total|
To ascertain whether there was a correlation between English literacy and KSL proficiency, a scatterplot was generated and visually inspected. This inspection revealed a positive correlation between English literacy and KSL.
|≤ 6||≥ 7|
|AFEK = Age of first exposure to Kenyan Sign Language|
Data collected indicated that most of the participants 45 (75%) were exposed to KSL at the age of seven or above. Only 15 (25%) were exposed by the age of six.
Figure 1: Scatterplot of KSL scores against English literacy
To gauge the weight and direction of the linear correlation between English literacy and KSL, a bivariate Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficient (r) was computed. Results confirmed that there was a significant positive correlation between English literacy and KSL, r = .47, n = 60, p < .01 two tails (Table 5).
The correlation between the dependent variable (English literacy) and the independent variables (KSL proficiency and AFEK) was investigated. This correlation was found to be significant at .47 and .44 respectively. Additionally, the correlation between the independent variables KSL proficiency and AFEK was low (.18) an indication that the multicolinearity assumption had not been violated (Table 5).
|Subscale||English literacy||KSL proficiency||AFEK|
|** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).|
AFEK = age of first exposure to Kenyan Sign Language.
|School A||School B||School C||School D|
|* Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
This positive correlation varied in strength from school to school. The r2 values of 0.42 and 0.38 for Schools A and B respectively indicate a large correlation. School C had a medium correlation, r2 = .17, while School D had the smallest correlation, r2 = .05 (Table 7).
In step 1 of the hierarchical MRA, the hearing levels were entered and accounted for a non-significant 6% of the variance in English literacy, R2 = .06. In step 2, KSL and AFEK were added to the regression equation and accounted for an additional 32% of the variance in English literacy, ΔR2 = .32, ΔF(2, 56) = 14.50, p < .001. In combination, the three predictor variables explained 38% of the variance in literacy, R2 = .382, adjusted R2 = .349, F (3, 56) = 11.53, p < .001. However, with the effects of the hearing levels controlled for, both KSL and AFEK made statistically significant contributions. KSL was the best predictor (beta = .40) followed by AFEK (beta = .34). In other words KSL and AFEK were still strong predictors of English literacy when the hearing levels are controlled for.
|Step 1: Hearing levels||7.55||3.84||.25||2.0||.05|
|Step 2: Hearing levels||5.32||3.2||.18||1.7||.102|
|Note: R2 = .06 for step 1; ΔR2 = .32 for step 2 (ps < .0001)|
Establishing the relationship between KSL and English literacy was important because it corroborated findings from previous studies and demonstrated that sign languages aid in English literacy acquisition. Previous literature indicates that native sign language performance correlates positively with literacy (Hoffmeister, 2000; Padden & Ramsey, 1998, 2000; Singleton et al., 1998; Strong & Prinz, 1997, 2000). These studies, using different measures, all converged on one conclusion: good native sign language skills contribute to better literacy (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000). This literature is consistent with the findings of the current study which found a significant positive relationship between KSL and English literacy.
In this sample, the correlation between KSL and English literacy was positively significant and accounted for 22% of variance, equivalent to a medium effect size r2 = 0.22 (Gravetter & Wallanau, 2009). High scores in KSL correlated with high scores in English literacy and vice versa, while low scores in KSL paired with low scores in English literacy. When this performance was broken down to schools, however, the strength of correlation differed from school to school although the direction remained the same, positively significant. In other words, the high scorers in KSL were still scoring high in English literacy. Two schools had a large correlational effect size in terms of KSL and English literacy, one had a medium one, while another one had a small effect size that was still significant.
This finding is further supported by the more in-depth analysis of data in this study. When hearing levels were controlled for, KSL stood out as the main predictor of the variance in English literacy, thus supporting literature indicating that mastery of sign language could be of benefit to deaf children aiming at becoming literate in English (Andrew, Hoshooley & Joannise, 2014; Hoffmeister, 2000; Padden & Ramsey, 1998, 2000; Singleton et al., 1998; Strong & Prinz, 1997, 2000).
First languages are normally acquired, not taught. But then again, first languages are acquired spontaneously at birth, not delayed as is the case with deaf children. If proficiency in KSL is a determining factor when it comes to English literacy, then early exposure of deaf children to settings where KSL is used extensively should be maximised. More deaf teachers should be employed in schools for the deaf to act as role models. This, in turn, will enable and enhance the learning process.
Though Kenya as a country has made strides with regard to special education, entrenched negative stereotypes and attitudes remain. There is need for more education of the general population and those closest to deaf students. This will go a long way towards ensuring changes of attitude in society. One way to go about this is to encourage parents, teachers and the community at large to learn KSL. Learning the deaf child's language has enormous social and educational benefits. Apart from making the child feel appreciated, it ensures that s/he benefits from interaction which is one of the keys to language development.
The Kenyan language policy in terms of education is such that mother tongue or the language of the catchment area is used in lower primary. This policy is designed to help ease the children from the different tribes in Kenya into English gradually. Similarly, KSL could be used as a language of instruction in lower primary so that deaf children can use it as a bridge to English literacy acquisition. Finally, Kenya lacks screening equipment that would establish children's hearing status at birth. For deaf children to attain proficiency in sign language, they need to be identified early - at birth so that intervention can take place immediately in terms of language exposure. The government needs to equip hospitals Kenya with audiometers for screening new born babies. This way parents who realise that their baby is deaf can start learning sign language early and communicate with the child during the critical sensitive period of language development.
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|Authors: Lillie J. Aura (corresponding author) is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Moi University, Kenya. She completed her MEd thesis at the The University of Western Australia's Graduate School of Education in 2011. Her areas of research interest are sign language linguistics and inclusive education for deaf students.|
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Professor Grady Venville is the Dean of Coursework Studies at the University of Western Australia where she is responsible across the institution for the academic quality and integrity of all coursework. Her research expertise is in education with particular interests in cognitive acceleration, conceptual change and curriculum integration.
Dr Ida Marais is a Senior Research Fellow in Education at the Graduate School of Education, University of Western Australia. Her primary areas of research interest are psychological and educational measurement, quantitative research methods and in particular, the Rasch model as psychometric method for analysis of test and questionnaire data.
Please cite as: Aura, L. J., Venville, G. & Marais, I. (2016). The relationship between Kenyan Sign Language and English literacy. Issues in Educational Research, 26(2), 165-181. http://www.iier.org.au/iier26/aura.html