The Challengers By John Walker

The academics who spoke out against the assumed success of oral methods of education and challenged the myths.

Mary Brennan (1944 - 2005), Moray House, Edinburgh

Photo:Dr. Mary Brennan, when she received an honorary award from the British Deaf Association

Dr. Mary Brennan, when she received an honorary award from the British Deaf Association


There were questions whether deaf children could naturally acquire a language from their parents. The evidence suggested at the time that deafness caused the late development of language, in a sense that language acquisition was impaired.

In 1977, Mary Brennan, researched into deaf families, who were all deaf; she explored the language they used and how language was passed from parent to child. It was found that these families used a common language, BSL. Also, the language was naturally acquired in a family environment: the parents would teach their children their signs in the same way that hearing families would pass down English. Mary's work challenged the common perspective that deaf children could not naturally acquire language, deaf children can acquire any language they have access to; such as a visual/manual language like BSL. English, as an oral/aural language, was hard for deaf children to access because they can not hear.

We now know that a deaf child in a hearing family could experience delayed progress because they are unable to access the informal interactions in the family, which is essential to language and cognitive development (Theory of Mind).

Reuben Conrad, Oxford University, research on deaf education

Conrad published in two areas of research which challenged the status quo of the pure oral methods of education. In 1977, Conrad discovered that deaf children's lipreading skills, after 12 years of training in oral schools, fared no better than their hearing peers.

Conrad also assessed deaf children's reading skills and checked if they were at the appropriate level according to their age. He discovered that, statistically, deaf children left school with a reading age of 8 3/4, which falls far below the typical reading age of 15 to 18 for hearing children. The emphasis on logocentric methods of education (emphasis on oral language rather than written language), has not resulted with the improvements they were hoping to achieve.

We now know that deaf people had better English in the past, when fingerspelling was commonly used and sign language was used as a means to introduce the written language to deaf children. The pre-requisite to Ovingdean Hall, the Brighton Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, frequently used this approach (interview 1887) but it was later dropped after the Newbolt Report (1921), when the phonetic instruction of English was introduced.

Still today, deaf children's reading ability still falls far short of their hearing peers. It is suspected that the reading age has increased to a level similar to a 12 years old. As a majority of deaf children attend a mainstream school with additional support, recent research indicates that secondary education is the time when deaf children fall short of the expected levels.

Conrad published a book, 'The Deaf School Child', which incapsulates these ideas.


Photo:Dr. Paddy Ladd

Dr. Paddy Ladd

Signall 2 project

The National Union of the Deaf was founded in Wimbledon on March 13th, 1976, and it began with a meetings of shared ideas and hopes/fears. Its aim was "To Restore the Rights of the Deaf" and started as a pressure group; usually focussed on issues of sign language and deaf engagement in decisions that effect deaf people.

They set up a campaign to spread Total Communication and were very active in promoting signing in school. They leafleted conferences and gatherings of teachers and were highly critical of what has gone on before.

"By the use of the oral-only system, you are killing and impoverishing the deaf world. This does not mean that the younger deaf are joining the hearing worlds. No; it means that they come to us emotionally and socially retarded, offering older deaf no new ideas nor even the ability to accept responsibility. The greatest disadvantage of the oral system is that it creates in our language, the 'Dummification Process'." (Ladd, 1976, 2nd letter to Teachers)

This page was added on 26/09/2012.

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