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The Impact of the Primary Use of Sign Language on Academic Writing Skills

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

by Hafsah A. Khan


This paper discusses the unique set of challenges deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) individuals encounter relating to the transfer of language between signed and spoken languages. The differences in the mental processing of sign language and spoken language are explored. According to the literature, DHH people have significantly lower reading/writing proficiency in English as compared to their hearing peers. Hence, to bridge the gap between the literacy skills of hearing and DHH people, suitable teaching methods must be employed to aid the literacy learning of DHH people. Moreover, there is a critical requirement for more evidence-based research on the impact of sign language on the use of written English. The paper proposes that once these effects are understood, effective teaching methods that cater to the specialized requirements of DHH students may be developed. Additionally, the intervention of universities and writing centres to improve the academic writing of DHH students is also discussed.

Key words: Deaf, Hard-of hearing, academic writing, signed languages

The Impact of the Primary Use of Sign Language on Academic Writing Skills

In an academic setting under English instruction, individuals are expected to deliver coherent, comprehensive writing in English. Most students graduating from university are expected to know how to write an effective academic paper. Yet, when considering DHH students who depend primarily on sign language for communicating, it may not be reasonable to expect the same. Currently, there are nearly 466 million DHH people around the world; this includes deaf people who have severe hearing loss and hard of hearing people whose hearing loss may range from mild to severe (WHO, 2020). Sign languages are highly developed and do not limit DHH from expressing complex ideas; however, DHH students face a unique set of challenges when it comes to academic writing. The challenges faced by DHH students are underrepresented; hence, for this paper I want to explore how the use of sign language affects academic writing for them. I have always had a deep fascination towards the impact of languages on our thought process. I wonder how the thought process of a DHH person who has used sign language for the entirety of their life differs from a person who uses spoken language. Does the primary use of sign language impact DHH students’ ability to transmit their ideas in written English? What factors affect their proficiency in written English? In this paper, the input of researchers and academic instructors will be used to determine whether the use of sign language affects DHH students’ ability to write effectively in English. The challenges faced by DHH students related to bilingualism in sign language and English may be reduced by employing suitable teaching methods from a young age enabling individuals to develop essential literacy skills that are required for adequate performance at educational institutes and workplaces.

Mental Processing of Sign Language versus Spoken Language

In order to discuss whether the use of sign language affects a DHH student’s written English, we must first study whether brain activity is any different in people who use sign language compared to those who use spoken language. Neville et al. (1992) conducted experiments to obtain neurobiological evidence of how the brain of congenitally deaf subjects responded to semantic and grammatical information as compared to hearing adults. In their study, the researchers used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to determine the difference in brain processing by exploring American Sign Language (ASL) sentence processing in deaf native signers and compared their findings of hearing speakers reading English. Two classes of processing were examined; semantic processing, which includes the processes whereby words refer to specific objects and events, and grammatical processes, which includes the rules and processes whereby relations between objects and events are specified. The waveform corresponding to semantic processing showed a similar time course and distribution for both ASL processing in deaf signers and reading English in hearing, non-signers. However, responses to grammatical information was bilateral rather than left sided in deaf participants. Since grammatical information is associated with syntactic processing, this suggests that the processing of some syntax-related elements in ASL might involve both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as opposed to left-localized activation that was observed for hearing non-signers reading English. The difference in processing grammatical information suggests that the neural systems for DHH individuals are inherently different than those of hearing individuals.

In a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) study by Bavelier et al. (2001), the processing of a series of visual stimuli including static, dimming dots and dimming dots undergoing acceleration was studied. It was found that visual attention to the stimuli was more efficient in deaf than in hearing people, even though both groups being studied were signers. This shows that the deaf brain is driven to enhance its attention to visual events as a consequence of hearing loss. Moreover, in a similar test conducted by Fine et al. (2005), it was observed through fMRIs that the movement of visible dot patterns caused activation in the auditory cortex in the superior temporal lobe, the region that supports hearing in hearing people. Greater activation has been observed in this region in DHH people as compared to hearing signers when watching British Sign Language (BSL) (MacSweeney et al., 2004). The apparent difference suggests that the “unused” auditory cortex can be colonized by vision in DHH people.

The brain specializes and self-enhances to adapt and hone in an individual’s strengths. It seems likely that it is the specialized requirements of language processing itself, including composition, syntax, and the requirements of generating a communicable form for transmitting ideas, that determine the final form of the language circuits in the brain. Though there is a lot of overlap in the regions of the brain that are engaged during signed and spoken language processing, little is known about how exactly the processing differs (Richardson, 2018). The use of sign languages may activate different parts of the brain when compared to brain activation when spoken language is used; however, researchers are still exploring how the apparent differences affect the linguistic computations and language perception for DHH people.

Impact of the Use of Sign Language on Academic Writing

The discrete differences in brain processing of DHH people when using sign language may be used to understand why they need support from an early age so that they develop both sign language and a written form of language. Hearing loss of any kind can slow a child's development, so it is crucial to identify it as early as possible. Once hearing loss is identified, children may receive the necessary support early on which would minimize the effects of hearing loss on their linguistic and social development and on their future academic performance. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the average age of diagnosis of congenital hearing loss is between 14 months and 3 years in the US (2010). The NIDCD also mentions that unidentified hearing loss can have a significantly adverse effect on the academic performance of children; except for DHH children with deaf parents, late identification means years of language deprivation for the child. Moreover, DHH people whose deafness is unidentified at a young age often have increased rates of academic failure and greater need for educational assistance.

When DHH school-going students are assessed through standardized tests, they show low proficiency in reading/writing. As reported by the Taylor (2016), in the results from the 2013 California Standards Test, about 35% of hard of hearing students scored at/above their grade level in reading/writing English whereas only 18% of deaf students scored at/above their grade level. These results illustrate that nearly 70% of DHH students have low proficiency in reading/writing. Without age-appropriate reading and writing skills, students may not be able to participate in the classroom and are at a higher risk for academic failure, which may lead to issues with social adjustment and employment.

In a very elaborate, large-scale study conducted over the course of three decades (1974-2003), the results of the Stanford Achievement Test for Hearing Impaired (SAT-HI) were used to examine the academic standing of about 30,000 DHH students (Qi & Mitchell, 2011). Through the patterns observed, the researchers learned that there was an apparent achievement gap between DHH students and hearing students. In the SAT results, reading skills of DHH students from the age of 8 to 18 years never exceeded fourth-grade level. The gap for literacy skills is extremely large as even 18-year-old candidates performed at the fourth-grade level. Several studies report that approximately half of deaf students in the United States were reading below the fourth grade level at the time of their high school graduation with only about 7% of deaf high school graduates reading at the seventh grade level or above (Traxler, 2000; Cawthon, 2004 ). The disparity in academic performance would have a significant impact on DHH students’ ability to perform well at university level. Students whose literacy is equivalent to that of a fourth grader’s cannot be expected to write effective academic papers at the university level. Much more support is required to enable DHH students to achieve an appropriate level of literacy skills.

Additionally, DHH individuals have a different set of phonological processing skills than hearing individuals which may explain why they lack in literacy skills. Communication through sign language does not involve the same organization and structure as spoken or written language. As explained by Aronoff et al. (2005), the speed of transmission of information is slower in sign language than in spoken language; however, the simultaneous presentation of information aids and visual and cognitive processing helps improve the efficiency of sign language. The simultaneous presentation in sign language differs from the linear presentation in spoken or written languages which may also be a factor that negatively impacts DHH individuals’ ability to write effectively. Consequently, in addition to assistance with vocabulary, syntax, and discourse-level abilities, DHH students require additional support to develop higher order skills in writing such as sentence structure, essay organization, argument presentation, and text coherence (Spencer et al., 2003).

Although the details of how exactly brain processing may impact the literacy skills of DHH individuals are unknown, two possible reasons for differences in language proficiency in DHH students as compared to their hearing peers could be the following: DHH students are not able to engage in language experiences comparable to that of their peers with normal hearing abilities, and teaching practices on reading and writing are not sufficiently developed to cater to their individual needs (Most, Aram & Andorn, 2006; Wolbers, 2007). In some cases, hearing aids or cochlear implants may help improve DHH students’ oral language skills (Kurasu, 2017); however, more than anything, DHH students require improved educational support so that they can acquire the proper written language skills.

Methods for Improving Writing Skills of DHH students

Effective teaching methods need to be employed to develop the literacy skills of DHH students. The previously mentioned evidence is proof that there is a large learning gap between DHH students and hearing students, and teaching methods need to be tailored to suitably cater to each student. Bilingual learning and Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI) have been deemed to significantly support DHH learning (Swanwick, 2015; Dostal & Wolbers, 2014; Beijsterveldt & Van Hell, 2012). More research must be conducted to determine the effectiveness of these teaching methods; however, the teaching methods have been recommended to support the literacy development of DHH students.

An individual’s first language tends to impact their communication in a second language; this may be referred to as a ‘bilingualism effect’. A bilingual educational approach, in which DHH children are given the opportunity to learn sign language and spoken/written languages, aims to help DHH students communicate well in both languages. The bilingual approach has also been referred to as ‘sign bilingual’ and ‘bilingual bicultural’ (Marschark & Lee, 2014). This approach is expected to benefit DHH students because it is quite essential for them to communicate effectively in both languages, considering English is the global language used by educational institutes and companies worldwide. Bilingual proficiency would ideally help DHH people pursue the same opportunities as hearing people.

As explained by Hermans et al., even though ASL and English are dissimilar, there is an associative transfer of semantic and grammatical information between the languages for bilingual users (2010). Moreover, the concept of transfer between languages may be observed through the influence of sign language on writing and the extent to which DHH children draw on their visual-spatial resources to support the writing process across differences in modality between English and sign language. Signed English (SE) and Signed Exact English (SEE) are two examples of systematically codified language systems that were developed to acquaint DHH people with the grammatical and syntactic features of English (Swanwick, 2015). In SEE and SE, signs from ASL or BSL are incorporated along with invented manual signs for morphemes and other grammatical features. SE and SEE aim to incorporate various features of the English language that do not exist in sign language in order to familiarize DHH students with technical aspects written English. The use of SE and SEE should ideally help DHH students improve their writing skills; however, evidence-based data is not available to prove that this method works.

An elegant and simple method used for developing English vocabulary is ‘chaining’, wherein DHH people use word association between sign language and written vocabulary (Hermans et al, 2008). Chaining is done by essentially translating between ASL and written English through fingerspelling which helps make connections between the two languages so that the DHH student’s vast vocabulary in sign can be transferred for use in written English. Hermans et al. emphasize that the reading development of DHH children is very important because it is the foundation for their written English in the future. Hence, chaining can be implemented from a young age through reading English and making those connections to help DHH children develop excellent English vocabulary over the years.

Another approach to develop the literacy skills of DHH students is Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI). According to the official SIWI website, “SIWI is an evidence-based framework for writing instruction specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students” (“Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction,” n.d.). The SIWI approach comprises of three main principles: “(1) strategic instruction rooted in cognitive theories of composing, (2) interactive instruction based on sociocultural theories of teaching and learning, and (3) metalinguistic knowledge and linguistic competence drawn from language acquisition theory” (“About Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction,” n.d.). Upon studying the impact of SIWI on the development of ASL and written English, Dostal and Wolbers (2014) found that focusing on building the proficiency of both languages simultaneously resulted in improvement in both language and writing. Findings from their study implied that if a group of students has diverse language proficiencies, an interactive environment enables the collective comprehension of an idea through each student’s unique understanding and unique way of communicating. Moreover, the interactive approach across varied languages and modalities builds students’ awareness of language and connections between English and sign language.

Introduction to academic ASL may be another way to improve the academic writing skills of DHH students. Even though minimal research is available on the advanced academic writing of DHH students at the university level, it must be acknowledged that there is a version of ‘academic ASL’ that is used in certain settings to teach advanced, abstract concepts (Harris, 2017). However, since it is not widely used, DHH students generally do not have sufficient access to academic forms of ASL even in deaf education settings. Increasing opportunities to work with academic ASL would provide students with the resources necessary to begin building these academic language skills, which may later be transferred into written academic English. Early introduction to such resources would help improve literacy skills of DHH students so that they may have equal proficiency in written English as their hearing peers.

Since schooling systems have had little success in helping DHH students, DHH students pursuing higher education may not have the required academic writing skills to be assessed at the same scale as hearing students. Universities may develop specialized courses which aim to help DHH students with their writing proficiency. Extremely limited research is available on the effects of various teaching methods as results vary on a case-by-case basis. Each student has their own set of needs, so it is difficult to conclusively comment on which methods are superior; however, various approaches can be explored by institutions in an attempt to learn what works best for each category of DHH students. Moreover, writing centres at universities could assist the literacy development of DHH students by having bilingual tutors (i.e. tutors who are fluent in sign language and English) on staff. Even though bilingual hearing tutors may not truly understand the challenges faced by DHH students, they may be able to cater to DHH students’ individualized profiles and help improve their writing skills over a period of time.

Extensive research is required to understand the needs of DHH students with respect to written English. Evidence-based data is required to determine the methods that educational institutes may employ in order to support DHH literacy development. It is a challenge to design a curriculum for bilingual learning; however, a solution must be found for this growing population of DHH people. Moreover, further research on the impact of the use of sign language on written English may help establish suitable teaching methods.


Academic writing skills are essential for pursuing higher education and various work opportunities. DHH people encounter exceptional challenges when it comes to literacy skills. The mental processing of sign language is apparently different from that of spoken languages, which may affect DHH people to communicate in spoken languages. There is extensive evidence showing that DHH students perform at a much lower level than their hearing peers, and this large discrepancy in literacy skills may be attributed to the lack of effective teaching methods to support DHH learning. Subsequently, SIWI and bilingual learning may prove to be effective methods to improve literacy skills of DHH students; however, there is no conclusive answer to which teaching methods are most effective. Further research is required to determine the impact of the use of sign language on written English to develop altered curriculums that do justice to the DHH students and provide them with specialized, quality education. It is unfortunate that schooling systems have not been developed to the required extent so that DHH students may academically excel and have access to the same opportunities as hearing students. Nevertheless, conducting further research and testing various teaching methods may provide the necessary results to reduce the literacy gap between hearing and DHH students.


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