The National Deaf Education Conference: Teachings in Bilingualism and Kindergarten Readiness

This post is written by Susan Kimmerly, Nine East Network Director, and Jen Bostwick, Nine East Network Community Outreach Coordinator and DHH Consultant


We were thrilled to attend the 1st Annual National Deaf Education Conference in Phoenix, Arizona from July 6th through July 8th, 2016.


The conference, sponsored by the National Association for the Deaf (NAD), Galludet University, and others, focused on teaching practices and new ways for Deaf children to gain greater access to ASL.


Ultimately, what this conference instilled in both of us was a deeper appreciation of the meaning, value, and prevalence of bilingualism — not just for deaf children, but also for children with moderate and severe hearing loss.


Two of the keynote speakers, Dr. Carla García-Fernández and Dr. Laurene E. Simms, expounded upon a framework for good instructional practices, regardless of the hearing status of the student.


Drs. García-Fernández and Simms discussed the move toward generative and transformational instruction, where students use what they learn to make decisions and judgements, and where the experiences incorporate multicultural perspectives. They highlighted the ways in which this type of instruction has proven effective.


In addition, they promoted a social action and advocacy approach to engender active citizenship in their students. This discussion provided a stimulating foundation for the other workshops.


The Big Take-Home Message: Recognize the Full Value of Bilingualism


The second day of the conference focused on how to promote bilingualism for individuals who are Deaf.


Keynote speaker Dr. Maribel Gárate presented on the value of bilingualism and bi-culturalism, the types of bilingualism, and the prevalence of bilingualism.


Based on the available information from the world’s population, 65% are proficient in more than one language (52%: bilingual; 13% multilingual).  These statistics, however, do not extend to the United States, where only 20% are bilingual, and the remaining 80% are mono-lingual.


Sadly, the U.S. is behind the rest of the world in seeing the value of bilingualism.  This plays into why bilingualism in Deaf education has been, and continues to be, somewhat of an “uphill” battle across the country.


Dr. Gárate used an analogy of a bicycle to convey her message about bilingualism. We used to think of bilingualism like a high-wheeler bicycle, where the big tire is our first language and the much-smaller tire is our second language.


In this way, the first language was seen as the stronger component, “more important” than the second language.


The hope is to transition to a modern bicycle, with two identical tires, where the first and second languages are equal in working together.


Gárate’s goal is for bilingualism to become like a high-speed motorbike, where children and adults can power through life, quickly shifting from their first and second languages as necessary to meet their needs at each moment in time.


As deaf educators in the U.S., we have often tended to see ASL as merely “a way to improve the children’s English skills.”


We now need to embrace the shift that is already underway — seeing both first and second languages as equal and working together, depending on the child needs in a given situation.


Many of the points we heard about good instruction and the value of bilingualism apply to our children with moderate to severe hearing loss, who may experience diminished hearing over their lifetime.  It would be most beneficial for them to have access to bilingualism, to ensure they can use ASL with ease whenever needed.


Another Important Take-Home: Kindergarten Readiness Makes a Difference


We were both very excited to learn about the LEAD-K program: Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids.


LEAD-K is an initiative in many states that ensures that Deaf children are Kindergarten-ready by age 5.


This campaign is an important response to research showing that language deprivation or delays between ages 0 and 5 are the leading cause of many Deaf children’s eventual reading, academic, and social struggles.


The aim is to best promote language development in these early years by exposing children who are deaf to the rich visual language of ASL in addition to English.


We believe that Vermont that the ability to make the all Deaf children Kindergarten-ready by the age of 5.


Our experience at the 1st Annual Deaf Education Conference strengthened our conviction to promote bilingualism among Vermont’s deaf babies through their language development years and ensure they are ready for Kindergarten.


We returned home, inspired to put what we learned at the National Deaf Education Conference into action here in Vermont.


Learn more about the National Deaf Education Conference here.


Learn more about the LEAD-K Initiative and download their At-A-Glance document.