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February 12, 2004

Deaf students learning on cue

From: Pioneer Press Online - Glenview,IL,USA - Feb 12, 2004


Greg Hubert, the child of two deaf parents and the parent of two deaf children, has his reservations about teaching sign language.

Deaf children who spend 12 years in school learning sign language often have poor reading skills, Hubert says. And when deaf children are born to hearing parents, teaching the child to sign sometimes leads to a language gap within the family.

Hubert, a Naperville resident, however, supports an alternative communication approach - cued speech. Hubert is the board president for the READ Educational Center in Mount Prospect, which has a cued speech program at the Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School.

Cued speech uses hand gestures as a visual supplement to lip reading, clarifying similar-looking syllables. Advocates call it a powerful tool to help children who are deaf and hard of hearing to learn to read more quickly.

The Alexander Graham Bell School is the only private school in the country where hearing children and those who are deaf and hard of hearing learn side by side using cued speech. The school, however, faces a budget crisis with a $100,000 deficit. That must be addressed in the next two months or the school will have to make cuts to its programs, Hubert said.

Nancy Burke, Director of programs for READ, says cued speech is unlike learning a new language but more similar to coding a language. Certain words, like "bat," "pat" and "mat" would look nearly identical on the lips, and while an adult lip reader could fill in the gaps through context, a prelingual child would need a cue to know exactly what was being said.

"Anything you can say, you can cue," Burke said. "The kids are actually receiving English in a way that is phonetically coded." This allows the child a higher verbal understanding and vocabulary base, leading to better reading skills.

"I've seen the power of it," Burke said. "It's not a miracle. It's a wonderful tool that helps children learn English."

Taught in a day

"It's exciting to watch a kid learn to read," added cued speech teacher Debbie Blackburn. "It's great to see them get excited that they've finally read a book." Blackburn talks proudly of Drake Darrah, 10, a deaf boy who has read every book in the school's library. He would not have had that reading skill if he had been in a signing program, she said.

A deaf child who knows cued speech can use it to learn a foreign language, and can also learn formal American Sign Language, Burke said. "Some kids get three worlds," Burke said, communicating in cued speech, sign language and the hearing world.

Cued speech can be taught in a day, Burke said, but it takes three to six months to be able to cue as fast as you can speak - a process similar to learning a new keyboard.

Cued speech was developed in 1965 by Dr. Orrin Cornett, a professor of math, physics and electronics. Cornett was researching at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., when he realized that children who are deaf and hard of hearing were lagging in their reading scores far behind children who could hear. It was clear that deaf children have difficulty learning the complexities of a language through lip reading alone.

Using his mathematical background, Cornett set out on a way to make English visually clear. The system he developed combines hand cues with the mouth so that no sounds would look the same.

READ formed

The cued speech program at READ was formed about 20 years ago by a group of parents looking for an option that wasn't available in public schools, Hubert said. They saw cued speech as a way to get individualized instruction for the child. The program eventually grew into its own school 17 years ago, and has been in its current location since 1990, Hubert said.

Current medical technologies give children who are born with hearing loss the best opportunities ever, Hubert said. Children can be diagnosed with hearing problems at birth, and they can be fitted with cochlea implants as young as seven months old, he said.

Advocates for cued speech hope that families with deaf children will learn that it is an option available to them. Currently, "families don't hear about it," Hubert said. "They don't realize that learning sign language will make it more difficult for their children to read."

"Without a doubt, sign language is a great social language. It's a more practical and natural form of communication for deaf people," Hubert said. But "teaching sign language alone, I believe, denies that child the opportunity to succeed in a society that is overwhelmingly English-language."

Hubert said the school is looking at options to close its budget deficit. To that end, it is trying to "raise awareness in the community so we can increase our student base and find additional supporters."

The school holds monthly workshops to help adults learned more about cued speech. Call (847) 297-3206 for more information.

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