Joanna Hoskin, Hilary Dumbrill, Wolfgang Mann

Distinguishing Between Language Difference and Language Disorder in Deaf Children who use Signed Language

Joanna Hoskin1, Hilary Dumbrill2, Wolfgang Mann3

1City, University of London, UK

2 Hamilton Lodge School and College, Brighton, UK

3 University of Roehampton, UK




Abstract: This paper provides an overview of the use of dynamic assessment (DA) with deaf children who use signed language. It starts with background information about deaf children, including their language learning experiences, the Deaf community, and the community language culture. This provides the context for why the use of DA is important for this group of children. In order to link these background topics for a clinical or educational setting, a practitioner’s dilemma when assessing a deaf child’s language is described next. A brief overview of dynamic assessment and its history is then given. Two case studies provide examples which link theories with practical application of the DA processes. The paper concludes with a summary of the next steps needed to share DA techniques and ensure deaf children’s language is assessed within the context of their individual language learning environments. This includes taking account of the skills of the child’s communication partners, their competence in using mediated learning techniques with the child, and the child’s individual ability to benefit from intervention and demonstrate changes in their language use. This collaborative work on DA between researchers and practitioners provides a model for the iterative process of everyday practice, informing the evidence seeking process via research.

Keywords: deaf children; dynamic assessment; signed language; researcher/practitioner collaboration

1. Introduction

The authors of this paper have been working together for several years to develop evidence-based practice, practice-based evidence, accessible information and child-focused interventions linked to dynamic assessment. As researchers and clinical speech and language therapists working with deaf children in a variety of health and education settings, their shared expertise has helped take research-based tools and adapt them for use in functional settings with children. Additionally, this work has helped identify ways to support others to use dynamic assessment methods and shown steps for future work.

When assessing deaf children and their use of signed language, consideration of the individual’s strengths and needs is paramount. Two cases described in a research study (Mann, Peña, & Morgan, 2014) highlight how two children with below average scores on a standardised American Sign Language test can have very different language learning difficulties, and therefore, different support needs. When teachers and speech and language therapists meet such children in their everyday practice, their understanding of the child’s language needs and context will underpin intervention and progress.

1.1 Deaf children

As with all children, deaf children have their individual needs and strengths. Some deaf children develop language following a typical development path, however, a sub-population of deaf children may have additional needs linked to the cause of their deafness (Inscoe & Bones, 2016). For many children, the diagnosis of deafness is unexpected by parents. Approximately 95% of deaf children are born into families with no history or experience of deafness (Mitchel and Karchmer, 2004). Currently, for children diagnosed as deaf at an early age, the initial contact parents have with services is through audiology staff. This sets parents on a path dominated by the ‘medical model’ of deafness, where hearing loss is viewed as a disability that needs to be ‘fixed’ and all focus is on minimising or eliminating an inability to hear (Young et al., 2006; Young et al., 2005). Consequently, hearing-aid and cochlear implant centres may not place their primary focus on the language development of children but, instead, on their audiological management (Humphries et al., 2012). Although parents have the right to decide on the pathway of intervention they follow for their children, the lack of information or access to services often makes a truly informed choice difficult for them. For the parents of children with complex needs such as autism, learning disability or sensory processing disorder, it can be challenging to understand how parental choices during the early years impact on the child’s language development within what is considered the ‘critical language learning period’.

1.2 Learning language as a deaf child

Deaf children, like all children learning language, have a period when their brain is more receptive to language learning opportunities (Twomey, et al 2020; Veríssimo, et al 2018). Depending on parental knowledge of a signed language, deaf children may have no exposure to a signed language in their early years, and a child’s access to spoken language will be dependent on their hearing and listening skills (Marriage, Brown, & Austin, 2017), where hearing levels indicate the sounds a child can perceive and listening skills describe the sounds a child can understand and attribute meaning to. For the 5% of deaf children who are born into a family with experience of deafness, a signed language may provide full access to a language model from birth and through the aforementioned critical language learning period. For parents who choose to learn a signed language after their child has been diagnosed as deaf, it means that they will be learning a language alongside their child and being their role model although such role models are not equivalent to a (deaf) parent who is a fluent signer (Lu, Jones, & Morgan, 2016). Some children who have exposure to a signed language in their early years may only see language used by their immediate family. Other deaf children who use a signed language may have access to peers, family members and a community who sign if they are born as part of the Deaf community or if their parents make choices that allow this kind of access.

1.3 Deaf community

In the UK Deaf community, British Sign Language (BSL) is the dominant language for everyday communication. The British Deaf Association estimates 87,000 people prefer to use BSL and 151,000 people use BSL at home ( accessed 24.12.2020). This second figure includes people such as hearing family members of Deaf people. Members of the Deaf community have a strong sense of identity linked to their Deafness, the history of Deaf people, and their status as a minority community (Ladd & Lane, 2013).

1.4 Deaf community language culture

In the UK, there are mainstream schools which the majority of children attend, hearing and deaf. There are local day special schools for various learning difficulties and, relatively few, residential special schools ( 29.12.20) which serve regions of the country. Residential special schools for deaf children have seen a declining trend over recent years due to the government’s philosophy of inclusion in mainstream schools for all ( 29.12.20), cochlear implantation as a ‘fix’ for deafness, and the costs to local councils of educating a child in a residential specialist facility. However, residential special schools for deaf children have been acknowledged for many years as strong deaf communities in themselves both linguistically and culturally (Ladd, 2018). They offer deaf children the opportunity to learn and communicate in the language of the wider deaf community in the UK: BSL, and support children to learn about the rich heritage and day to day lives (and struggles) of deaf people. Identity and community are very important to mental health. Everyone needs a language, a means of communication and accessible conversation partners.

Mainstream schools or local special schools, may offer ‘sign’ but this is often Sign Supported English or Makaton: signs that are used alongside spoken English and not the same as BSL which has its own vocabulary and grammar, and is fully visual-spatial. BSL does not rely on listening at all.

2. A practitioner’s dilemma

When working with a deaf child, practitioners may find that language assessment is problematic. This could be for a number of reasons, one being the great majority of children growing up in hearing families and showing considerable variability in their language experience, as explained above. Another reason is that deaf children are traditionally assessed on standardised assessments for spoken language (there is a global shortage of assessments developed specifically for signing deaf children). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they tend to perform low on these assessments. As a consequence, many deaf children may be misdiagnosed or over diagnosed as having a language impairment whereas, in fact, their low performance may be due to a language difference – after all, the test that is used was developed for and normed on a different population: hearing children. This leaves the practitioner with questions on how to differentiate between a deaf child’s low test performance due to:

  • language learning problem?

  • language difference?

  • language delay?

  • language deprivation, or

  • other cognitive issues?

For test administrators it is important to make this distinction in order to avoid a mismatch between the support that is recommended for the deaf child and the child’s actual needs.

3. Dynamic assessment

Dynamic assessment (DA) combines teaching and assessment processes within a single assessment procedure to measure learning potential and evaluates the enhanced performance that results from learning through mediation. DA is an umbrella term for a range of different approaches used in Psychology and Education that blend teaching and assessment into a single assessment approach with the aim to measure a child’s learning potential or modifiability (the ability to carry over newly learned skills and the amount of support required) and to evaluate the enhanced performance that results from mediated learning. The most common approaches include test-teach-retest and graduated prompting. DA draws largely on the ideas of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky who proposed that a child learns best through social interaction and can develop higher mental functioning through collaboration and interaction with a more experienced peer or adult. His ideas have been applied by others (Feuerstein, 1979; Lidz, 1987, 1991) when describing the mediation interaction (Mediated Learning Experience, MLE) that occurs during teaching phases of dynamic interaction (Peña, Iglesias & Lidz, 2001). Many approaches in DA are motivated by the aim to develop instruments that can provide practitioners with a short and structured way to determine how a child may respond to a specific type of support in the future. DA itself is not intervention.

DA of deaf children is still a very young field with two main strands of research. The first strand of research was carried out during the 90s-early 2000s with focus on cognitive skills. It was motivated by deaf children’s low performance on standardised IQ tests (e.g., Lidz, 2004; Tzuriel & Caspri, 1992). The other, more recent, strand has explored the use of DA within a language learning context. This includes research on deaf children’s narrative skills in English (Asad, Hand, Fairgray, & Purdy, 2013), on signing deaf children’s vocabulary knowledge (Mann, Peña, & Morgan, 2014, 2015), and on enabling practitioners to understand and use DA with children who have atypical language development (Hoskin, 2017; Marshall et al., 2020).

Moving DA from research to practice requires work not only with the practitioner but also the child’s family. Both may need support to observe and understand how this type of assessment will benefit the child and themselves.

Intervention focuses on identifying the skills a child has in language, attention, engaging with others and understanding tasks. It then supports those interacting with the child to select strategies that suit a specific child and support their learning and self-management. For more detailed information on how DA can inform intervention see Mann et al (in press).

4. Case studies

The following two brief case studies shall demonstrate the practical application of DA.

4.1 Case study 1

A deaf boy, who came to the UK aged fourteen, presented with complex language needs in school. Using dynamic assessment techniques and gathering information from different communication partners, his language skills and needs were better understood. He had learnt a little of his home country’s spoken language and a little of his country’s signed language. On arriving in the UK, he learnt a little spoken English. On arrival in school, he was just beginning to learn BSL. He was confused about his situation and, along with some adults, didn’t realise he was having experience of four languages between home and school. During lessons, he needed regular support to understand that his situation was complex, to give himself credit for his achievements and to know which of the four languages he was working in at any given time. When his language context and current skills were understood by those working with him, it was possible to use strategies that identified which language he was using, whether he had other language or cognitive skills that linked to the language required in the current task, and whether using these skills was helpful.

4.2 Case study 2

A deaf girl aged twelve was identified as having difficulties with language. During language assessment using a DA approach, it was noted that the child had very low self-esteem, needing support to manage their internal emotional state. Strategies that supported her to do this included being allowed to be ‘the teacher’. By switching roles, her control over the language situation was increased. When presented with a mediator who said ‘Pretend you’re the teacher and I’m you, here’s the work, what do I need to do’, the child was able to demonstrate language and cognitive strategies to describe the task and the action that was needed. She was able to use her languages skills, problem solve, engage with the mediator and complete tasks because of this change in strategy.

4.3 Summary of why dynamic assessment was useful in these cases

Dynamic assessment was useful in working with these children because:

· It combines teaching and assessment, allowing the teacher to assess the child’s skills and their own strategy-use within one activity in an explicit way

· It is complementary to standardised assessments, not replacing them but providing additional information about a child’s learning capacity and style

· It can be very useful for children who represent a puzzle to practitioners, providing a breakdown of adult and child strategies to consider within a dynamic assessment and mediated learning environment framework

· Where a child appears to be non-responsive to every-day-teaching strategies, dynamic assessment can help a practitioner consider their own strategies, and the impact these have on the child’s ability to change their participation and language use

5. Next steps

To make DA techniques available to a wider group of practitioners, a close collaboration between researchers and practitioners is essential. We have identified four key areas for focus.

5.1 Information and tools

When evidence of the effectiveness of DA with children, is reported in research papers, the concepts and materials reported on, often need to be adapted by researchers and practitioners for deaf children and their specific contexts. These tools can then be used in training courses and peer support groups, making sure research in DA is accessible to practitioners who work in signed languages.

5.2 Understanding dynamic assessment for measuring progress

The historic reliance on standardised assessment to measure children’s progress is changing. Some schools are now taking an ipsative referenced approach. Providing advice for practitioners on how to use feedback from DA in annual reviews and reports will be needed. Explanations of why this type of measurement is valid and reliable, how it can be trusted, and advice on sharing a culture within a school or other establishment for the use of dynamic assessment is needed.

5.3 Including the child in the assessment process

As described in the case studies DA and MLE techniques can be used to include a child in discussions about their learning strengths, needs and challenges. Accessible information and tools which support the inclusion of the child in this process are available but need to be shared more widely.

5.4 Training

For practitioners who have BSL as their dominant language, specific training opportunities are needed. An Erasmus + funded project, DOTDeaf, is currently working to provide accessible information for co-learning between English and BSL-using practitioners. The training course being developed includes some adapted DA and MLE tools (See -

DA techniques help practitioners focus on connecting with a child in a way that enables the adult and child to work together, using the child’s strengths. Information and training about the use of these techniques needs to be available, including for practitioners who use BSL. DA can help practitioners share information to help family, staff and others understand and use the potential of each individual child for language learning. Practitioners need support and training in order to do this.

6. Conclusion

Standardized language tests are useful but can underestimate deaf children’s true abilities. DA offers an alternative, yet complementary, approach to standardized testing. DA makes the assessment process more interactive and fun, enabling the assessor and child to try out different processes, and also freeing the assessor to observe carefully. DA can empower the child to show their strengths, preferences and motivators so that the assessor can discover the circumstances that enable the child to learn optimally. The assessor and child are collaborating in uncovering and setting up the best learning situations, and together they can impart this new knowledge about the child to others in the child’s world including teachers and parents/carers. DA can be used in an ongoing way to monitor progress in learning. It is an attitude to assessment and learning which looks very closely at what works for the individual child, aims to provide what is needed, and is deeply respectful of the child’s contribution to the learning partnership.


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