2011. Vol. 2, No. 1, 18-23
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.21003
Deaf Individuals’ Bilingual Abilities: American Sign Language
Proficiency, Reading Skills, and Family Characteristics
Brittany L. Freel1,3, M. Diane Clark1,2, Melissa L. Anderson1,2, Gizelle L. Gilbert1,2,
Millicent M. Musyoka1,2, Peter C. Hauser1,3
1Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning, Washington, DC, USA;
2Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, USA;
3National Technical Institute of the Deaf / Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, USA.
Received October 11th, 2010; revised November 2nd, 2010; accepted December 10th, 2010.
The current study investigated the bilingual abilities of 55 Deaf individuals, examining both American Sign
Language (ASL) competency and English reading skills. Results revealed a positive relationship between ASL
competency and English skills, with highly competent signers scoring higher on a measure of reading compre-
hension. Additionally, family characteristics (e.g., parental education level, family hearing status) were entered
into the analysis to ascertain their effect on Deaf individuals’ bilingual abilities. The findings support the theory
that competency in ASL may serve as a bridge to the acquisition of English print. Moreover, the findings pro-
vide support for the critical period hypothesis for first language acquisition and its later impact on other cogni-
tive and academi c skills.
Keywords: Deaf, American Sign Language, Reading, Bilingual, Family
Deaf readers tend to lag behind their hearing peers, with the
average reading level commonly pinpointed at the fourth grade
(Allen, 2002; Conrad, 1979; Marschark & Harris, 1996; Mus-
selman, 2000). Mayer and Wells’ (1996) rationale for this delay
is that American Sign Language (ASL) cannot serve as the
bridge to English literacy. They posit that deaf students cannot
use ASL grammatical knowledge to transition between ASL
and written English, because there is no written form of ASL
(Mayer & Akamatsu, 1999). Consequently, for deaf individuals
who use ASL, written English cannot be directly mapped back
to ASL. Others disagree, with Evans (2004) proposing that one
cannot be taught English without a bridge, implicating the im-
portance of ASL as that bridge in the instruction of English.
Due to the lack of direct mapping between visual ASL and
written English, deaf individuals often utilize their knowledge
of ASL structure as a guide for entry to text (Evans, 1998).
With this contradictory knowledge base, there is controversy
about how to teach literacy to deaf children. In contrast to the
deficit model, which uses strategies deve loped for hearing c hil-
dren to teach deaf children (Perfetti & Sandak, 2000), beginning
in the late 1980’s bilingual education programs were suggested
as appropriate s trategies fo r i n c reasing deaf individuals’ re ading
levels (Johnson, Liddell, & Erting, 1998). Since that time, the
number of bi lingual prog rams has increased in acad emic settings
(Bailes, 2001; Benedict & Sass-Lehrer, 2007; Hermans, Knoors,
Ormel, & Verhoeven, 2008; Singleton, Supalla, Litchfield, &
Schley, 1998; Wilbur, 2000). Current research that focuses on
bilingualism with deaf individuals highlights the use of ASL for
general communication, as well as for teachi ng English, r eading,
and writing (All en, 2002) . In fact , fluen t ASL-Englis h bilingual s
possess grammatically-structured ASL that serves as a bridge to
the acquisition of written English (Grosjean, 2001).
However, teachers of the deaf often do not take advantage of
ASL skills as a bridge to English literacy. Many do not clearly
distinguish grammatical differences between ASL and English
for their students, therefore missing the opportunity to teach
their students how to map the grammar of one language to the
grammar of a second language (Chamberlain, Morford, & May-
berry, 2000). While hearing schoolchildren are required to take
courses in English and English grammar, deaf children are not
required to take ASL grammar courses and often these courses
are not even offered (S. Nover, personal communication, Sep-
tember 28, 2009). A national formal curriculum for ASL has
not been developed, even though local schools may have de-
veloped one in-house. But all too often, these in-house ASL
curricula are not developed by curriculum specialists and are
not research based.
Often, the deaf child is attempting to learn both basic inter-
personal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic
language proficiency (CALP) (Cummins,1979) when they arr-
ive at school, resulting from incomplete access to a visual lan-
guage for social interactions at home and with peers during the
traditional period for language acquisition. Hence, first and
second language acquisition, as well as education in general, is
extremely inconsistent between hearing and deaf individuals
because hearing children in the United States tend to arrive at
school with fully developed social language or BICS and then
use this base as a scaffold into academic language or CALP.
Authors’ Note: The first author of this paper was an Undergraduate
Summer Research Fellow at the NSF supported Science of Learning
Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning in the summer of 2009
supported by grant number SBE-0541953. Other authors were faculty
and graduate assistants involved with this Summer Research Institute.
We would like to thank the participants for their help with this project.
B. L. FREEL ET AL. 19
However, for deaf children, who often arrive at school with no
(L1), no social language instruction is provided before formal
academic English instruction (S. Baker, personal communica-
tion, Sept 22, 2009). While the proponents of bilingualism for
deaf individuals emphasize the bilingual use and equal value of
ASL and English, the equality of ASL is not always upheld, as
shown by the aforementioned imbalances in language education
(Evans, 1998). Rather, the comprehensive development of ASL
as a first language is often not a priority in the education of deaf
A great deal of research supports an educational method of
utilizing a well-developed first language to support and facili-
tate the acquisition of a second language. Native language pro-
ficiency is a strong predictor of second language skill (Hakuta,
1990). Cummins (2000; 2006) proposed the Linguistic Interde-
pendence Theory, which proposes that competence in a second
language is a function of proficiency in one’s first language.
When applied to deaf individuals, this research suggests that
individuals who have full command of ASL as a first language
are better disposed to learn English as a second language.
Therefore, deaf individuals’ below-average reading skills may
likely stem from inadequate instruction of ASL in the educa-
tional environment, rather than the insufficient aptitude of deaf
students (DeLana, Gentry, & Andrews, 2007). Indeed, research
has shown that failing to completely develop a first language
results in severely negative consequences, including major
challenges in academic and vocational successes (Niemann,
Greenstein, & David, 2004; Strong & Prinz, 1997).
Family Influe n ce s on D eaf Individuals
Parental communication skill significantly predicts deaf
children’s positive language and academic development (Cal-
deron, 2000). Often, deaf children do not have clear or direct
access to their parents’ language. In order to provide sufficient
communication, parents must be attuned and responsive to their
child’s needs. By recognizing the importance of communication
and the child’s communication needs, parents can foster more
positive educational outcomes. When comparing deaf children
of deaf parents (DoD) and deaf children of hearing parents
(DoH), research has found that DoD generally outperform DoH
children in future linguistic and academic success related to
their ASL abilities (Meadow, 1968; Quigley & Frisini, 1961;
Stevenson, 1964; Strong & Prinz, 1997; Stuckless & Birch, 1966).
Additionally, parental hearing status has been found to have
an effect on ASL and English abilities, indicating that deaf
parents are more likely to aid in the development of ASL
(Mounty, Nover, & Pucci, 2008). In an interview study of par-
ents and teachers of successful deaf readers, all respondents
focused on the importance of ASL as a bridge to written liter-
acy. They emphasized the importance of adult involvement in
connecting the visual language of ASL to the written language
of English through shared book reading and connecting finger-
spelling to corresponding written letters. Each individual em-
phasized the sociocultural context of educated deaf adults lead-
ing young deaf children towards literacy by exposing them to a
print culture in the hom e.
An additional familial characteristic that may be predictive of
deaf children’s literacy is the family’s social economic status
(SES), which is often measured by maternal educa tion level. In
studies with hearing children, maternal education level has been
found to be a strong predictor of children’s academic success
(Stevenson & Baker, 1987). However, Calderon (2000) found
that maternal education level alone did not predict deaf chil-
dren’s ASL and reading skills. Instead, Calderon reported that
while a mother’s education level was important, the quantity
and quality of mother-child communication had a stronger im-
pact on the child’s academic outcome.
Research Question and Hypotheses
The goal of the current study was to investigate ASL profi-
ciency and reading skills within a sample of deaf individuals, as
well as to ascertain the impact of familial characteristics on lan-
guage and literacy development. Two hypotheses were developed:
Hypothesis 1: Signing skills will correlate positively with
English literacy skills.
Hypothesis 2: Family characteristics will impact bilingual
skills, including parental involvement, parental communication,
and maternal level of education.
The current study utilized a convenience sample of 55 deaf
individuals from Gallaudet University and the Washington, DC
metropolitan area. Participants were recruited in two ways: the
National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Center on
Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) Volunteer Data-
base and flyers posted on the Gallaudet University campus.
Individuals recruited through the VL2 Volunteer Database were
sent an invitation to participate via email, with information on
how to contact the investigators. All participants from this da-
tabase are current undergraduate students. Individuals recruited
through flyers were provided with contact information on the
advertisement, through which they could obtain scheduling
information. All participants who responded to the flyer were
either students, both graduate and undergraduate in a summer
session, or college graduates living in the Washington, DC area.
Demographic characteristics of the sample are listed in Table
1. To be classified as a native signer, participants had to have
deaf parents and report their acquisition of ASL began prior to
age three. The criterion of having deaf signing parents creates
the sociocultural experience of full access to a visual language
by adults who understand how to guide visual attention and
scaffold visual language during the critical period of language
acquisition (Corina & Singleton, 2009; Mayberry, 2007).
Data were collected using the following three measures: the
VL2 Background Questionnaire, the American Sign Language
– Sentence Reproduction Test (ASL-SRT) (Hauser, Palud-
neviciene, Supalla, & Bavelier, 2008), and the Passage Com-
prehension subtest from Woodcock Johnson III Tests of
Achievement (WJ III ACH) (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather,
The VL2 Background Questionnaire consists of 101 ques-
tions related to participants’ demographic and background cha-
racteristics, including ethnicity, age, education placements,
family hearing st atu s, and level o f hearin g loss. Thi s questionna ire
was administered online via http://www. surveymonkey.com.
B. L. FREEL ET AL.
Demographic characteristics of the sample (N = 55)
Demographic Characteristic Percent
Age 18 – 25 yea r s
26 – 30 yea r s
31 – 43 yea r s
ASL Use Native
Primarily M ainstream
Primarily Deaf Institution
Middle East ern
High School Diploma
Some Graduate Courses
Some Post-Maste rs Courses
The ASL-SRT was used to evaluate each participant’s ASL
proficiency. The ASL-SRT is accessed using a password-pro-
tected connection to a web-based video interface located on a
server at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID)
in Rochester, NY. The ASL-SRT presents participants with 20
ASL sentences signed by a native signer (Hauser et al., 2008).
The participant is required to view each video clip and then
reproduce the sentence exactly as it was presented. The partici-
pant’s reproduction is also recorded through the online video
interface, and is scored by native signers at NTID in the Deaf
Studies Lab headed by Peter Hauser using a 1 (sentences are
reproduced exactly as signed) or 0 (one or more errors occurred
in the reproduction) scoring rubric. The total range of scores is
from 0 (no correct reproductions) to 20 (all reproductions were
exactly as presented). These sentences progressively increase in
syntactic, thematic, and morphemic complexity. Inter-rater
reliability of the ASL-SRT has been reported to be r
= 0.83, p
0.01 (Hauser et al., 2008).
The Passage Comprehension subtest of the WJ III ACH was
used to evaluate participants’ written English comprehension
and reading skills (Woodcock et al., 2001). The Passage Com-
prehension subtest requires each participant to read a short
passage and identify the missing key word that is most appro-
priate given the context of that passage. This subtest consists of
47 items and two practice items, arranged in order of increasing
difficulty measured by increasing passage lengths, more com-
plex vocabulary, and syntactic and semantic complexity. In
previous research, this subtest has been used with deaf indi-
viduals and displayed a split-half reliability of 0.91 (Easter-
brooks & Huston, 2008).
This study was approved by the university’s IRB. When par-
ticipants arrived for the study, they were assigned a participant
number in order to preserve anonymity. All participants were
provided with an explanation of the project and explanation of
informed consent in written English and ASL, and subsequently
signed the informed consent form.
Participants were first administered the VL2 Background
Questionnaire. After completion of the Background Question-
naire, the ASL-SRT and Passage Comprehension were alterna-
tively administered second and third, in order to counterbalance
the order of administration. On average, administration of all
three measures required two hours to complete. Participants
received 40 dollars to compensate them for their time and ef-
All statistical analyses were performed using SPSS, with the
alpha level set at 0.05. Data screening indicated the presence of
no outliers. In order to conduct analyses of bilingual ability, a
“bilingual” variable was created, by transforming the ASL-SRT
and the Passage Comprehension raw scores. These raw scores
were converted first to Z-scores and then transformed to
T-scores. Next, multiplying the two T-scores together created a
combined Bilingual Ability score. Figure 1 displays a boxplot
of the Bilingual Ability variable, indicating a near normal dis-
Table 2 presents descriptive statistics for scores on the
ASL-SRT and Passage Comprehension. With respect to the
Passage Comprehension subtest, the minimum score indicates a
reading grade level of 1.7 and the maximum score indicates
post-college level reading. The mean Passage Comprehension
score falls at the 5.8 grade level.
Distribution of bilingual sc or e s.
Descriptive statistic s of ASL-SRT and passage c o mp re hension.
Min. Max. Mean S.D.
ASL-SRT 1 19 10.70 4.42
Passage C omprehension (raw score)16 43 32.49 5.73
B. L. FREEL ET AL. 21
Hypothesis 1: Signing skills will correlate positively with
English literacy skills.
A Pearson correlation was conducted to analyze the rela-
tionship between the ASL-SRT raw scores and the Passage
Comprehension raw scores. A significant relationship occurred;
r (53) = 0.48, p < 0.001.
Hypothesis 2: Influence of familial characteristics on bilin-
A t-test indicated that native signing of ASL was signifi-
cantly related to participants’ bilingual abilities, with native
signers (M = 3334.51, SD = 618.59) exhibiting more proficient
bilingual abilities than non-native signers (M = 2327.35, SD =
779.33), t (53) = 4.12, p = 0.000. Additionally, the relationship
between maternal education level and bilingual abilities was
significant, with higher levels of maternal education related to
more proficient bilingual abilities, r (54) = 0.521, p = 0.000.
Here, maternal education level was used as a proxy for family
socioeconomic status, as is standard practice in demographic
public health research with hearing subjects (Desai & Alva,
1998; Stevenson & Baker, 1987).
Regression analyses indicated that native signing and mater-
nal education level significantly predicted Bilingual Abilities,
R2 = 0.384, R2adj = 0.347, F (3, 50) = 10.395, p = 0.000. This
model accounted for 38.4% of the variance in Bilingual Ability.
A summary of the regression coefficients is presented in Table
3. Other variables that were not significant at the p = 0.05 level
(e.g., family communication mode, hearing status at birth) were
dropped from the model.
The goal of the current study was to answer two main ques-
tions. First, what is the relationship between ASL proficiency
and reading skills? Second, how do family characteristics im-
pact bilingual abilities? The first hypothesis, which predicted a
significant positive relationship between a measure of ASL
proficiency and a measure of reading skills, was supported.
This significant finding provides some support for the idea that
establishing ASL as a complete first language is related to skills
in English as a second language.
In a recent study, Allen, Hwang, and Stansky (2009) found
that deaf individuals’ ASL scores explained 68% of the vari-
ance in reading scores. However, in the current study, only 23%
of the variance in reading skill was explained by ASL ability.
One possible explanation for this discrepancy is cultural differ-
ences among participants in the current sample. For example, a
Coefficients for model variables.
95% Confidence Inter-
B Beta t p
Native / Non-
Native –744.329 –0.352 –2.811 0.007 –1276.135 –212.524
Education 174.087 0.395 3.331 0.002 69.105 279.069
study conducted with the same data set found that there was no
significant relationship between ASL and reading for Black
deaf individuals (Myers, Clark, Musyoka, Anderson, Gilbert,
Agyen, & Hauser, In press). While this is one possible explana-
tion for the discrepancy between the current sample and Allen
et al.’s sample, further analysis is necessary to account for the
discrepant strengths of the relationship between ASL profi-
ciency and reading skill.
With respect to the second hypothesis, it was found that na-
tive signers of ASL had signif icantly h igher bi lin gual abi lit ies in
ASL and written English, implying that having control of ASL
as a native language may act as a bridge to stronger reading
abilities. Previous research conducted by Vernon and Koh
(1970), Stron g and P rinz (1 997) , and Stu ckles s a nd B irch (1966)
has shown that deaf children of deaf parents perform signifi-
cantly better on reading comprehension tests than do deaf chil-
dren of hea ring p arents. As a result, d eaf children of deaf par ents,
who are raised in an ASL environment and develop ASL as a
native language, have been found to possess stronger reading
skills than deaf children raised by hearing parents, who do not
develop ASL as a native language.
Additionally, in the current sample, maternal education level
significantly predicted deaf children’s bilingual abilities, with
higher education levels corresponding to more proficient abili-
ties in ASL and written English. Similarly, Magnuson, Sexton,
Davis-Kean, and Huston (2009) found that improvements in
level of maternal education were associated with improvements
in hearing children’s language development. Magnuson et al.
suggested that mothers with higher educational levels were
more interactive with their children and provided them with
more learning-related materials. It was suggested that these
improvements in maternal responsiveness and learning materi-
als account for subsequent improvements in language devel-
opment. Interestingly, other family variables were not signifi-
cantly related to this effect.
One major limitation of the current study resulted from the
difficulty of recruiting deaf native signers, as this group com-
prises only five percent of the deaf community (Mitchell &
Karchmer, 2004 ). A la rger pro port ion of n ativ e sig ners fr om th is
sample were graduate students than non-native students, possi-
bly obscuring direct comparisons between the native and non-
native groups. Future research should aim to recruit a larger
number of native signers to ensure more equ ivale nt com parison s
of deaf individuals who are native and non-native signers.
However, it should be noted that acade mic achievement and age
of L1 acquisition inherently covary, as early L1 exposure is
related to advantages in a number of cognitive domains (May-
berry, 2007). Therefore, it may be that native signers are inher-
ently more likely to attend graduate school. However, more
research is needed in this area. Additionally, more in-depth
research is needed regarding the influence of family interaction
styles and communication modes on ASL proficiency and Eng-
While this study possesses limitations, the reported findings
and implications for future research are nonetheless beneficial
for the field of deaf education. Increasing research regarding
language development in deaf c h ildren can lead to significant im-
provements in early intervention programs, parenting resources,
policy-making, and the system of deaf education in the United
States, all aimed at improving the literacy of deaf children.
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