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Oxford University research is helping deaf children and their teachers by developing specially designed learning materials.

Learning and understanding for deaf children in uk education

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Deaf children experience education differently. No less able, their opportunities can be limited because of this experience. Whether in mainstream education or in specialist schools, deaf children face specific learning challenges that were hard for children and teachers to overcome. A Department of Education team, led by Terezinha Nunes, has changed that. They used longitudinal studies to develop new methods, offering insights that challenge established ways of teaching core subjects. This led to the design of teacher-friendly resource packages, now used in teaching and teacher training across the country. The resources focused on improving literacy and working memory.

For a deaf child, learning languages is tricky. The way words sound when spoken, and how that relates to the letters and words on the page, can be hard to grasp when your hearing is different to that of others. Teaching that relies on phonological methods that establish learning through a focus on how words sound can be very difficult for deaf and hard of hearing children. However, morphemic learning can complement the use of phonics and help deaf children use their visual strengths. This focuses on written units of meaning (morphemes) that are usually spelled the same way even when they sound different. If you know the word magic, the meaning of magician is much clearer if you can read it, rather than if you have to hear it. Morphemic rules are particularly important for deaf children, as morphemes have a fixed spelling and represent meaning. This helps children whose access to phonological distinctions may not be as subtle as required for learning English literacy.

Working memory is the ability to keep information in mind while working on related activities at the same time. For example, a pupil without the aid of pencil and paper will need to use working memory to add up two numbers spoken to them. Whilst you’ve been reading this case study, your working memory has kept what you read in the first paragraph in mind as you read now, so that you can understand the entire piece. Attention is an important aspect in working memory, and many profoundly deaf children have difficulty with this, as attention is often stimulated by hearing. Nunes and her team felt it was important to improve the working memory of deaf children. To do this, they focused on improving children’s attention. They developed a programme which uses two sets of games: one led by the teacher that aims at teaching rehearsal skills and the second in which children played the games without teacher guidance. The second group promoted basic attention as well as rehearsal. The research clearly showed that the more the children played the games that reinforced basic attention, the more they benefitted from the programme.

Children’s working memory, literacy ability and confidence play important parts in how well they do and learn in school. Many deaf children do not do as well as hearing children of the same age and level of intelligence in working memory and literacy tasks, but this can be improved through small adjustments to teaching styles that are more suited to deaf children’s learning capacity. Since developing the teaching materials, the National Deaf Children’s Society, in collaboration with Nunes and her team, have rolled out training programmes to over 300 professionals around England and Wales, and this work has improved the education experience for over 7000 deaf children.

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Department of Education

Terezinha Nunes

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