Educating Children Who Are
Deaf or Hard of Hearing:
Author: Larry Hawkins
and Judy Brawner
ERIC EC Digest #E559 August 1997
What Is Meant by the Total Communication Approach?
(TC), a term coined by Roy Holcomb in 1967, is the title of a philosophy
of communication, not a method (Scouten, 1984). Total communication may
involve one or several modes of communication (manual, oral, auditory,
and written), depending on the particular needs of the child. The original
expectation of TC was for teachers to use the communication method(s)
most appropriate for a particular child at a particular stage of development.
Therefore, there would be situations when spoken communication might be
appropriate, other situations where signing might be appropriate, others
that would call for written communication, and still others where simultaneous
communication might work best (Solit, Taylor & Bednarczyk, 1992).
seemed to be the bridge that allowed a crossover from an oral-only philosophy
to a philosophy that embraced sign language. During the 1970's and 1980's
most schools and programs for children who are deaf, as well as most major
organizations in the field supported the TC philosophy.
Today, although the
debate seems to be between TC programs and bilingual-bicultural programs,
"simultaneous communication is the most common form of communication
used in educational settings for deaf children" (Kaplan, 1996, p.
Who Can Choose
a Total Communication Option?
TC may be used by
families and educators. Since more than 90% of parents of children who
are deaf have hearing themselves (Moores, 1996; Rawlings & Jensema,
1977), many believe that TC is a philosophy that will allow flexibility
without eliminating any of the options. By using a total approach of speaking
and signing, all members of the family, those who are deaf as well as
those who are hearing, have continuous access to the communication occurring
in their environment (Baker, 1992).
Teachers may choose
to provide TC options in their classrooms. Those who choose this approach
have the responsibility and obligation of acquiring the skills necessary
to meet all of the child's communication needs.
What Are the Benefits
of a Total Communication Approach?
Most learning occurs
through interaction with other people. Such learning is possible only
when individuals are able to communicate with understanding. Likewise,
the quality of the relationship between a child and her or his parents
is dependent on the quality of communication existing between them. Thus,
the choice of communication modes/methods that will be the most effective
and beneficial to a child at home and in the classroom is of utmost importance.
The main benefit of
TC is that it can open all avenues and modes of communication for the
deaf child. Parents and teachers might be reluctant to choose one mode
of communication over another. TC, however, allows a variety of combinations.
Research studies have repeatedly demonstrated the beneficial effects of
total communication in all areas of deaf children's development, whether
psychosocial, linguistic, or academic (Vernon & Andrews, 1990). If
the effectiveness of communication is more important than the form it
takes (Kaplan, 1996), then TC is beneficial because it allows the child
to use the form that is best for him in any given situation.
What Are the Limitations
of a Total Communication Approach?
One limitation of
TC is that, while the theory may be sound, it may not be put into practice
accurately enough in some situations. Many students who are deaf are immersed
in a form of simultaneous communication that does not match their level
of linguistic (language) readiness or ability. In the classroom, TC often
becomes a simultaneous practice of combining manual components (signs
and fingerspelling) with spoken components used in English word order.
Although TC educational programs will differ on the selection of a manual
system, all seem to combine signing with speech. The very nature of the
two modes (spoken and visual) may cause signers/speakers to alter their
messages to accommodate one or the other mode, causing a compromise between
the two methods (Wilcox, 1989). Although the idea of individualization
is at the heart of TC, teachers are limited to how many different modes
they can use at one time. It may be impossible for one teacher to meet
all the communication needs that might be present in a single classroom
of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. For example, do the students
really see a good representation of either English or ASL when the teacher
or parent uses them inconsistently, or are they seeing only poor examples
of broken English or ASL? Researchers do not agree as to whether a manually
coded English system leads to better reading and writing scores (Mayer
& Lowenbraun, 1990).
What Are Some Questions
to Ask Before Choosing a Total Communication Option?
- Most members of
the Deaf culture in the United States use American Sign Language. Will
children in a TC program be able to communication with members of the
- Can English be
represented fully with sign language?
- If TC is chosen
as an option and signing is a part of that option, what kind of signing
will be used? Are there benefits in using an English-based sign system?
What are the benefits of ASL?
- Can ASL be an option
in a TC program?
- Can one talk and
sign ASL at the same time without one having a negative effect on the
- How can a teacher
who talks and signs English meet the needs of children who sign ASL?
- Can parents more
readily learn signed English or ASL?
Baker, S. (1994).
A resource manual of deafness. Sulphur, OK: Oklahoma School for the Deaf.
Kaplan, P. (1996).
Pathways for exceptional children. Minneapolis, MN: West Publishing Company.
Lowenbraun, S., Appelman,
K., & Callahan, J. (1980). Teaching the hearing impaired through total
communication. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.
Mayer, P. & Lowenbraun,
S. (1990). Total communication use among elementary teachers of hearing-impaired
children. American Annals of the Deaf, 135, 257-263.
Moores, D.F. (1996).
Educating the deaf. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Rawlings, B.W., &
Jensema, C.J. (1977). Two studies of the families of hearing impaired
children. (SER.R.No.5) Washington, DC: Gallaudet College Office of Demographic
Scouten, E. (1984).
Turning points in the education of deaf people. Danville, IL: The Interstate
Printers and Publishers, Inc.
Solit, G., Taylor,
M., & Bednarczyk, A. (1992). Access for all. Washington, DC: Gallaudet
Vernon, M. & Andrews,
J. (1990). Psychology of deafness. New York, NY: Longman.
Wilcox, S. (1989).
American deaf culture. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press.
The majority of public
school programs practice the TC (simultaneous) method. Information on
TC and TC programs can be obtained from most State departments of education.
A teacher or administrator from a school for students who are deaf may
provide valuable insight. Many national organizations have position papers
concerning TC, although many have discarded them as being outdated, and
the American Annals of the Deaf has published numerous articles
on this topic. The best source to consult, however, may be another parent
who has used this option.
Dr. Hawkins is
an Associate Professor, Deaf Education Department, University of Science
and Arts of Oklahoma. Judy Brawner is an instructor in the Deaf Education
Department of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.
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under contract no. RR93002005. The opinions expressed in this report do
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