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'A Way To Make the Spoken Language Clear'

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Four years ago, Eleanor Sharp, the mother of a profoundly deaf child, discovered a little-known method of communicating the spoken language to hearing-impaired children. At first skeptical of the claims made about its effectiveness, Ms. Sharp waited a year before finally deciding to try the method, called "cued speech."

At that time, Ms. Sharp's 8-year-old son, David, communicated in two-word phrases and "a lot of gesturing."

"I couldn't speak to him in a sophisticated manner," she said, adding that her son, who is now 11 years old, suffered from a kind of "educational malnutrition."

"I had to speak [to him] in a very abridged language," she said.

Since her son has learned cued speech, Ms. Sharp said, his ability to communicate has improved steadily. He now speaks in complete sentences, and it is not uncommon for him "to initiate a conversation at dinner."

Encouraged by his progress, Ms. Sharp approached officials at the private school for the deaf her son attended with the idea of including cued speech in the curriculum. When they refused, Ms. Sharp and several other parents withdrew their children, tested them, and then began using the method to teach them at home.

Parents' Case Presented

Last summer, Ms. Sharp, who is president of the Philadelphia Cued Speech Association, presented the parents' case to school officials again. But this time it was to the Philadelphia school board--and with better results.

This year, the Philadelphia school system has agreed to pilot a cued-speech program for five hearing-impaired children. The children, who are from 7 to 11 years old, are taught by a fluent "cue-er" in a separate classroom; they join the other children their age for physical education.

"What we're hoping is that once educators see the program's success, others will become interested," said Ms. Sharp.

But she is still shocked that she had to learn about cued speech from a newspaper article. "I'll never get over it," she said. "I had to tell the educators."

The method that Ms. Sharp champions is the invention of a nonspecialist, a man who believes that the use by the deaf of sign languages alone severely limits their ability to comprehend language fully and to use it fully to communicate. A kind of modified sign system, cued speech uses hand signals to indicate different groups of word sounds and to encourage a deaf person to imitate those sounds.

Yet not all professionals involved in the education of the deaf, a field deeply divided over teaching approaches, believe the relatively new cued-speech technique deserves attention or full support.

Simple in its design, cued speech can be learned in 12 to 20 hours of instruction. It has reportedly been successful even with the "prelingually deaf," people who lose their hearing before they learn the language and therefore require the most painstaking efforts of educators of the deaf.

R. Orrin Cornett, who developed the method in 1966, is not surprised by the manner in which Ms. Sharp learned of cued speech, or by the difficulties she encountered in persuading schools to use it. Many parents of hearing-impaired children are unfortunately steered toward one approach at the expense of others, he explained.

Since about 96 percent of all hearing-impaired children have parents who can hear, Mr. Cornett claims his method addresses the isolation of deaf people by helping them learn spoken English. It is vital, he says, that deaf children learn to communicate in the language spoken at home and "not sign language." Otherwise, he argues, they will never know English well enough.

But in discussing his method he is careful to stress that cued speech cannot be used without such other commonly used approaches as signing and finger spelling.

"It's not a philosophy" of communication for the deaf, he said. "It's a tool for making the spoken language clear."

In cued speech, eight hand configurations are placed in four positions near or on the face to denote consonant and vowel sounds. For example, the full extension of the fingers and thumb represents those sounds produced by the letters "m, f, and t." Placed at the chin, the hand signal indicates the following combined vowel and consonant sounds: ''aw, maw, faw, taw, e (as in bed), me (as in met), fe (as in fellow), te (as in test), oo (as in food), moo, too, or foo."

Each of the twelve syllables is clearly different from all the other syllables read on the lips, according to Mr. Cornett. Therefore, much of the guesswork in lipreading is eliminated, because cuing with the hand and finger positions provides enough information to enable a deaf person to recognize visually the sounds being spoken.

"Deaf persons do not lip-read unfamiliar words, but with cued speech it is possible," Mr. Cornett said.

Mr. Cornett became interested in the problems of the deaf in 1964, when he was an associate commissioner of education for the U.S. Office of Education. He was aston-ished by some of the findings in a study he commissioned that year on the subject of Gallaudet College, the nation's only liberal-arts college for the deaf.

The study found that Gallaudet students were "happy, communicative, and learning, the same as other college students." But, as Mr. Cornett recalled, "there was this one fly in the ointment:" Many of the students were having problems with reading and language skills. The more he pondered the problem, the more convinced he became that he could devise a solution.

When Gallaudet officials offered him the position of vice president for planning in August 1965, Mr. Cornett readily accepted, embarking on a personal crusade to develop the tool that he believed would would help solve the reading and writing problems of the deaf.

He took the job, Mr. Cornett said, on the condition that he be allowed to devote one-third of his time to research. Despite his lack of formal training in the communication of the deaf, Mr. Cornett had his solution, cued speech, one year later.

Parents Learn Method

In September 1966, a month after developing the method, Mr. Cornett taught it to the parents of Leah M. Henegar, who was then 24 months old. In May 1982, Ms. Henegar was among the 3,500 Wake County, N.C., high-school seniors who celebrated their graduation--an accomplishment in which he takes great pride, Mr. Cornett said.

During the past 16 years, cued speech has been translated into 35 different languages; it is used in about 350 educational programs throughout the country.

"Deafness does not mean not knowing the spoken language," Mr. Cornett said. "The potential for learning the language is just as great, even if we haven't been able to exploit that potential."

Unlike a child who can hear, a deaf child cannot absorb the sounds and expressiveness of language; it must be taught, and the earlier the better, according to Mr. Cornett. Children learn more words and meanings in the first six years, he said, than they do the rest of their lives.

For that reason, Mr. Cornett contends that a hearing-impaired child will never learn "as much as a hearing person until it is possible to learn easily, naturally, and rapidly outside of school."

Although it is used primarily to supplement lip reading, cued speech can also be used in addition to signing, according to Mr. Cornett. But so far, few "manualists" (those who advocate total communication through the use of sign language) support it.

Moreover, Mr. Cornett finds himself somewhere in the middle of the controversy that has persisted for several centuries over the best approach to educating the deaf.

The National Association of the Deaf, which encourages total communication and the use of sign language, does not have an official position on cued speech since the method is not widely practiced among adults, according to S. Melvin Carter Jr., director of the organization's communication-skills programs.

Preferred System

Deaf adults usually have a system of communication that they prefer, he said, adding that cued speech is "used mostly in the classroom."

Mr. Carter said he has had few requests for cued speech. He contended that the technique is of limited use because hearing people must know the cues in order to communicate clearly with the hearing-impaired people and not many of them do.

"I'm personally hard on cued speech because I see it from its everyday use," Mr. Carter added. For a deaf person, he said, the method "makes reading lips better, but it may not help that person speak better."

But Sally Conlon, director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, described cued speech as a "support system for oral communication." Her organization, she said, is establishing a committee to examine the method's potential for assisting students with the spoken language.

When the committee has completed its review, according to Ms. Conlon, it is likely that the organization will take a formal position on cued speech. "If it works with some persons and achieves what is desired," she said, "you've got to say it works."

'Polarized' Field

Its mixed reviews among professionals are to be expected, according to Mr. Cornett, in a field that is so "polarized."

"Professionals do not agree as to the methods that are best and for which child," he explained. Those who advocate sign language view cued speech as "a plot by the oralists."

At Gallaudet, where Mr. Cornett chairs the Center for the Study of Language and Communication, the method is used only on a limited basis, a situation he has been reluctant to change until recently. "I'm beginning to press now," he said, because there are students who "need to get caught up in English."

Of more than 1,500 students attending the college, about 300 are considered preparatory students because their language skills are so poor.

Two-thirds of all educational programs for the deaf, including Gallaudet, employ sign language and finger spelling to imitate the language, according to Mr. Cornett. "It's easier and they can learn fast, but it's also laborious and it doesn't teach them words, only symbols," he explained.

Mr. Cornett said that most deaf students can use the sign language of finger spelling to communicate. But that does not give hearing-impaired children the ability to speak or fully understand the English language.

Thus, the language development of hearing-impaired children is usually several years behind that of children of the same age whose hearing is unimpaired.

At the National Child Research Center, a Washington preschool, instructors trained in cued speech begin teaching the parents of hearing-impaired children as soon as the hearing loss has been identified. Of the 130 preschoolers enrolled at the center, seven are hearing-impaired. Their ages range from 10 months to 4 years old.

Frances E. Fuller, a tutor and interpreter for the center's cued-speech program, explained that initially the language will be "fuzzy" for the two infants, aged 10 and 13 months, because they "do not mentally understand" the cues. "It's a matter of exposure," she said.

Once they do begin to understand, Ms. Fuller said, "it's rewarding.'' Cuing is "so very easy that it becomes natural," she adds.

Begun in 1974, the center's cued-speech program was supported by Gallaudet College until last year. This year, the program is being continued with private funding.

'Tremendous Success'

"We've had tremendous success with our graduates; their command of the English language is phenomenal," Ms. Fuller said. Because of that success, she noted, all of the children have been placed in regular public schools.

Many school officials are aware of cued speech, according to Mr. Cornett. And of those that are aware of the method, few choose to use it.

Shortly after its development, Mr. Cornett trained about 100 teachers with the agreement that the method would be used once they returned to their schools.

Fewer than half of those teachers, however, were permitted to do so, according to Mr. Cornett, because of the "controversy" the new method provoked. Administrators "weren't willing to upset the school program, and I don't blame them," Mr. Cornett said.

"When the teachers returned from the workshop and were mak-ing statements on how sold they were on the method, the others were afraid of having to learn it," he explained. "Some people are threatened because they may feel comfortable with the methods they have."

"Some are always actively seeking new methods because they're dissatisfied with the results they're getting," Mr. Cornett added. "These are the ones attracted to cued speech."

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