Teaching sign language to parents of deaf children using the CEFR

by Kristin Snoddon

This is a blog based on a book chapter: Snoddon, K. (2020). Teaching sign language to parents of deaf children in the name of the CEFR: Exploring tensions between plurilingual ideologies and ASL pedagogical ideologies. In A. Kusters, M. Green, E. Moriarty Harrelson, & K. Snoddon (Eds.), Sign language ideologies in practice (pp. 143-162). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

This post is part of the special issue on sign language ideologies on Acadeafic. See the introduction to the special issue to learn more.

This chapter discusses how deaf sign language teachers do and do not make use of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in teaching sign language to hearing parents of deaf children. The CEFR proclaims universal applicability across contexts and languages as a a reference tool for language teaching, learning, and assessment. This tool must always be adapted to the context at hand. The most common use for the CEFR and its proficiency descriptors is for assessment purposes by governments and language testing agencies.  The proficiency descriptors for assessing learners’ receptive, productive, interactive, and mediation skills accord to the scales A1-C2, which involve six levels that describe learners’ language proficiency from basic user (A1-A2) to independent user (B1-B2) to proficient user (C1-C2). For example, many English-language universities require applicants to have B2-level proficiency in English in order to be admitted for study; the same is true for French at French-language universities.

Introducing the CEFR into the domain of teaching sign language to parents of deaf children has ideological as well as practical impacts. I originally became interested in the CEFR due to its support for plurilingualism, or multilingualism at the level of the individual. Plurilingualism takes a holistic view of language skills and emphasizes partial competence in languages, not a balance of skills as in traditional views of bilingualism. Plurilingualism sees language learning as situated, dynamic, and lifelong. I felt this framework was valuable for both parents and deaf children because academic ideologies in deaf education often view this group of learners as deficient from traditional bilingualism perspectives. It is a common refrain in early intervention for deaf children that hearing parents will never be able to master a sign language, and this lack of competence will negatively affect deaf children (in other words, if children experience language delays, it will be the parents’ fault for not being fluent in sign language). These ideologies have been seen to inhibit parents’ ASL learning.

My chapter present findings from my ongoing studies with Canadian instructors of American Sign Language (ASL) to develop CEFR-aligned ASL courses for parents. In the beginning, Canadian ASL instructors received training from Joni Oyserman and Mathilde de Geus, who first conceived of and developed parent Sign Language of the Netherlands courses using the CEFR. After I saw Joni and Mathilde’s poster presentation about their work at TISLR in 2013, I applied for and received research grants to travel to the Netherlands and visit their parent class and then to bring them to Canada to teach workshops for ASL instructors. Related to my grants and ongoing projects, I have studied instructors in Toronto (from 2014-2016) and Ottawa (from 2016-2017) as they worked to implement the CEFR in parent ASL classes. I have also discussed ASL instructor ideologies in other work related to the Toronto parent classes.

Utilizing the CEFR means engaging with other academic language ideologies than in traditional academic ideologies of deaf education. Perceptions of the CEFR are that it often functions as an elite policy document with attachments to prestige spoken language varieties (i.e., standard national European languages), and has been seen as exclusively for second-language teaching and learning. However, other writers argue that the CEFR can be used to support minority languages and first languages because it helps with developing curricular and teaching materials for languages that may not have often been formally taught in school. This point relates to how the CEFR can be valuable for sign language teachers. The ideologies behind using the CEFR to teach a minority language may not be the same as the ideologies behind teaching English or French.

The stated intentions of the CEFR and how the CEFR gets taken up in practice are often very different. In relation to sign languages, the CEFR is most often used for interpreter training, and there is often more support for teaching interpreters than there is for other groups of sign language learners. However, research shows the training provided to interpreters does not meet the language learning needs of parents of deaf children. Using the CEFR to teach sign language to parents means the CEFR can be used to support deaf children’s first-language sign language development and foster linguistic cohesiveness in the family.

The CEFR can be  empowering to parents because it explicitly describes what parents need to learn to communicate effectively with their children in the contexts where parents and children find themselves (at home, in public, etc.). The CEFR views language learning in terms of domains (personal, public, occupational, educational) and looks at locations, institutions, persons, objects, events, operations, and texts in the context of language use. For example, an A1-level parent class with a Family theme that is focused on the Personal domain and category of Persons will teach sign language related to names for and communicating with individual family members. Another class with a Family theme and Personal domain but with a category of Institutions will focus on family trees and relationships. This framework is more demanding for instructors than following a ready-made curriculum, such as Signing Naturally.  The latter is a useful resource for ASL teachers, but it does not meet the specific learning needs of parents who need to develop elaborated communication at home with deaf children.

The study discussed in my chapter followed ASL teachers in Ottawa as they taught a small class of five parents of deaf children aged between 19 months and 6 years. This was the first time I tried providing an orientation to the CEFR by myself. In this study, I was hoping to further field-test and finalize the curriculum materials that were developed for the Toronto parent classes.

However, I found the instructors in my study expressed resistance to the CEFR. One instructor stated that they wanted to be free to teach anything that came up and not feel bound to follow a curriculum or particular framework. This may have been due to their employment at a university that does not use Signing Naturally or other published ASL curricular materials. Related to this, the instructors appeared to favour teaching gestural communication, and this also influenced the assessments of parents’ receptive, expressive, and interactive proficiency at the end of the course since the assessments emphasized production over other aspects of language proficiency. The instructors did not always follow the lesson plan and theme for particular classes or teach content suitable for a beginner (A1)-level class (e.g., teaching low-frequency versus high-frequency vocabulary items). In spite of this, parents expressed their appreciation for and enjoyment of the classes and at the end of the study stated their desire for more parent ASL courses. This was also true for the parent ASL courses previously held in Toronto.

These issues indicate ongoing training for sign language teachers is needed in terms of assessment and curriculum development. This training is important for supporting the skills and knowledge of sign language teachers, and for providing high-quality instruction to diverse groups of learners, such as parents. In spite of the challenges with my study, I still feel the CEFR is a valuable tool for sign language teachers, and parents of deaf children benefit greatly from the provision of specialized classes.

Kristin Snoddon is Associate Professor with the School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. She teaches courses related to early literacy, inclusion, and social justice. Her research interests include inclusive education policy, sign language planning and policy, and critical ethnography. She’s on Twitter as @KristinSnoddon

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