Grant supports study of using sign language with spoken instruction to enhance spoken language in hearing-impaired children

Three Communication Disorders researchers in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences have been awarded a one-year, $25,000 grant to study the possible benefits of using sign language in tandem with spoken instruction to enhance development of spoken language in children with severe to profound hearing loss.

Sarah Poissant, Richard Freyman and Gwyneth Rost received an Emerging Research Grant from the Hearing Health Foundation for their project, “The Impact of Total Communication on the Auditory Perception of Speech.” They will work with teachers and administrators at the Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow.

Their research approach builds from the observation that speech perception for listeners in experiments where clarity has been artificially degraded to mimic a hearing loss is strikingly improved when listeners have prior knowledge of message content. Poissant and colleagues’ proposed study applies this hypothesis to children with hearing loss to determine whether signs serve in part as a prime to improve speech perception.
They will conduct two separate studies. In the first experiment, children will be presented with video and audio recordings of trained, experienced teachers of the deaf producing single words and sentences. Half the time the children will hear and see visual and spoken messages that match, while the on the remaining occasions the two messages will not match. Children will then be asked to tell whether what they heard and saw were the same or different. The researchers will determine any benefits of the signs by presenting them at varied times in relation to the speech signal. That is, before, at the same time as and after.
In the second experiment, children attending the Willie Ross School will be asked to point to a depiction of what they heard or saw after being presented with a simultaneously produced sign and speech stimulus, a spoken-only stimulus or a signed-only stimulus. The researchers will examine both perceptual accuracy and response time.
The study design will allow the researchers to determine, at both the group and individual level, whether access to signs improves, interferes with or has no effect on the perception of words in short sentences.
Poissant and colleagues hope results will add to the knowledge base about total communication and provide direction for clinicians, teachers and parents in making decisions about how sign language might best be incorporated into educational activities during the school day.
Photos: Sarah Poissant (left), Richard Freyman and Gwyneth Rost