OAKLAND, Calif., May 18, 1999 — Learning to read and write is a tough job, but for deaf and hard-of-hearing children it’s even tougher. Things that come easily to other children – such as grammar structure, idiomatic expressions, and puns – aren’t easily learned by those with hearing difficulties. Although they become proficient in American Sign Language (ASL), lip-reading or cued speech, most deaf or hard-of-hearing children graduate from high school reading and writing at a fourth-grade level.
“We learn language by imitating sounds, but deaf and hard-of-hearing kids miss out on that,” says Ellen Dolich, publisher of HiP, a magazine for deaf and hard-of-hearing youngsters. “[They] have very diverse ways of communicating, using sign language, speech or a mixture of both, but most of them have a difficult time reading printed words. There’s little opportunity for them to practice their language skills.”
“HiP Chat Pals,” a program developed by HiP Magazine and supported by a Connected Learning Communities (CLC) grant from Microsoft’s Northern California office, seeks to remedy this problem by involving deaf and hard-of-hearing students in structured on-line “chat” sessions. Thirty-nine middle school students from San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno, Sacramento and San Jose participated in the program, engaging in weekly chat sessions with their peers, completing assignments and making “small talk” on-line with their partners.
With some guidance from their teachers, students were asked to make conversation and get information from their partners, then edit and submit the conversations to their teachers. Throughout the 15-week program, the students gradually became acquainted, moving from simple introductions to stories about their families, pets and homes. They were encouraged to concentrate on their writing skills, reviewing previous chats and finding ways to communicate clearly and creatively. Teachers monitored the conversations, offering assistance and communication hints, but allowing the kids to learn and explore on their own.
At the program’s conclusion, students made presentations about their partners and wrote articles about their experiences, to be published in a future issue of HiP. The students were matched based on their reading and writing abilities, as well as their gender, race and economic background. Few of the students had any previous experience with the Internet, and none had experience “chatting” on-line, but by the end of the program they were all proficient and enthusiastic Internet users.
“The program turned out much better than I expected,” says Dolich. While the process of “chatting” on-line was difficult and awkward at first, Dolich said that students grew to love the unique freedom it provided them. They gradually improved their language and grammar skills – as well as their self-esteem – by getting to know their peers and getting practical experience communicating in a meaningful way. They also developed practical conversation skills and basic computer proficiency that will make a lasting impact on their lives.
The HiP Chat Pals this week celebrated the program’s success by meeting face-to-face at an Oakland restaurant, getting to know in person the friends they had made on-line. Although the students were shy and overwhelmed at first – many had never taken a train or eaten in a fancy restaurant before – Dolich said they gradually warmed up, enjoying the meal and each other’s company and cementing the friendships they’d initiated through their chat sessions. Based on the kids’ and teachers’ satisfaction with the program, HiP is planning to develop it on a national scale, connecting deaf and hard-of-hearing kids from mainstream and specialized schools throughout the country.