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Dolch Words for Deaf Children

by Kevin McLeod, studioD

Dolch words, also known as sight words, are common connectors and function words that make up 50 to 75 percent of the text in children's books. These words have been used in deaf education for more than 30 years to ensure basic understanding and familiarity with English grammar. Dolch words are typically presented in three lists for grades one through three. For example, first grade words include: are, after, again, an, any, as, ask, of, by and could.

Different Grammars

Some of these words do not have equivalents in American Sign Language, as the grammars of English and ASL differ. In ASL, many connection terms such as “and” or "be” are discarded as unnecessary, because their function in ASL is implied by hand shapes or movement. In deaf education, Dolch words are used to strengthen bilingual development by providing greater exposure to elements of English vocabulary and grammar.

Manually Coded English

Various sign systems, collectively referred to as manually coded English, have been created to bolster English comprehension. Some examples include Seeing Essential English, Signing Exact English, Cued Speech, Conceptually Accurate Signed English and the Rochester Method. These sign systems are not languages, but serve as adjuncts to ASL by enabling “codeswitching," a way to bridge the difference between English and ASL. MCE systems devise signs that are Dolch word equivalents. In the context of ASL they appear awkward, but can help deaf students develop a “feel” for the rhythm of English grammar.

Beyond Vocabulary

It is not enough to simply expose deaf children to Dolch words. It's important to ensure students fully understand them conceptually, with a firm grasp of meaning and ability to use them appropriately in context. Research the optimum ways to accomplish this is ongoing. The Reading Milestones series incorporates Dolch words and has been the primary text for teaching English to deaf students for over three decades. While little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of this program, results are consistent – most prelingually deaf adults read English at a third- to fourth-grade level. This does not reflect intelligence levels, but rather a failure of existing systems to convey English in an accessible way to deaf students.

Conceptual Approach

Two conceptually based vocabulary instruction approaches incorporating Dolch words have been attempted: the Cornerstone system and the commercial Fairview Reading Program. Both lack comprehensive studies to evaluate effectiveness, but have attracted attention from educators as alternatives to existing practices. One study utilizing this general approach was conducted with six students in Ohio in 2010 and reported positive results, however.

Beyond Dolch

Dolch words have proved useful in some respects, but current practices yield clearly dismal results. The Visual Language and Visual Learning Lab at Gallaudet University is conducting basic research into the nature of language development, and results are already providing useful insights for new approaches. Anecdotally, the most effective technique for building strong English reading and writing skills among prelingually deaf children is an old-fashioned one – reading stories together with parents.

About the Author

Kevin McLeod has written about culture, technology, social change, employment and the deaf community since 1985. He has worked with high school students, psychiatric patients and editors, all fine sources of chaos and drama.

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