'Deaf children are able, but their level of language needs building up'

July 14, 2006

A childhood friendship inspired Diana Burman's prize-winning research on teaching deaf children grammar

Diana Burman's interest in deaf children stems from her friendship with two deaf sisters when she was 12. This week, it led to her winning the first Michael Young Prize for her ground-breaking research into teaching profoundly deaf children English grammar. The £5,000 prize, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and The Young Foundation, aims to recognise the most promising new research.

Dr Burman, a project manager in Oxford University's department of educational studies, won the prize for her work using morphemes - units of meaning rather than sound - to teach the spelling of English words, because deaf children struggle to learn English phonetically.

"I couldn't make any headway with their English literacy. If you teach Spanish-speaking children English using Spanish, they equate it with their own language and draw comparisons. I couldn't find any parallels between British Sign Language and English that could help them learn," Dr Burman explained.

One thousand babies are born profoundly deaf each year, only 2 per cent of whom leave school able to read to an appropriate age-level. "If you are profoundly deaf, you have no concept of sound," she said.

Dr Burman's method has been piloted in 36 schools for the deaf. "So far the results are looking good." She plans to use the money to hone teaching aids for teachers and parents and to develop more sophisticated books using a level of reading that deaf children can cope with. "They are intellectually able but their level of language needs building up," she said. The money will also pay for teachers of the deaf to visits training centres and go to international conferences to increase awareness of her research.

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