Language for Learning: English Language Learners, Deaf Babies, and Nomenclature Cards

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Language is the hook on which students hang their conceptual understanding, and a tool for further learning. Fluent language allows students to explain their thinking process, and learning precise terminology deepens their mastery of concepts. I am committed to eliminating barriers to communication and strengthening the language and vocabulary that helps students access the academic curriculum and connect to the people in their worlds.

Parents are an essential part of language building, and nowhere is this more evident than with English language learners and Deaf children.

For five years, I taught preschool English language learners. I could tell on the first day of school if they would be speaking English fluently by the end of the school year. Even without being able to understand Mandarin, Arabic, Ga, Karen, Burmese, Zomi, Korean, Bengali or Gujarati myself, I could observe the length of their sentences and the quality of their engagement with their parents. If they had the pragmatic skills to ask and answer questions and repair communication breakdowns in their home language, their English came quickly.

This semester, I am supporting two sisters from Japan as they learn English at Solterra Way Cottage School. They both speak Japanese fluently, and are receiving language instruction to access academic content in English. We read books, play games, discuss math, and build vocabulary in their areas of interest. Last week they learned about land and water forms and were delighted to learn that both Hawaii and Japan are archipelagos. This week, they learned about the body functions of the five classes of vertebrates. They learned that dolphins are mammals and they practiced speaking in complete sentences, “Fish, amphibians and reptiles cannot make heat with their bodies,” and “Amphibians have gills like fish when they are young, but use lungs when they are adults.” If you need help for a student learning English, let me know if I can help.

Enlish language learners ELL ESL vocabulary Montessori nomenclature cards land forms water forms.
"An island is a body of land, completely surrounded by water."

One of my Solterra Way Cottage School students this fall is Deaf. Until she arrived in the United State when she was 11 years old, she had no formal schooling, and she had acquired no language (written, spoken or signed). Before she learned American Sign Language, she could not discuss the past or the future or any abstract concepts, and she didn’t understand her relationship to her family members. My daughter, who I adopted when she was six, is also Deaf, and had no language until she learned ASL. Both of them are bright and capable, but their early language deprivation robbed them of the chance to build on the foundation of knowledge other children acquire as toddlers and has permanently impacted their literacy.

Ensuring early, easy access to language for deaf and hard of hearing children has been a 35-year mission for me, but too often I end up helping repair the damage inflicted by circumstance, or by well-intentioned but poorly-informed choices made by others. I was delighted to find the organization, Language First. They have a stated mission of ensuring effortless language acquisition for deaf and hard of hearing children, and they support bilingualism in American Sign Language and English (written or spoken) for young deaf and hard of hearing children.

If you have a deaf or hard of hearing child, even with a Cochlear Implant, please check out the Language First website. If you are local to Durham or Chapel Hill, let me know if I can help you. Making ASL a back-up option rather than primary language for deaf, hard of hearing or implanted children is a risky choice. “The ethical problem is that by the time this choice of treatment [spoken language only] has been deemed unsuccessful, such children have been deprived of necessary linguistic input during the first few years for life. Thus, they have been denied the solid foundation upon which all cognitive development depends.” Full citation: Hecht, J. L. (2020). Responsibility in the current epidemic of language deprivation (1990-present). Maternal and Child Health Journal.

I have taught scores of parents to sign, and I’m one of the few people around who can teach American Sign Language to families who speak Spanish! As a bonus, a little baby learning to sign is the cutest thing that exists in my world. For proof, check out this video of a Deaf grandma signing to her Deaf granddaughter. Note the eye contact, the smile of recognition and the movement of this 9-week-old baby’s arm as she reflects her grandmother’s signing, “I’m your grandmother.”

ASL baby sign language
A baby signs "I love you"

Using “baby signs” with hearing babies has opened earlier communication for many families. Deaf babies born into Deaf families produce their first understandable signs weeks to months earlier than hearing babies speak their first words. Research into this phenomenon has upended assumptions about infant cognition, and inspired parents of hearing children to learn to sign with them. My own hearing child was using between 100 and 150 signs before he talked, and he was an early talker. I’m considering adding a Baby Sign class to the offerings of Solterra Way Cottage School. Let me know if you want to put your name on the interest list.

My final thoughts on language relate to more typically-developing students. The need for intentional language instruction is not limited to those who are Deaf or who speak a language other than English at home, or babies learning their first words and signs. Even for typically-developing students who are native English speakers, understanding mathematical concepts, for example, often hinges on accurate use of terminology. A third grade student recently explained to me that he didn’t need to use the math manipulatives I offered him, because, “I already knew that 30 divided by 5 is 6. Because 30 divided by 10 is 3 and if you double 3 and halve 10, it’s the same thing.” The depth of his conceptual understanding is both fun to observe and to build upon. I told his mom to buy him a Math Dictionary. My next challenge for him will be to explain the concept using the terms “factor,” “divisor,” and “inverse.” Then we’ll be ready to look at it algebraically.

Montessori 3-part nomenclature cards Geometry student school lesson
The terminology of lines precedes learning the parts of a triangle and types of triangles.

Montessori education calls the explicit instruction of subject area vocabulary “nomenclature,” and it's usually done with 3-part cards, labels and mute definitions (with a blank space for the target vocabulary). You can find lots of examples on Pinterest. The students use “control of error” cards or books to check their work when they are finished. Understanding that the bones in their bodies all have names, learning the parts of a flowering plant or the names of geometric solids, or matching the names and discoveries of the great philosophers to their likenesses, helps students organize their thinking and inspires them to want to learn more. Check out the photos of my students learning land and water forms, botany, and geometry.

If your child or student is struggling with academic concepts, reading comprehension, or even emotional self regulation, the solution could lie in language-based instruction. If we want our children to “show their thinking” or “use their words” we should first make sure they have learned the language they need to do so.

land and water forms Montessori student project
An imaginary continent incorporating all the vocabulary from the land and water forms 3-part cards

Parts of a Flowering Plant--next will come conifers, mosses and ferns

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