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Tracking Learning of Deaf Children to Enhance Educational Experiences

Yessica Rodriguez, Connor McLaren, Denise Fedlan, Drs. Sherry Eyer, Thomas Allen, and Donna Morere. Rodriquez, McLaren, and Fedlan work as EL2 research assistants. Photo courtesy of Thomas Allen.

From left: Yessica Rodriguez, Connor McLaren, Denise Fedlan, Drs. Sherry Eyer, Thomas Allen, and Donna Morere. Rodriquez, McLaren, and Fedlan work as EL2 research assistants. Photo courtesy of Thomas Allen.

Although powerful evidence has emerged demonstrating the importance of early language access for later academic success, little research tracks achievement of deaf children with a view towards identifying the role that early language experience plays in later cognitive and academic development.

Led by Dr. Thomas Allen, the Early Education Literacy Lab (EL2) uses findings from a wealth of previous behavioral and neuroimaging studies to guide the design of national longitudinal studies that examine whether factors identified in these previous studies (such as early sign language exposure) impact the academic development of young deaf children from widely differing home and school environments, and from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

As part of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-Gallaudet University Science of Learning Center Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2), the EL2 team is uniquely positioned to conduct its longitudinal studies.

Co-led by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, co-principal investigator and science director, and Allen, co-principal investigator, VL2 is one of only six NSF Science of Learning Centers in the United States. It is designed to conduct and translate research that seeks to understand and advance how aspects of human higher cognition are realized through one of our most central senses: vision.

VL2 features four national resource hubs (including EL2), three laboratories, and is administrative home to Gallaudet University’s PhD in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) Program-one of the first of its kind. Together, these units comprise the newly-formed Cognitive Neuroscience Institute (CNI).

EL2 utilizes the exemplary research conducted throughout the CNI in developing research studies that examine the academic performance of deaf children in pre- and elementary school, and test hypotheses about the impacts of home, school, and demographic factors on academic growth.

In fall 2017, EL2 launched its “Language, Mathematics, Cognition, and Learning: Extended Educational Longitudinal Study (EELS-II).” With funding from the Gallaudet University Priority Research Fund, the EELS-II research team includes Allen, the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Donna Morere and Dr. Sherry Eyer from Gallaudet’s Psychology Department, and Dr. Ilaria Berteletti, assistant professor in the PhD in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) Program and director of the Numeracy and Educational Neuroscience Lab (NENS).

EELS-II is the first-ever study to track deaf students’ academic progress from preschool through middle school. It builds on the foundational longitudinal study (the Early Education Longitudinal study-EELS I), in which Allen and his team collected data on approximately 200 young deaf children’s language, cognitive, social, and literacy development (ages 3 through 7). EELS-I assembled an extensive database that includes assessments and a considerable array of school, home, and individual characteristics of the study’s participants.

EELS-II will revisit the EELS I participants who were most recently tested in 2013, and investigate whether previously observed relationships between early language skills and emergent literacy among these children predict later literacy, numeracy, and writing outcomes.

While the work of EL2 is primarily focused on deaf children, the lab’s efforts fit into a broader national framework that is recognizing the importance of early language experience for academic success of all children. Unique to the EL2 work is its exploration of the role of early sign language in a child’s academic progress throughout the elementary school years.

EL2 seeks to understand critical differences among subgroups of the population-differences that policy makers should take into account when designing and developing educational programs.

“Lawmakers may create policies that apply to all students, but these policies are flawed if they do not embrace individual differences and the unique learning needs of certain populations,” said Allen. “This is especially true in the area of early language development, given the direct connection between early language skill and later academic success.”

Studying deaf children and noting the positive impacts of early sign language on later school outcomes may help to broaden society’s understanding of languages and contribute to early language development policies that benefit linguistic subgroups, other than deaf children, in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.

EL2’s work not only serves a purpose to the greater research and educational community but supports the education of Gallaudet’s students. Because EL2 maintains large databases and conducts complex statistical analyses, the lab provides training in applied statistics and database management skills to graduate and undergraduate students in a variety of majors and disciplines. The lab has proudly contributed to a number of doctoral dissertations on the campus.

In addition to Dr. Allen, the EL2 team includes:

  • Dr. Donna Morere, Psychology Department professor, co-director of the EELS Projects
  • Dr. Melissa Herzig, Translation Lab director, who helps EL2 connect with schools and completes the translational work needed for the EELS projects
  • Dr. Ilaria Berteletti, Numeracy Lab director, who supports the numeracy portion of the EELS projects.
  • Ralph Fernandez, VL2 Database programmer, who oversees the lab’s large databases and is highly involved with online assessment toolkits.

To learn more about EL2 and its research, contact Dr. Thomas Allen at Contact.

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