Elaine Williams visits a project which is aiming to develop British Sign Language skills in hearing children. A maths lesson goes on in the corner of the room. The children concentrate hard and Mojisola, 6, her hands always busy, constantly touches her teacher Sandra Smith for renewed attention.
Mojisola is a hearing child and Sandra who is deaf, is a Sign language tutor. The maths lesson progresses. Alexander and Daniel give their undivided attention, focusing on their work books silently while their hands and fingers, faces and bodies work to communicate. Mojisola has developed such an enthusiasm for Signing that she once attempted to finger spell the whole of her reading book.
These Year 2 children at St Thomas More Primary School, Middlesbrough, are part of a Sign in Education project, the first of its kind in the country, which aims to develop British Sign Language skills in hearing children.
This one-year research initiative, funded by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Teesside Training and Enterprise Council, and a number of businesses, will monitor and assess the children's acquisition of Sign language, the relationships between deaf and hearing children and the attitudes of staff and children.
The project is the inspiration of Kathy Robinson who lives locally, a primary teacher with experience in deaf and mainstream education, the mother of two deaf daughters and a pioneering campaigner and writer on issues surrounding deafness.
As 90 per cent of all deaf children are integrated into mainstream schools, she believes the burden should not solely be placed on deaf children to learn to communicate in spoken English; hearing children should acquire the wherewithal to communicate with deaf children in their natural language - British Sign.
The thrust of this project, however, is to show that learning British Sign can benefit hearing children as much as it aids the deaf. Sandra Smith attends Sir Thomas More two days a week and spends another half day as researcher for the project. She works with the children on their daily curriculum subjects and prepares them for Monday afternoons when a group of children from the nearby Beverley School for the Deaf joins them in class.
Daniel is particularly attentive as the deaf children sit on the floor with his group, waiting for the afternoon's register when each child responds to his or her Signed name. He crawls across the floor, tapping the deaf children on the shoulder, working his fingers frantically in Sign, trying repeatedly when the visitors don't understand. A boy with the usual gappy smile for his age, he was trying earlier to have a Signed conversation with Sandra on the subject of tooth fairies.
Together the children sing Old MacDonald in Sign, a noisy, physical and spirited rendition that they all seem to love. This is followed by work on different foods through role play, the word written on the blackboard and then worked on in Sign. Again, pupils are attentive and eager to take part, engaging in language structure and communication on many levels.
"I think it is good for the hearing children to become aware of another language," says Sandra. "I am a real deaf person and they have to learn to identify with me. Children are naturally very expressive physically, and I don't see that what they use in PE, for example, they cannot use in Sign language as well. With me there, it's like acting. We have to get to the word they want to use by another method."
Sandra, who has four deaf children of her own, has been working at St Thomas More on the project for more than a year. "When I first arrived, the children were all over the place. They didn't realise that they had to look at me when they were talking, or they had to tap the table for attention. They were only used to listening. Now they watch and communicate directly."
St Thomas More staff are convinced that apart from the social benefits of integration between deaf and hearing children at an early age, pupils have gained in their own language development.
Celia Whittington, the school's headteacher, cautions any school undertaking such a project as it is a "huge commitment", but the benefits are significant. "I think we have gained a tremendous amount from this," she says. "The children and staff have become aware of the needs of deaf people. We have learnt that if you don't look at a deaf person when you are speaking to them they don't stand a chance."
But her pupils have become better communicators in other ways. "The children have to extend their concentrationIthey have to choose the best words to get their meaning across. If they aren't understood the first time, they have to find another way of saying what they want to say." In short, she believes that through learning a second language (Sign) they are developing their knowledge of English.
Having to work with a deaf tutor has made her pupils into confident learners. "They are growing in self-esteem. They have no problem now in going to people to ask them to explain things. Their eye contact is more pronounced and they are direct in the way they want to talk to you. They are not afraid to get things wrong."
Yvonne Gamesby, St Thomas More's Year 1 teacher, says listening to a Signed story without speech, focusing on the visual, has improved their concentration skills. "Some of them wouldn't normally sit for so long without fussing. "
As the mother of two deaf daughters, Sarah, 21 and Joanna, 19, Kathy Robinson believes passionately that the secret to breaking down communication barriers between deaf and hearing people is to introduce hearing children to Sign. And the younger, the better, because at an early "impressionable" age they can so easily be bilingual.
Through experience of her own daughters and knowledge of recent research, Kathy Robinson believes BSL is the natural mode of communication for severely deaf people who should be encouraged to be bilingual.
"Literacy levels have been very low among deaf children. It is only when they have developed concepts through the construction of their thoughts in their natural language (BSL) that they can move to understanding the English pattern."
The picture-like quality of Sign, Kathy argues, gives a clue to the meaning of the written word and then acts as a "reinforcer for the whole multisensory learning process". Teaching British Sign Language to hearing children, she says, will help both to reinforce their sight vocabulary in English and ease the isolation and under-achievement of deaf children in mainstream schools.
Royal National Institute for Deaf People, 105 Gower Street, London EC1E 6AH. Tel: 0171 387 8033 National Deaf Children's Society, 15 Dufferin Street, London EC1Y 8PD. Tel: 0171 250 0123