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Teacher Overcomes Late Start in English by Focusing on the Solution

Teacher Overcomes Late Start in English by Focusing on the Solution

By Barbara Brite Lee

When presented with a challenge – three new 7-year-old profoundly deaf students who were seriously language delayed – Julie Russell, a 26-year veteran teacher of the deaf, looked beyond the problem and focused on a long term solution, a solution that included using Cued Speech.

In the summer of 2000, Julie was assigned to create a self-contained elementary class for the children. Although all three students had apparently normal intelligence, two students had cochlear implants that had been in use for less than six months; two were from homes where the spoken language was Spanish, two had previously been taught using ASL and one did not vocalize at all. Two of the students had attended the school for the deaf; one had attended a preschool.

Julie was a respected teacher, known for her expertise in and passion for language instruction. Over the years Julie had honed her skills, became a proficient signer, learned Cued Speech, learned Auditory-Verbal strategies, developed original teaching materials for herself and others, and had watched her students excel through high school into college. Julie had also learned Cued Speech from her colleague, speech language pathologist Karen Parrish, when they both worked with a student who used CS. The student had succeeded taking advanced placement classes in high school and is now attending the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill.

Anticipating her new students, the two teachers conferred and agreed that:

  1. the immediate priority was language development based on spoken language.
  2. signing could not efficiently facilitate that goal; and
  3. the two students with new cochlear implants were so delayed that it was unreasonable to spend a year devoted entirely to Auditory Verbal strategies for learning to listen.

Karen and Julie agreed that using Cued Speech was the surest road to literacy so they began cueing to the students and teaching them to cue expressively. They agreed that Julie would work on language and the designated speech-language pathologist would focus on speech and learning to listen.

Julie administered language assessments to establish baseline data on each student (see table below). In every aspect of language, each child was 4 to 5 years delayed. Julie based on her experience teaching with Cued Speech, set a goal: the children would learn language to age appropriate levels.

Language Assessment

  • Peabody Picture Vocabulary: All scored below the lowest level of the norms (2.6)
  • Test of Auditory Comprehension of Language (TACL): All scored at the three year old level.
  • Expressive Vocabulary Test (EVT): Two scored below the lowest level of the norms (2.0). One scored an age equivalency of 2 years, 4 months.
  • Sentence Elication Test (SET): Most of the students’ signed responses were simple lables, with the highest level being two-sign utterances


The first year was not easy; the transition from ASL to Cued Speech presented formidable challenges. For Cued Speech to really accelerate language learning, the parents also needed to cue. The children’s parents were given information about Cued Speech and offered the opportunity to learn to cue. The English speaking mother and one of the Hispanic parents learned to cue. The child from the third family only received cues receptively at school.

Julie worked with the students on language development in a self-contained classroom from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., cueing all lessons and using sign when communication failed. She focused on teaching them language as well as receptive and expressive use of Cued Speech.

“Everything revolved around developing language using meaningful experiences,” said Julie. Vocabulary developed so that the students could produce basic sentence patterns, followed by the use of basic conjunctions like “and,” “but,” and “because,” and then by more complex sentences.

Kindergarten teachers will tell you that the first thing kindergartners need to learn for literacy is the sounds of the letters. Knowing this, Julie selected Explode the Code, a phonics program, and began teaching the children to cue-and-say the sounds of the phonemes. The cues gave the children an exact representation of the phonemes they were learning. The second step in a typical phonics program is the blending of three-phoneme words, digraphs, and diphthongs, again easily expressed with Cued Speech. Using this strategy, the students not only learned to cue; they learned to associate the cues with the sounds of printed letters and to decode the cues when Julie cued to them.

Finding appropriate reading material was a challenge. After lengthy discussions with a Reading Recovery teacher, Julie elected to use the Rigby and Wright Reading Series because they provided a wealth of language appropriate reading materials in small, colorful, attractive books. Mainstreaming without a sufficient language foundation is usually a nonproductive experience for deaf students. However, after spending the first part of each day with Julie, the three students were mainstreamed into a first grade math class, their first exposure to regular education – with a Cued Speech language facilitator/transliterator. The goals were to give them exposure to a regular classroom environment, to the math concepts, and to develop sufficient language for taking the state mandated End of Grade math test when they got to third grade.

Other significant challenges that first year were that there were personnel who were philosophically opposed to the program; there was no experienced professional to provide guidance; and there was uncertainty about the role of the language facilitators/transliterators. The language facilitator/transliterator role was defined as to transliterate and also to do additional things that he or she deemed appropriate to facilitate the student’s language learning (i.e. rephrase, remind the student of something he had learned from Ms. Russell, repeat, etc).

“I had a vision but the path taken was not always straight and smooth. We had to take detours, backtrack and sidetrack, but we never forgot our goal and always moved toward it,” Julie recalled.


There were major changes this year. The program moved to a different elementary school and the role of the language facilitators was dramatically expanded from transliteration to one of total involvement in developing language in their assigned student, becoming full-fledged members of the educational team.

“Through daily observation of my teaching language lessons, the facilitators learned to input, practice and elicit specific language structures,” said Julie. In order to track language usage in a variety of situations, the facilitators were trained to document spontaneous language, writing it precisely in notebooks that they carried everywhere. Julie used the notebooks to check progress toward the IEP goals, measured by the length and complexity of their utterances For example, “The boy can’t under the ball” became “The boy can’t get the ball because the ball is under the car.” Such progress was exhilarating to everyone involved.

Julie continued to work with the phonics and reading programs. Due to the students’ language delay, mainstreaming continued only for second grade math. “I did not use mainstreaming as a dumping ground. I wanted it to be a meaningful learning experience,” Julie stated.

Julie also implemented a positive reinforcement system to encourage the students to use the language they had learned throughout the day. Initially, the children were content to use 2-3 word utterances. Then Julie gave the students a card with 20 circles that they wore around their necks. Every time a good sentence was used, the students were praised and a circle was punched. They were “paid” with a dollar of play money when each card was completed. At the end of the week, they could buy goodies at a store established in the classroom.

“The kids were almost clamoring to give good sentences whenever opportunities arose, and we were frantically trying to replenish the items in the store,” Julie said. “The students began talking more — and wanted to talk even more.”


Language continued to be the primary focus in the third year. There was an increased emphasis on math in preparation for the End of Grade third grade math test.

“To insure success, I implemented a consistent plan for pre-teaching and reviewing math vocabulary and skills,” said Julie. “The facilitators were responsible for monitoring this facet of the program; they alerted me to language issues that arose and I worked on those accordingly.”

The students had developed enough language that they were ready to use the Scott Foresman reading series adopted by the county for regular education students. Assessments at the beginning of the year indicated that two students were at the primer level and one was at the pre-primer level. The difficulties were not in vocabulary or word recognition, but in retelling and recalling details. Julie had one-on-one reading sessions with each student for an hour a day, and shifted the emphasis to comprehension through retelling and recalling details.

On the End-of-Grade testing in math, both third graders scored a 4 — the highest score obtainable. The test was language intensive, including many word problems. The excellent scores and the fact that the students were able to read the problems for themselves was cause for celebration by everyone who helped make it happen. Jubilation reigned both at home and school ! ! ! !

At the end of the year, the test scores showed one student at the third grade instructional/ independent level, one at the 2nd grade independent level and the 3rd grade instructional level, and one at the 2nd grade instructional level.


Success! This year one student is mainstreamed for reading; all three are mainstreamed for math and writing.

“We don’t mainstream without support. We give them whatever they need in pre-teaching and review to enable them to function successfully in the mainstream. The goal is for them to be able to be assessed with modifications addressing only their hearing loss and communication, not their ability to read and understand,” Julie stressed.


When I asked Julie what she had learned as a teacher, these were some of the things she noted.

  1. The importance of a long range vision – “Without this, it would be like taking a journey without a destination.” Stephen Covey (author of the best selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People would certainly agree. One of his habits is, “Begin with the end in mind.”
  2. The necessity to raise expectations – “It was not enough to make just a year’s progress in a year’s time. If that was all we did, the students would never have language skills on their chronological age level. They had to make more than a year’s progress in a year’s time in order to close the gap.”
  3. Everyone involved with the child needs to be, in some way, accountable for his progress. – “IEP goals need to be taken seriously. Teachers, parents, speech therapists, language facilitators/ transliterators each have a very important role to play individually and collectively. We all need to be aware of the student’s goals and support each other in achieving them. Parents were asked to do specific things and report back to me. Language facilitators/ transliterators had specific assignments each week and I checked the students’ progress on Friday. The speech therapist kept the rest of us informed about speech goals and strategies for helping the students reach them.”
  4. Educators and parents may have to leave their comfort zone and try something new to maximize achievement – “If you always do what you’ve done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” Julie reminded me that she had first heard that oft-quoted statement from me during a workshop. I heard it from a former student teacher, who heard it at a school for the deaf in Australia. It’s been around for a long time and is still true.

If Julie could change anything about the strategies she used, “I would have implemented the expanded use of the facilitators from the very start. I have always believed that knowledge of the student’s language is a crucial element for effective communication / facilitation in the mainstream. When facilitators become completely involved in developing the child’s language, facilitation is no longer a guessing game. They are no longer wondering if information needs to be rephrased. They are able to assist the student in applying the language he has learned in the resource room to the mainstream setting so that there is no question that the work the student turns in is his own words, not anyone else’s.”

“Training the facilitators to be language developers requires a lot of hard work, but knowing the benefit it reaps, I’d have it no other way. I needed the facilitators to utilize the time effectively when the students were not with me and to reinforce the language structures I was teaching.” Julie emphasized repeatedly that the students would not have made the progress they did without facilitators Beverly Mahoney (mother of a Cued Speech kid) and Linda Nelson.

Julie Russell and the entire staff at her school have walked the walk toward the solution. Julie did not shy away from the challenge because of fear or conformity or laziness. Her fellow teachers respect and admire what she has accomplished. There were many factors that contributed to the success of these students, but the bottom line is that Julie focused on the solution.