The Pragmatic Skills of Profoundly Deaf Children

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  • as a result, are less likely to acquire the full range ofconversational pragmatic skills.

    Previous studies that have investigated aspects ofpragmatic functions in the conversations of deaf chil-dren have found many similarities with normally hear-ing children in range of communicative intent and inthe provision of feedback to conversational partners(Day, 1986; Greenberg, 1980; Mohay, 1990; Skarakis &Prutting, 1977). Limitations have been reported, how-ever, in deaf childrens use of the heuristic function andin the strategies they employ to enter conversations(Day, 1986; Pien, 1985). Other studies have investi-gated the conversational abilities of hearing-impairedchildren when they respond to requests for clarifica-tion and have reported conflicting findings (Hughes &James, 1985; Prinz & Prinz, cited in Kretschmer &Kretschmer, 1989).

    The pragmatic skills that have not yet been re-searched in deaf children include their ability to re-quest clarification from their addressee, their ability torespond appropriately to such requests, and their over-all ability to employ appropriate strategies at times ofcommunication breakdown (Brinton, Fujiki, Loeb, &Winkler, 1986; Dimitracopoulu, 1990). This articleseeks to investigate the development of these skills indeaf children because, without these skills, they cannotcommunicate effectively in face-to-face interactions.

    Requests for Clarification

    Requests for clarification necessarily involve both thelistener and the speaker and indicate that the listener

    This study investigated the ability of normally hearing stu-dents and two groups of profoundly deaf students, one usingoral and one using signed communication, to employ a seriesof pragmatic skills required for effective face-to-face interac-tion. Specifically considered were the ability of listeners torequest clarification, the ability of speakers to respond to re-quests, and the strategies speakers use at times of communi-cation breakdown. Differences were found between the twogroups suggesting that the profoundly deaf students haddifficulty consistently using appropriate, productive prag-matic behaviors in their face-to-face dyadic interactions.

    To be considered a competent interpersonal communi-cator, a speaker must be able to apply a range of prag-matic skills effectively to ensure smooth face-to-facecommunication in conversation. Research has shownthat normally hearing children acquire this range ofskills within the first 8 years of life through active andconsistent involvement in meaningful conversationalinteractions (e.g., Owens, 1996; Romaine, 1984). Forprofoundly deaf children, however, although the effectsof profound hearing loss on syntactic and semantic as-pects of language development are now well described(e.g., Bench, 1992; Luetke-Stahlman & Luckner, 1991;Moores, 1987; Paul & Quigley, 1990), much less isknown about its effects on the development of prag-matic skills. Deaf children have fewer opportunities fornaturalistic, meaningful conversational interaction(Clark, 1989; Gallaway & Woll, 1994; Ling, 1989) and,

    Correspondence should be sent to Dr. R. C. Jeanes, Deafness StudiesUnit, Department of Learning and Educational Development, Faculty ofEducation, The University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010 Australia.

    2000 Oxford University Press

    Empirical Articles

    The Pragmatic Skills of Profoundly Deaf Children

    R. C. JeanesT. G. W. M. NienhuysF. W. RickardsThe University of Melbourne, Australia

  • has determined that there is a communication problembetween speaker and listener. The type of request forclarification indicates that the listener has identified acommunication difficulty and has conveyed that infor-mation to the speaker to repair communication (Lane,1987; McTear, 1985). The ability of listeners to requestclarification successfully at times of ambiguity or mis-understanding is an important feature of effective face-to-face interaction (Brinton et al., 1986; Dimitraco-poulu, 1990; Fey, Warr-Leeper, Webber, & Disher,1988; Hakes, 1980; McTear, 1985; Stone, 1988; Ward-haugh, 1985). A further indicator of listeners maturingcommunicative competence is their ability to makespecific rather than general requests for clarification,that is, to ask specifically about the information theyneed for clarification. Specificity in these requests alsohelps to avoid breakdown in the communication pro-cess. The most effective form of listener request forclarification informs the speaker precisely what it isthat the listener has not understood and directs thespeaker toward a response the listener believes will re-pair the conversational flow (Patterson & Kister, 1981).

    Responses to Requests for Clarification

    An appropriate response provides the informationneeded by the listener in an interaction, but the mostproductive response may also provide new, relevant in-formation that assists the interaction. No research hasbeen previously reported on this conversational abilityin deaf children, so the frequency of response types torequests for clarification in deaf dyads was also in-cluded in this study.

    Age Effects

    Research into the development of pragmatic skills innormally hearing children has consistently reportedrefinement and maturation in their use of these skillsso that adult-like patterns may emerge eventually, fromvery early childhood before the emergence of spokenlanguage to conversational maturity at around 8 to 10years of age and beyond. Early emerging skills includethose essential to smooth conversation, including turn-taking, which is demonstrable in early infancy (Trevar-then, 1974). By age 2 years, children can respond toneutral requests (Fey et al., 1988); by age 3 years, chil-

    238 Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 5:3 Summer 2000

    dren can respond to clarification requests (Brinton etal., 1986); by 4 or 5 years of age, they begin to improveand revise their original message in response to listenerfeedback (Patterson & Kister, 1981). By 5 years of age,children begin to appraise the quality of speakers mes-sages (Asher, 1976); at 7 years of age, they show earlyskills at disambiguating messages (Bearison & Levey,1977). The ability to make either specific or nonspecificrequests for clarification has also been shown to de-velop with age; an early study by Alvy (1986), for ex-ample, reported that only 20% of 6-year-olds requestclarification, compared with 73% of 11-year-olds. Thespecificity of requests for clarification has also been re-ported to improve with age (McTear, 1985); Ironsmithand Whitehurst (1978) have reported, for example, thatrequests for clarification are mostly general until chil-dren reach 9 or 10 years old,and then become morespecific.

    The ability to respond appropriately to requests forclarification has also been argued to develop with age,progressing from younger childrens simple repetitionof the original utterance to older childrens more com-plex elaborations in response to listeners expressedneeds. Owens (1996) argued that 4- to 5-year-olds tendsimply to repeat their original utterance, whereas elab-oration of some element in the utterance may occur by6 years. Speakers clearly provide additional input toclarify their utterance by the time they reach 9 yearsof age. McTear (1985) has further suggested that themanner of the childs response provides additional in-sight into their awareness of listeners needs.

    Because this research has been carried out withnormally hearing children showing, presumably, nor-mal spoken language development, it cannot be deter-mined whether pragmatic skills development is relatedsimply to a childs age age or more closely to his or herlanguage and communication experience and skills de-velopment.

    This study sought to investigate pragmatic skillsuse in face-to-face conversational interaction by threegroups of dyads: normally hearing, profoundly deaf us-ing oral communication mode, and profoundly deafusing Australian Signed English with dyads at 8, 11,14, and 17 years of age in each group. Because oftheir likely language and communication develop-ment differences and reduced opportunities for conver-sational interaction, we predicted that both the deaf

  • Apparatus

    This study followed a standard referential communica-tion experimental paradigm used previously by Fish-bien and Osborne (1971), Glucksberg and Krauss(1967), Roberts and Patterson (1983), Robinson (1981),and others. That is, participants were seated oppositeeach other at a table 60 cm wide that had a barrier 17cm high that prevented either participant from seeingwhat was on the table on the other side of the barrier.

    We used a series of five tasks to elicit interactivecommunication between the participant dyads. Eachtask included six trials. The five tasks were as follows:

    1. Simple Shapes: black outlines of shapes thatcould be interpreted as familiar objects by speakers,and thus readily labeled for identification by listeners.

    2. Complex Shapes: black outlines of shapes thatwere abstract and could not readily be labeled.

    3. Multidifferences: each card depicted a figureholding an object in each hand. Each card differed ona number of variables: color of objects being held, typeof head gear, facial expression.

    4. Relationships: black outlines of three commonobjects. The trials differed by the positional relation-ship among the objects.

    5. Diagrams: geometric shapes, with differencesbetween cards being the combination of shapes, theircolor, the position on the card.


    Each pair of participants was asked to undertake 10tasks, with one of them as the speaker for five tasks andthe other as speaker for the matching five tasks. Theparticipants were seated at the table opposite eachother. One of the pair was designated speaker (that is,the message sender, irrespective of the mode of com-munication being used) and the other the listener (thatis, the message receiver). With the exception of the dia-grams tasks, an array of six cards was placed on thetable in front of the listener. The experimenter had aset of cards, identical to those on the table, which werehanded one at a time to the speaker. The speaker wasrequired to describe what was on the card in order forthe listener to identify the corresponding card from thearray on the table. Once the target referent had beenidentified by the listener holding it up, the array in

    Pragmatic Skills of Profoundly Deaf Children 239

    groups would show some different or idiosyncratic pat-terns as well as, possibly, delayed development in theirpragmatic skills when compared to same-age hearingdyads in their ability to request clarification at timesof communication breakdown; their ability to respondappropriately to such requests; and their overall abilityto employ appropriate strategies at times of communi-cation breakdown. We used separate oral and signinggroups in this study because, in the Australian cityfrom which the deaf participants were drawn, oralschool participants were mainstreamed into regularschool settings, whereas the signing deaf subjects werein segregated, special deaf school settings. Thus, incontrast to the segregated signing students, the oralsubjects were assumed to have had far more daily op-portunities for exposure to, and experience with, stan-dard, mainstream patterns of conversational inter-action. In this way, we could identify the effects ofconversational exposure and experience on the deafchildrens pragmatic skills development. Although re-sulting sample sizes were small, age-related differencesbetween dyads were also analyzed to investigate pos-sible developmental trends in the deaf subjects as a ba-sis for future, larger studies.



    Sixty student participants were involved in this study.Twenty were normally hearing children (hearinggroup) while 40 were profoundly deaf children, eachhaving a hearing loss in excess of 90 dB in their betterear (averaged over 0.5, 1, and 2 KHz). Of the deaf stu-dents, 20 were attending oral educational settings (oralgroup) and 20 were attending settings in which spokenand signed English were used simultaneously (signgroup). With the exception of three deaf participantswho were from homes in which Auslan was used, allsubjects came from homes in which English was theonly language used. No participant had any identifieddisability other than hearing loss. Within each group of20 participants there were three pairs of 8-year-olds,three pairs of 11-year-olds, two pairs of 14-year-olds,and two pairs of 17-year-olds. Participants were ob-served interacting in pairs who were well known toeachother.

  • front of the listener was shuffled and replaced on thetable by the experimenter. The next card was thenhanded to the speaker. This procedure was followed foreach subsequent trial.

    The participants were told that the two sets ofcards were identical, that the speaker was to tell thelistener about the card, and that the listener was to findthe same card and hold it up to show the speaker. Allpairs were asked by the experimenter to see if together(emphasized) you can find the right card. The partici-pants were not specifically instructed to ask questionsnor in any other way guided in the undertaking of thetasks.

    In the diagrams tasks the experimenter had sixcards as previously described. The listener had plainwhite cards and a red and a black pen. The experi-menter handed a card to the speaker to describe so thatthe listener could reproduce the design.

    Prior to formal testing, two practice sets were ad-ministered, one in which the listener was required toidentify a target referent from an array, and one inwhich the listener was required to replicate the dia-gram as described by the speaker.

    The order in which the tasks were undertaken, theorder in which the trials were presented and who wasto be the speaker first, was random and arranged priorto the testing. All interactions were videotaped. For allinteractions the experimenter organized and controlledthe process of the testing. An observer was also presentat each taping session to record the listeners selectionson a prepared score sheet. The resulting recorded in-teractions were analyzed to determine the degree ofspecificity in requests for clarification, the types of re-sponses made to these requests, and the appropriate-ness of the responses.

    Listener requests from all tasks were categorized aseither specific, general, implied, or unsolicited:

    specific request: those that indicated to the speakerwhat it is that the listener needs to know, for example,The girl is in the middle?, . . . and how long is it?,Two straight lines?.

    general request:does not contain information to in-dicate what the listener needs to know, for example,Say that again, Tell me again, Beg pardon,please.

    240 Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 5:3 Summer 2000

    implied request:when there was no direct verbal orsigned request, but an indication, through a shrug ofthe shoulders or a confused or questioning facial ex-pression, that the listener needed assistance.

    unsolicited request: when speakers...


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