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Oralism is the education of deaf students through oral language by using lip reading, speech, and mimicking the mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech[1] instead of using sign language within the classroom. Oralism came into popular use in the United States around the late 1860s. In 1867, the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts was the first school to start teaching in this manner.[2] Oralism and its contrast, manualism, manifest differently in deaf education and are the source of controversy for involved communities.[3][4]


Early 16th Century Oralism[edit]

Since the beginning of formal deaf education in the eighteenth century in the United States, manualism and oralism have been on opposing sides of a heated debate that continues to this day.[2] Oralism as the systematic education of deaf people began in Spain in the mid-1500s and was the byproduct of socioeconomic motives. The church barred deaf people from holy communion because they could not confess aloud. Deaf people were also prohibited from inheriting their family's wealth; therefore, to preserve the family wealth, deaf heirs in Spain were sent to Pedro Ponce de Leon after hearing that he taught a deaf man to talk in San Salvador Monastery in Oña.[3] Oralism provided members of the privileged classes with deaf children a way to channel their children's education and an opportunity to keep them away from the deaf community. Speaking has been equated with the higher classes and higher intellect, signing with the lower.[3]

Late 19th Century Oralism[edit]


Before the Clarke School for the Deaf made its mark in deaf American education in the 1860s, there was a popular support of manualism.[5] Manual language soon became a less popular chose for deaf education due to the new Darwinist perspective.[5] Clarke School for the Deaf in 1867 became a "mainstream service" for deaf students through creating a "learn to listen" mentality.[6] This was done through the proper training of educators in auditory/oral education.[6] Since its start, Clarke School for the Deaf has expanded and provided support to the oralism movement within deaf education and policy.[6]


In relation to the Early 16th Century Oralism in Spain, 19th century oralists viewed oral language as a superior form of communication.[2] Gardiner Green Hubbard,[6] Horace Mann,[2] Samuel Gridley Howe[2] and Alexander Graham Bell[7] were popular supporters of oralism and its impact on deaf education and services. Until the end of the 19th century, many educators of deaf America were deaf themselves.[8] However, oralists like Alexander Graham Bell began to wield increasing influence.[2][7] Bell and others believed in deaf assimilation with the mainstream hearing world.[7]

In 1878, International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) met in Paris to discuss the use of sign language and other issues within deaf education.[8] During the congregation, no Deaf members were allowed to testify. In 1880, the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) met again in Milan with 164 educators attending with one of them being deaf.[8] This meeting created the solely-oralist classroom preventing any form of sign language from being used.[8] After the Milan conference the deaf community referred to this time in history as "the dark ages for deaf education in America".[1][2]


Hearing educators who could not sign replaced deaf teachers and, by mid-century eighty percent of American secondary schools for the deaf used the oral method exclusively.[4] Classes were conducted in an "unnatural" mixture of spoken and signed English with the teacher signing along, in English word order as they delivered their lecture. For example, "is" "was" and "the", which are not used in sign, were spelled out by the teachers using the manual alphabet which is difficult to produce and comprehend.[4] Students were taught using the articulation method, which taught them how to speak and lip read.[3] Oralists believed that signs were no more than gross holistic gestures, which stood for English words in a one-to-one correspondence. Sentences in sign were thought to have no grammar. The facial expressions, such as exaggerated movements of the mouth, tongue, eyes, and lips, suggesting grimacing or excessive emotional display, triggered horror in hearing people. Students were asked to stop moving their faces when they signed, which is equivalent to asking hearing people to speak in declarative sentences uttered in monotone.[3]

20th Century Oralism[edit]

Movement towards manualism[edit]

Even though students were not allowed to use manual signs within the classroom, many of the deaf students preferred manual signs and used them frequently in their dorm rooms.[1] These early attempts at oralism were commonly criticized because of their starkness. Some deaf children were considered "oral failures" because they could not pick up oral language. Others thought that the techniques of oralism actually limited them on what they were taught because they always had to concentrate on the way the words were formed, not what they meant.[1][2]

Leaders of the manualist movement, including Edward M. Gallaudet, argued against the teaching of oralism because it restricted the ability of deaf students to communicate in what was considered their native language.[2] Moreover, "attempts to eliminate sign language were tantamount to stripping them of their identity, their community, and their culture".[2]

Policy Change[edit]

The retraction of laws forbidding the use of sign language in the classroom occurred in 2010 with the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in Vancouver.[8] Deaf Grassroots activists and the planning committee of ICED created a solution to provide proper education to the deaf globally.[8]

Modern usage[edit]

Parental use of the oral approach typically stems from parental desire for their child to use a spoken language to communicate with the majority hearing population. They also feel the use of a spoken language will further their child's literacy and written language skills in the classroom. The success of the oral approach in a classroom setting has not been fully evaluated.[9]

Oralist Schools and Their Mission[edit]

A strong supporter of oralist schools in the United States is the Oberkotter Foundation, whose mission is "Empowering children who are deaf or hard of hearing to reach their full potential by providing leadership and funding in listening and spoken language." [10] The organization provides financial support to institutions that demonstrate a focus on developing skills in listening and using oral language for deaf individuals. This is not limited to oralist schools themselves, but also extends to universities, social support programs, and medical centers that are deemed supportive of spoken language development in deaf children. The Foundation believes that developing spoken language proficiency allows deaf individuals to reach their full potential.[11]

Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech: Focus on helping deaf and hard of hearing children develop spoken English and listening skills. The school's goal is to prepare students for the mainstream setting.[6]

Cleary School: Focus on ASL and Spoken English in its Elementary, Middle, and High School classrooms. Their Pre-K focuses on spoken English.[12]

Memphis Oral School for the Deaf: Teaching children to develop their spoken and written English skills by teaching children in spoken English.[13]


There have been few quantitative evaluations regarding the long-term outcomes of oral programs for deaf individuals, but those that do exist tend to study this in relation to children with cochlear implants. One study compared the English development of deaf children with a cochlear implant versus what the English development might have been without the implant. English development was greater and more successful for the implanted deaf child than that of the non-implanted child based on the implementation of a predictive model. The predictive model employs age, residual hearing, and communication mode used by the child to predict the language development. Although deaf implanted children are already at a disadvantage for English development when compared to their hearing counterparts, the implant, on average, reduced what could have been an even larger deficit had the child not been implanted (based on the predictive model). The authors recommend implanting the child as early as possible.[14]

The studies did not consider how a non-implanted child exposed to a signed language and a bilingual/bicultural education could develop English skills in relation to a hearing child’s English development. Multiple studies find that by ensuring a deaf child has access to American Sign Language, their overall academic performance is better than those who are not.[15]

Communication in oral-deaf students is typically less frequent and less complex than hearing peers of the same age. These expressed communications are less clear than that of their hearing peers.[16] Linguistically, these communications are typical of the language skills seen much earlier in their hearing counterparts.[16] Despite efforts to encourage the sole reliance on speech and spoken language in oral schools, many oral-deaf individuals tend to develop sign systems among themselves in non-supervised settings.[17] Additionally, oral-deaf children often use manual gestures/signs simultaneously or in addition to vocalizations during expressive communications at home.[16]

Some studies have called into question the role of developing spoken language skills in relation to developing reading skills. One study in particular demonstrated that while individuals who became deaf before developing spoken language did show a decreased ability to differentiate between the phonological properties of a language, they showed equal capability of recognizing and understanding the orthographic properties of what they were reading.[18] In fact, compared to their hearing counterparts, the deaf individuals showed an increased rate of written word processing skills as they increased in age. Altogether, this research provided evidence contrary to the belief that spoken skills are critical to the development of reading skills, and further proposes that educational approaches should include a stronger focus on building awareness of written language forms separate from the related aural aspects.[18]

There is little existing research on the social, professional, and mental health of deaf individuals using the oral method in comparison to those using other methods of education and communication.

There also is no accurate predictor of oralism's success in the classroom.[19]


Deaf children growing up in an oral setting are likely to experience cognitive and developmental delays as a result of a deprivation of natural signed-language. This decision to place the child in an oral setting however likely stems from pressure parents feel to do so from a doctor or medical practitioner. Pressure is then said to be placed on Deaf children, as they are reported to feel embarrassed if they do not master both lip-reading and spoken English. These delays are also not isolated to simply academic ones, but also social ones. Deaf children in an oral setting may feel depressed, anxious and experience aloneness and embarrassment as a result of such language deprivation.[19]

Se also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Through Deaf Eyes. Diane Garey, Lawrence R. Hott. DVD, PBS (Direct), 2007.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Winefield, Richard. Never the Twain Shall Meet. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1987. 4.
  3. ^ a b c d e Cohen, Leah. Train Go Sorry. New York, New York: First Vintage Books, 1995.
  4. ^ a b c Fox, Margalit. Talking Hands. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. New York, New York: 2007
  5. ^ a b C., Baynton, Douglas. Forbidden signs : American culture and the campaign against sign language. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226039640. OCLC 48211543. 
  6. ^ a b c d e "Welcome to Clarke". www.clarkeschools.org. Retrieved 2017-04-04. 
  7. ^ a b c "Introduction | AG Bell | Listening and Spoken Language". www.agbell.org. Retrieved 2017-04-19. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f "21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in July 2010 in Vancouver, Canada". World Federation of the Deaf. 2016. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
  9. ^ Swanwick, Ruth (2012-12-06). Issues in Deaf Education. Routledge. ISBN 9781136619977. 
  10. ^ "About Us". Oberkotter Foundation®. 2016-04-22. Retrieved 2017-04-17. 
  11. ^ "Grants". Oberkotter Foundation®. 2016-05-24. Retrieved 2017-04-17. 
  12. ^ "Cleary School for the Deaf". www.clearyschool.org. Retrieved 2017-04-04. 
  13. ^ "Memphis Oral School for the Deaf : Who We Are : Overview". mosdkids.org. Retrieved 2017-04-04. 
  14. ^ Svirsky, Mario A.; Robbins, Amy M.; Iler Kirk, Karen; Pisoni, David B.; Miyamoto, Richard T. (March). "Language Development in Profoundly Deaf Children with Cochlear Implants". Psychological Science. 11 (2): 153–158 – via JSTOR.  Check date values in: |date=, |year= / |date= mismatch (help)
  15. ^ "More Than Meets the Eye". gupress.gallaudet.edu. Retrieved 2017-03-28. 
  16. ^ a b c "Communication of oral deaf and normally hearing children at 36 months of age (PDF Download Available)". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2017-03-28. 
  17. ^ Anglin-Jaffe, Hannah (2013-05-01). "Signs of Resistance: Peer Learning of Sign Languages Within ‘Oral’ Schools for the Deaf". Studies in Philosophy and Education. 32 (3): 261–271. ISSN 0039-3746. doi:10.1007/s11217-012-9350-3. 
  18. ^ a b Miller, Paul (2007-08-01). "The Role of Phonology in the Word Decoding Skills of Poor Readers: Evidence from Individuals with Prelingual Deafness or Diagnosed Dyslexia". Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities. 19 (4): 385–408. ISSN 1056-263X. doi:10.1007/s10882-007-9057-5. 
  19. ^ a b "SAGE Reference - Oralism, Psychological Effects of". sk.sagepub.com. Retrieved 2017-04-19.