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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, with the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts being the first school to start teaching in this manner, in 1867.


Since the beginning of formal deaf education in the 18th 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]

From about 1880 to 1980, doctors and educators in the United States had typically advised parents not to allow their deaf children to learn sign language and not to learn it themselves because it would impede their children's progress toward mastering English. According to experts, as long as parents didn't fall prey, their children would become fluent in English and reap the rewards of the hearing world.[3] Until the end of the nineteenth century, many teachers of deaf America were deaf themselves.[citation needed] However, oralists like Alexander Graham Bell began to wield increasing influence. Bell and others believed in deaf assimilation with the mainstream hearing world. He opposed the education of sign language and deaf intermarriage and reproduction. Others like Alexander Graham Bell were victorious at the Milan International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) in 1880 where the oral method was implemented with no Deaf members allowed to testify (The 2010 ICED has since apologized for their decision and removed the ban on sign language stating that it is essential in teaching deaf children). The time of Milan conference in deaf history is known by the deaf community as "the dark ages for deaf education in America."[1][2] Hearing teachers 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]

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]

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]

Modern usage[edit]

In 1964 The United States Congress issued the Babbidge Report on oral deaf education and concluded that it has been a “dismal failure.” Many in the deaf community applaud this report, and view it as a clear acknowledgment of the superiority of manual communication and education. The use of oralism declined markedly in the 1970s and 1980s with the work of researchers such as William Stokoe.[4] In 1864 schools such as Lexington, the oldest oral school for the deaf in the United States, offered a new option for deaf people. ASL emerged as the leading method to educate deaf students.[3] However, studies have helped validate the assertion that children benefit developmentally, educationally and socially from modern oralist teaching methodologies like the Auditory-Oral method.[5][6] Geers and Moog (1989) found that of a test sample of 100 profoundly hearing-impaired 16- and 17-year-olds enrolled in oral and mainstream programs, 88% were proficient and highly intelligible with their oral language, and could read at a much higher grade levels than the national average for deaf children.[7] Unlike children who receive oral-only education, deaf children who use both signed and spoken language speak as well as their hearing counterparts, which suggests that use of a natural sign language can benefit all deaf children.[8] [9] Language develops in the first two years of an infants’ life. By the age of one children speak their first word and at the end of two years they have acquired about 550 words in their vocabulary. Deaf children begin to express their first signs at about the age of 10-12 months.[10]

See 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 Winefield, Richard. Never the Twain Shall Meet. Washington, D.C: Gallaudet University Press, 1987. 4.
  3. ^ a b c d e f 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. ^ Baker, Kim (2004), "Oral Communication versus American Sign Language", Interdisciplinary Research Conference, Drury University  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. ^ Stone, Patrick (August 1997), "Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: Auditory-Oral", ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education 
  7. ^ Geers, Ann; Moog, Jean (Feb–Mar 1989), "Factors predictive of the development of literacy in profoundly hearing-impaired adolescents", The Volta Review, 91 (2): 69–86 
  8. ^ Davidson, Kathryn; Lillo-Martin, Diane; Pichler, Deborah Chen (2014-04-01). "Spoken English Language Development Among Native Signing Children With Cochlear Implants". Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 19 (2): 238–250. doi:10.1093/deafed/ent045. ISSN 1081-4159. PMC 3952677free to read. PMID 24150489. 
  9. ^ Hassanzadeh, S (2012-10-01). "Outcomes of cochlear implantation in deaf children of deaf parents: comparative study". The Journal of Laryngology & Otology. 126 (10): 989–994. doi:10.1017/S0022215112001909. ISSN 1748-5460. 
  10. ^ Berger, K.S. (2006). The Developing Person: Through Childhoods and Adolescence. New York City, New York. Worth Publishers.