Pragmatics: The Missing Link


By Christine Callan, Intern,  Colorado H&V

Most of our kids will develop these skills at age seven instead of three or four when typical hearing kids are developing them,” -Dianne Goberis

According to a study conducted in 1986, children who are deaf or hard of hearing (d/hh) use more directive and less informative communicative functions than their normally hearing age-matched peers. This type of language difficulty can increase the risk of social and emotional challenges. To further investigate this claim, Dr. Christine Yoshinaga-Itano headed a study at the University of Colorado Boulder. What was discovered is that pragmatic language development is a key component in helping our kids be competent communicators in any communication mode they are using. Better pragmatic language use can even protect a child from increased risk of victimization. For example, a child could learn to understand that what a person might say is different than their ultimate intent.

Pragmatics within language includes how context contributes to the meaning of words. To master pragmatic language, a child must be able to not only understand the words (i.e. grammar, definition), but also take into consideration the context of the situation and potentially even the inferred meaning. So how can we bridge the gap between our children and their hearing peers?

Dianne Goberis, lead preschool teacher for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Program at Mountain View Elementary in Broomfield, Colo. was closely involved in this recent study. “This study came about from numerous conversations with Dr.Yoshinaga-Itano about deaf/hard of hearing kids vs. typical hearing kindergarteners,” said Goberis.

According to Goberis, this study’s findings are extremely important for understanding how children who are d/hh develop social language skills. “There is a huge difference between typical hearing kids and deaf and hard of hearing kids. Most of our kids will develop these skills at age seven instead of three or four when typical hearing kids are developing them,” said Goberis.

The types of skills developed include how to start a conversation, interrupting while someone is talking, turn-taking in conversations, and staying on topic. “For me, one of the biggest areas of concern is about our kids’ ability to ask questions and being able to retell a story. If they can’t master these skills, they potentially won’t be able to comprehend a story or book academically down the road,” commented Goberis.

But parents, caregivers, and teachers alike can include learning in everyday activities to help bridge the gap for our children. Asking questions during story time, having children explain how to play a game, playing, “I Spy”, and purposely messing up to have a child correct them, or “silly sabotage” were just a few activities Goberis suggested we can do to help our children. Bottom line: “Awareness is the key,” said Goberis. The study has been published; the information is out there. It is now up to the community of parents and professionals to put the information to use in daily life.   

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