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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] 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 a source of controversy for involved communities.[3][4] Oralism should not be confused with Listening and Spoken Language, a technique for teaching deaf children that emphasizes the child's perception of auditory signals from hearing aids or cochlear implants.[5]


Early 18th centuryEdit

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.[citation needed] 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 associated with the higher classes and higher intellect, and the perception of signing has been the opposite.[3]

Late 19th centuryEdit


Before the Clarke School for the Deaf (now the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech) made its mark in deaf American education in the 1860s, there was a popular support of manualism.[6] Manual language soon became a less popular choice for deaf education due to the new Darwinist perspective.[6] Clarke School for the Deaf in 1867 became a "mainstream service" for deaf students through creating a "learn to listen" mentality.[7] This was done through the proper training of educators in auditory/oral education.[7] Since its start, Clarke School has expanded and provided support for oral communication within deaf education and policy.[7]

It has been remarked that, in the United States, the better-funded northern schools switched to oralism while their poorer southern counterparts kept signing because it was difficult to hire new oralist teachers.[8]


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,[7] Horace Mann,[2] Samuel Gridley Howe[2] and Alexander Graham Bell[9] 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.[10][irrelevant citation] However, oralists like Alexander Graham Bell began to wield increasing influence.[2][9] Bell and others believed in deaf assimilation with the mainstream hearing world.[9] Bell also believed that sign language was an instrument of imprisonment and that its use prevented the "gesturer" from being a "true American".[11] Bell had no opinion regarding whether or whom deaf people should marry.[12] By contrast, negative eugenicists sought to stop the spread of "bad genes" through invasive measures such as mandatory placement in institutions or sterilization. Bell believed oralism was "an attractive option to sterilization"[13][unreliable source?]. To Bell, implementation of oralism meant the possibility of a mainstream and "normal" life for deaf individuals.[13]

In 1878, the 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.[10] During the congregation, no Deaf members were allowed to testify. In 1880, the ICED met again in Milan with 164 educators attending with one of them being deaf.[10] This meeting created the solely oralist classroom preventing any form of sign language from being used.[10] 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 the mid-20th century, eighty percent of American secondary schools for the deaf used the oral method exclusively.[4] Some strategies, such as Total Communication or SimCom, saw classes conducted in a 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.[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 would later be described as equivalent to asking hearing people to speak in declarative sentences uttered in monotone.[3]

20th centuryEdit

Movement towards manualismEdit

Even though students were not allowed to use manual signs within the classroom, many deaf students preferred manual signs and used them frequently in their dorm rooms at residential schools for the deaf.[1] Some deaf children were considered "oral failures" because they could not pick up oral language.[citation needed] 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 changeEdit

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.[10] Deaf grassroots activists and the planning committee of ICED created a solution to provide proper education to the deaf globally.[10]

Modern usageEdit

Oralism is no longer used to teach language or communication in the United States. Parental use of the oral approach typically stems from a 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. Some researchers believe that the success of the oral approach in a classroom setting had not been fully evaluated.[14] Recent research has demonstrated that an oral education using Listening and Spoken Language can provide most deaf children with spoken language skills that are equivalent to those of their hearing peers if using a cochlear implant, which is a hotly debated device in the Deaf community.[15]

Oral schoolsEdit

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.[7]

Cleary School: Focus on ASL and Spoken English in its Elementary, Middle, and High School classrooms. Their Pre-K focuses on spoken English.[16]

Memphis Oral School for the Deaf: Teaching children to develop their spoken and written English skills by teaching children in spoken English.[17]

Moog Center for Deaf Education: Provides listening and spoken language services to children who are deaf or hard of hearing, ages birth to early elementary years, and their families.[18]

Tucker Maxon School is a spoken language early intervention and Pre-K thru 5th grade educational institution based in Portland, Oregon. Enrollment includes children who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as children with typical hearing in an inclusive, co-enrolled, mutually beneficial classroom environment. The school's mission is to teach "deaf and hearing children to listen, talk, learn, and achieve excellence together".[19]


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.[20]

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.[21]

Communication in oral-deaf students without cochlear implants 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.[22] Linguistically, these communications are typical of the language skills seen much earlier in their hearing counterparts.[22] Despite efforts to encourage the sole reliance on speech and spoken language in oral schools, some oral-deaf individuals developed sign systems among themselves in non-supervised settings.[23] Additionally, oral-deaf children often used manual gestures/signs simultaneously or in addition to vocalizations during expressive communications at home.[22]

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.[24] 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.[24]

There is little existing research on the social, professional, and mental health of deaf individuals using oral methods in comparison to those using other methods of education and communication. However, some studies suggest that social-emotional outcomes for deaf children who use cochlear implants and spoken language are statistically significantly higher than those of their signing deaf counterparts in a world made for ableism.[25][26]

There also was no accurate predictor of oralism's success in the classroom.[27]


It is reported by some that deaf children in an oral setting may feel depressed, anxious or experience aloneness and embarrassment. [27]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ Estes, Ellen L. (June 2010). "Listening, language, and learning: Skills of highly qualified Listening and Spoken Language Specialists in educational settings". Volta Review. 110 (2): 169–178. doi:10.17955/tvr.110.2.m.627.
  6. ^ a b C., Baynton, Douglas (1996). Forbidden signs : American culture and the campaign against sign language. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226039640. OCLC 48211543.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Welcome to Clarke". www.clarkeschools.org. 5 September 2013. Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  8. ^ Nielsen, Kim E. (2007). "The Southern Ties of Helen Keller". The Journal of Southern History. 73 (4): 795. doi:10.2307/27649568. ISSN 0022-4642. JSTOR 27649568. Footnote 37 references Baynton
  9. ^ a b c "Introduction | AG Bell | Listening and Spoken Language". www.agbell.org. Archived from the original on 2017-05-09. Retrieved 2017-04-19.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Nielsen, Kim (2012). A Disability History of the United States. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. ISBN 978-080702204-7.
  12. ^ Bell, Alexander G. (1891). "Marriage". Science. 17 (424): 160–163. doi:10.1126/science.ns-17.424.160. PMID 17790082.
  13. ^ a b Greenwald, Brian H. (Spring 2009). "The Real "Toll" of A.G. Bell: Lessons about Eugenics". Sign Language Studies. 9 (3): 258–265. doi:10.1353/sls.0.0020. JSTOR 26190555. S2CID 144370435.
  14. ^ Swanwick, Ruth (2012-12-06). Issues in Deaf Education. Routledge. ISBN 9781136619977.
  15. ^ Geers, Anne (July 2017). "Early Sign Language Exposure and Cochlear Implantation Benefits". Pediatrics. 140 (1): e20163489. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-3489. PMC 5495521. PMID 28759398.
  16. ^ "Cleary School for the Deaf". www.clearyschool.org. Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  17. ^ "Memphis Oral School for the Deaf : Who We Are : Overview". mosdkids.org. Retrieved 2017-04-04.
  18. ^ "Moog Center for Deaf Education". www.moogcenter.org. Retrieved 2020-07-08.
  19. ^ "Tucker Maxon School". www.tuckermaxon.org. Retrieved 2019-01-09.
  20. ^ Svirsky, Mario A.; Robbins, Amy M.; Iler Kirk, Karen; Pisoni, David B.; Miyamoto, Richard T. (March 2000). "Language Development in Profoundly Deaf Children with Cochlear Implants". Psychological Science. 11 (2): 153–158. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00231. JSTOR 40063514. PMC 3429133. PMID 11273423.
  21. ^ "More Than Meets the Eye". gupress.gallaudet.edu. Retrieved 2017-03-28.
  22. ^ a b c Nicholas, Johanna G.; Geers, Ann E. (1997). "Communication of Oral Deaf and Normally Hearing Children at 36 Months of Age". Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. 40 (6): 1314–1327. doi:10.1044/jslhr.4006.1314. PMID 9430751. Retrieved 2017-03-28.
  23. ^ 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. doi:10.1007/s11217-012-9350-3. ISSN 0039-3746. S2CID 145422142.
  24. ^ 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. doi:10.1007/s10882-007-9057-5. ISSN 1056-263X. S2CID 141473313.
  25. ^ Moog, Jean (February 2011). "Psychosocial adjustment in adolescents who have used cochlear implants since preschool". Ear and Hearing. 32 (1suppl): 75S–83S. doi:10.1097/AUD.0b013e3182014c76. PMC 3160727. PMID 21832891.
  26. ^ Percy-Smith, Lone (December 2008). "Factors that affect the social well-being of children with cochlear implants". Cochlear Implants International. 9 (4): 199–214. doi:10.1179/cim.2008.9.4.199. PMID 18937269. S2CID 11365757.
  27. ^ a b Gertz, Genie; Boudreault, Patrick (2016). SAGE Reference - Oralism, Psychological Effects of. doi:10.4135/9781483346489. ISBN 9781452259567.