Steve Gibson: How teaching Deaf literacy has changed

Posted on November 19, 2013

For a number of years, at various colleges across Britain, there were discrete classes in Literacy and Numeracy which Deaf people could attend to learn the vital basic skills necessary to participate in wider society.

Often, hearing tutors would take the classes; they would use communication support workers or Level 3 BSL to communicate and teach.

Granted, there are some wonderful hearing tutors, but many Deaf students struggled due to inadequate communication support or the tutor’s poor BSL signing.

To date, the number of discrete classes at mainstream colleges has declined. Instead, Deaf students are placed in mainstream classes with communication support.

Despite the best endeavours of the literacy tutors, Deaf students have floundered.

However the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) can provide the solution. On its home page, the WEA places emphasis on: “A better world – equal, democratic and just; through adult education the WEA challenges and inspires individuals, communities and society.”

And the Deaf community is one example.

I am Deaf and a BSL user. I joined the WEA two years ago and began teaching Deaf Literacy to Deaf people in Sheffield.

To date, I have found the WEA very supportive and enthusiastic in setting up Deaf classes – I now teach six classes in Literacy, Numeracy and IT at Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham.

My regional organiser has this to say in his annual report: “Clearly the value of working with this Deaf community was without question, given the WEA’s ethos and values.”

The WEA do not only cover Literacy, Numeracy and IT but also run a variety of courses – be it pottery, art, family history and gardening amongst many others.

The WEA is concerned that very few Deaf people enrol for these courses. To this effect, WEA has collaborated with the Sheffield Deaf Sports & Social Club to train Deaf people to become Deaf Support Workers.

Once trained, the Deaf support worker should be competent and able to support Deaf learners taking WEA courses.

The Deaf learners being supported would normally have minimal language skills, i.e. not having Level 1 Literacy or maybe not having Entry level 3. This course is completely revolutionary and would be the first of its kind in UK.

Some of you might notice the terminology – Deaf Literacy – being used here in this blog; Deaf Literacy is literacy with a difference.

The Deaf students are not only learning English, but also BSL, because in many cases, they have not had formal BSL language development while at school.

They would need to distinguish the grammar structure and framework between BSL and English. This bilingual approach meant a different set of language tools.

For written English, the tools are pen and paper and Word for the PC. The Deaf students can learn to write letters and send emails to make complaints, comments, requests and compliments. Written work can be easily collected and stored into folders.

For BSL, pocket camcorders, computers and memory sticks are the literacy tools, with the necessary IT skills in video technology in connection with the internet. This is necessary to enable the students to see their BSL signing and critically assess themselves the same way as people do with their written work.

Finally, they will use the tools to create BSL videos to send comments, complaints, compliments and requests to public authorities and service providers.

It is then reasonable for them to expect replies back in BSL. With bilingualism and the Deaf Literacy class, the Deaf students can become more active citizens in the wider hearing society.

What’s interesting is that, in the Deaf Literacy class, the Deaf students have not found it easy to film themselves signing BSL – for some of them, they forget what to sign or freeze!

Still, it is important for them to learn to how to present themselves on film. Not only this, they need to learn how to use a camcorder and a computer to film, edit and email their videos to people.

It has been an interesting learning curve for the students and one end result is the below class video. As you will see, it’s a video with a difference.

If the WEA is able to set up 6 classes in South Yorkshire, there is no reason why Deaf classes can’t be set up elsewhere for Deaf people. Yoga classes? Art classes? Family History? And all taught by Deaf tutors! After all, the WEA runs over 9,500 courses in England and Wales.

For further information on WEA Deaf classes, please visit:

Steve is Deaf, married to Trishy and has four hearing children. He has been involved in Further Education for 25 years and sells BSL/English books ( He used to be a programmer and at the moment is working on online Deaf Literacy. He sees bilingualism as a vital gateway for Deaf people to participate in the wider society. Steve is passionate on rugby and can be seen to support Doncaster Knights on home matches.

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