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Moving Beyond the Fourth Grade Reading Level:

Creating a Network of Success

Nadene Eisner
WRD 510 - Winter 2015
Professor Read

Seventh grade between 1977 and 1978 was a dreadful year. Usually I preferred to be
alone, but as a child who had become deaf at the age of three after learning speech and
mainstreamed in the years before the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975
(Archived 1), I had been left alone in an undesirable space a school system that had no
knowledge of how deaf children learned. Several classmates, along with a few teachers who
expected me to follow their speech as they circled the room, were quite cruel, and I was not
armed with the skills to overcome these challenges. In those years, I encountered the idea of
failure frequently. When I entered junior high school, I was left alone again in classrooms
without accommodations that would level the playing field between my hearing classmates
and me. As I moved from one subject to the next, I was held responsible for my academic and
social failures. During that terrible year, I learned about a school district that offered a program
within the regular school for other deaf and hard-of-hearing students who, like me, did not use
sign language. I would be mainstreamed throughout the day and attend a special study hall for
academic support. I begged my parents to send me, but at the Individualized Education Program
meeting to discuss my placement, my parents were told that my failure to succeed (in most
classes except English, where I was doing quite well) was the best they should expect, given that
my audiogram identified me as being profoundly deaf. Reluctantly, the district allowed the
transfer. I felt a weight released from my thirteen-year-old shoulders, and quietly I resolved to
embrace this learning new space, cease my encounters with failure, and set a goal toward
success.
Unfortunately there were a few more obstacles to confront. During my
first year as an eighth grader in my new school I was mainstreamed for all
my classes except English. I did not understand why I was not allowed to
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join my hearing classmates in the one subject that I loved and excelled.
Instead, I, sat, slouched in my seat and humiliated, with two other students
in a class led by the deaf education teacher. The instruction was simplified
with language and expectations below my capabilities. I disliked reading
third- and fourth-grade abridged versions of classic stories these were the
years before quality Young Adult literature was available, and I was reading
adult-level novels by the end of elementary school. I was bored and
disengaged, and I think that year set me back academically in reading
comprehension and writing.
Why did my parents allow me to be pulled from a mainstream subject
where I had consistently performed well? I am certain that this teacher
justified her curriculum to our families by explaining that our deafness meant
we did not have the language necessary to succeed in a regular English
curriculum. As this was 1978, she may have bolstered her claims with WA
Marshalls 1970 thesis titled, Contextual Constraint on Deaf and Hearing
Children. Investigating the Effect at Fourth Grade Reading Level Using the
Cloze Procedure. My parents had watched me receive poor grades for
years. Perhaps they thought this teacher was an authority. Or perhaps, in
those early years of educational advocacy, they felt helpless. Agency within
a school system was out of reach for deaf children and other children with
disabilities, but they were not the only ones. Parents new to the system were
lost as well. The deaf and hard-of-hearing program I joined had its share of
patronizing hearing professionals, and I am sure the deaf education teacher
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did not appreciate my lack of enthusiasm for her English lessons. At some
point that year this teacher, an unpleasant woman with unrealized dreams of
a career in theater, took me aside and called me a failure.
These encounters with the topoi of failure, underachievement, low self-esteem, and low
expectations followed me through the years in different spaces, when I transferred back to my
(still unsupportive) home school district, when I entered Penn State with little more than a note
taker as an accommodation, when I graduated and realized over and over my limitations in jobs
that required hearing, when I entered graduate school to become a librarian, again without
accommodations, when I was denied an interview for a graduate library reference position
because I could not hear on the telephone, and much later, when a school district reconsidered its
decision to hire a deaf school library director (after I had been teaching successfully for two
years). Failure and low expectations are topoi to me because they are commonplace. When I
tell deaf people about my experiences, they nod their heads sympathetically. They have heard
this before from others or encountered it themselves in similar spaces. Topoi establish common
meanings, ideas, and assumptions (Pepper 1), and the topoi listed here form a depressing
folksonomy words derived from people using their own vocabulary and adding explicit
meaning (Rice 87) that identify how an exigency such as the reading and writing abilities of
deaf and hard-of-hearing people can have lasting effects on a population.
Rice says that topoi are fixed definitions of spaces that do not enter into relationship
with one another (71). The topoi of failure and its relationship to the fourth-grade reading level
has remained static for more than a hundred years and forms a grand narrative of failure within
the deaf community that was reignited in 2000 when a small study found that fifty percent of the

students who took a standardized exam would graduate high school with a fourth grade reading
level (Traxler 347).
How did a population that embodied a rich, vibrant, historical, and little understood
culture come to be identified with a small samples reading level? Arriving at this point did not
happen in isolation. The Talmud, the oral Torah that interprets and explains the laws of the
Torah, was completed in the fifth century and called deaf people heresh, meaning mentally
disabled (Marx 114). Those who encountered deaf people through the centuries were involved
in primarily hearing-dominated roles religious benefactors, doctors, educators, and later,
speech therapists and audiologists and they mediated knowledge using genre specific to their
professions, repeating data of a populations failure in order to justify establishing remedial
learning standards. But the uniqueness of deaf culture is that it was created, almost
spontaneously, as a result of a loss of hearing and the inherent universal need to understand and
be understood.
Deafness is a culture that splices as individuals who become deaf at any age may choose
to join this culture and also weaves as the new knowledge they bring, and the technology that
changes the way deaf people hear and communicate creates a new history and establishes new
meanings of deaf culture and deaf education. It is a culture that has been credited with
introducing the football huddle to prevent the opposing team from seeing their hand signals
(Schmidt 5) and the Wyndtell, an early email pager (Wyndtell 1). It is a culture that gave the
world a lesson in peaceful and successfully-organized demonstration for a deaf president in
1988. The demonstration turned Gallaudet University into a hub for a network of politicians,
media, educators, sign language interpreters, and the deaf community and its deaf leaders in an
era dependent upon the (hearing) rotary telephone (Gannon and Beatty 19). And yet we continue
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to associate deafness more with what deaf people cannot do, as with the YouTube videos of
individuals sitting in audiologist offices waiting for their cochlear implants to be switched on
(InspiredWorld 2013). In other words, we maintain the cultures encounters with their failure to
hear, and in turn, learn.
In writing a narrative that explores the detrimental effect of the fourth grade reading
level on deaf and hard-of-hearing students, I look to Rice as my rhetorical guide. Grand
narratives of despair, encounters with failure and constructions of hope are familiar to Rice, who
in Digital Detroit explored the citys inability to develop and thrive by analyzing the connections
that led to and from the citys spaces. On the other hand, splicing and weaving, recruiting new
participants, and mediating knowledge through genre are terms common to Actor-Network
Theory (ANT). As Potts explains in Social Media in Disaster Response, ANT draws from
sociology and suggests that all participants, whether they are human or nonhuman, have equal
agency to affect any given situation (25).
While the participants in my paper are actors, contrary to Latours theories, they do not
have equal agency (Latour [1987] 2003 as cited in Potts 25). More specifically, deaf participants
are delegated less agency than hearing, and there are considerable hearing actors, including
hearing mediated genre, within deaf education. Audiograms, which determine the range of
hearing a person has, and Individualized Education Programs, which establish student goals, are
actors. Professionals such as teachers, audiologists, and speech therapists are actors. Technology
such as hearing aids and cochlear implants are actors. The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf
Education, which published one of the articles alluding to the fourth grade reading level is an
actor, as are the universities that funded this research and at the same time offer developmental
writing classes for deaf and hard of hearing students. The deaf and hard-of-hearing community
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is an actor, along with its culture and history of deaf education. These networked groups are
called actants (Latour, as cited in Potts 25) and together these actants continue to perpetuate
and disseminate the fourth grade reading level as both a belief and an argument.
Disagreement and emotionally-fueled arguments are prevalent in deaf studies and deaf
education. Constructive dialogue can be helpful in coming to terms with a contentious issue.
Hawk, in Toward a Rhetoric of Network (media) Culture, explains the use of dissoi-logoi, an
exercise based on making the weaker argument the stronger, or reversing the obvious argument
to make an argument that is culturally/situationally counterintuitive (834). But discussion over
the fourth grade reading level has not resulted in many changes in the argument, nor has it led
to significant and productive changes in instructional methodology. The fact is, there is very
little arguing over the fourth grade reading level; it existed long before Traxlers 2000 study.
But there is a positive side to this, too, that readers often overlook. As Dr. Marc Marschark, cofounder and co-editor of the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, said in an interview,
part of the story is that fifty percent of deaf high school graduates read above the fourth-grade
level (Seaver 1). In other words, fifty percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing students are
graduating high school at or beyond grade level. They are meeting or exceeding expectations,
excelling in some or all of their classes, attending postsecondary institutions, discovering and
pursuing academic passions, and establishing satisfying careers. There is potential to succeed,
and rather than arguing over fixed data, we should be working toward solutions.
For us as postsecondary writing teachers we can work together to explore what we know
about teaching reading comprehension and writing to hearing and nonnative English speakers
and think about how we can apply this to deaf and hard-of-hearing students. We should do this
because some of us have encountered, and some of us will encounter deaf and hard-of hearing
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students in our classrooms. This connection makes us the other in this fourth grade reading
level network. By learning about the actants that led to and perpetuated the grand narrative of
the fourth grade reading level, by looking at how the data from research became information,
and by seeing how different actors manipulated the information to create their own knowledge
for their own purposes, we can locate where we fit and how we might bring outside knowledge
of reading comprehension and writing methodologies that are used for both regular first-year
writing classes and also writing classes for nonnative English speakers into the network.
To begin to understand the fourth grade reading level, outsiders to deaf studies and deaf
education need some insider knowledge. For this paper, I will concentrate on locating this
knowledge through genre. In Network, Spinuzzi writes that texts tend to develop over time
within particular activities to meet recurrent needs (147). Audiograms as texts demonstrate
visually with images and print the sounds a person does or does not hear, but also can provide
evidence for school placement and method of communication (oral versus sign language)
whether or not this is in the best interest of the child (Easterbrooks and Scheetz 12).
Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), short-and long-term learning goals written for
students with identifiable disabilities, are dependent upon a network (team) of professionals who
may or may not be advocating for the child (Hands & Voices 6).
Both audiograms and IEPs have the potential to use their data and language to dictate
how children learn for many years, meaning, as Spinuzzi explains, that as genre they provide a
developmental stabilizing influence on human activity (147). Exploring these two genres in
detail is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, I will focus on academic genres that are
controlled by human actors, and I will begin with a study about early actors of deaf education
and the grand narrative of the fourth grade reading level as seen through the eyes of a hearing
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medical anthropologist in her 1985 text, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary
Deafness on Marthas Vineyard.
Nora Allen Groces examination of Marthas Vineyard was an ethnographic, networked
study of the only known fully integrated hearing/deaf community in early United States history.
The gene for deafness in this study originated in a small community from the county of Kent in
England (Loc 14). As families migrated together to the United States and intermarried, the deaf
community grew and thrived for over two hundred years, especially in the town of Chilmark on
Marthas Vineyard (Loc 5), outside the network of cities and states on the United States
mainland.
Groce notes that literacy was not a priority for most of the island residents in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but thanks to the American School for the Deaf (ASD), the
first residential school for the deaf established in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817, deaf island
children soon surpassed their hearing neighbors in literacy. One person Groce interviewed said,
"The deaf-all of them that I can remember-they could read and they could write. They had more
than the average amount of education, more than usual, and were considered well educatedwhich they were for the times." Other residents recalled that some of the less educated hearing
people would occasionally bring a newspaper or legal document to their deaf neighbors to have it
explained (Loc 971-974). Groce provides the reader with positive and encouraging knowledge,
yet reminds the reader a few sentences later, Even today, although the vast majority of deaf
individuals receive an education, it is estimated that many deaf children leave school with only a
fourth- or fifth-grade education because of delays in learning to communicate and disruptions in
special education programs (Schein and Delk 1974; Trybust and Karchmer 1977; Neisser 1983
as cited in Loc 974-977).
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Groces book touched on the beginnings of deaf education and sign language, and the
islands effect on the mainlands deaf culture. Although there did exist residential schools that
forbid students from signing (the most prominent, Clarke School, was founded in 1867 in
Massachusetts), many deaf children thrived at schools that allowed them to communicate
through what would become American Sign Language. For fifty years after the establishment of
the American School for the Deaf, deaf people experienced a golden age of signed
communication, education, and culture (ASD 1) and nearly fifty residential schools for the deaf
were established across the United States (Chowder 1). When change came, when this golden
age ended, it was mediated across a network of predominantly hearing male educators, and the
decision was disseminated through the genre of a conference proceeding.
In 1880, an international group of educators of deaf children convened in Milan, Italy for
the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. Of the one hundred and sixty four
delegates in attendance, only one was deaf (Second 2). The decision made at this meeting was
recorded on pages four and five of the Report:

How could a decision made in Milan, Italy in 1880 have the capacity to affect reading
levels of deaf and hard-of-hearing children for the next one hundred and thirty-five years? The
answer may identify the power of the network and the power of the larger hearing population
as well. As delegates returned to their countries, they were able to share and spread the results of
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the conference and begin implementing pedagogical changes to support oralism. This led to
efforts to gather more controlled data, and also led to repetitions of failure, and warnings of dire
consequences if children were permitted to use sign language.
Encounters with the fourth grade reading level are found in the spaces of journals
dedicated to promoting oralism speech and lipreading skills among deaf children. In a 1919
Psychological Bulletin article, Mitchell summarizes the research of Pintner and Paterson, who
were the first to administer intelligence tests to deaf children (Vernon 225). According to
Mitchell, the researchers found a startling deficiency of the deaf to comprehend and handle
written and printed language and the general mental inferiority of the deaf as a group. They
also found that the deaf child was two to three years behind the hearing child, and academic
training cannot profit the deaf child very much (Mitchell 305). Pintner and Paterson published
several of their findings in a speech and language journal called Volta Review. The fourth grade
reading level, is repeated here frequently through the years, and demonstrates how a statement
can be situated in a particular space to be reinterpreted as information for the writers own
purposes.
The Volta Review disseminates information through another publication as well: Volta
Voices, a parent magazine that is sponsored by cochlear implant companies. The National
Institute on Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders estimates that as of 2012 58,000
adults and 34,000 children have received cochlear implants (Cochlear Implants 1). The
cochlear implant industry has access to everyone who receives their implants, and the Volta
Review has a partnership with these companies. Rice quotes Amin and Thrift when they say our
concern is with power as a mobile, circulating force which through the constant re-citations of
practices, produces self-similar outcomes, moment by moment (105 as cited in 144). Volta
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Voices is powerful. It reaches a large population, and they are able to use their vast space to
circulate the fourth grade reading level to promote their speech and listening agenda,
supporting a belief that a lower reading level is equal to failure. Space, Rice says, is not just a
thing.It is also represented as something elsean emotion, a feeling, an inspiration, a
disappointment (143). When writers take the fourth grade reading level, out of context, they
evoke a range of emotions from students, parents, and the deaf community who may be unaware
of its original intention, which was to explore a small sampling and suggest recommendations
based on the results.
Carol Bloomquist Traxlers 2000 article, sponsored by the Gallaudet Research Institute,
examined the performance by deaf and hard-of-hearing students on the Stanford Achievement
Test, 9th edition. Traxlers study, which was based on a small number of students within a larger
random sample (347), found that the median reading comprehension score for students between
the ages of eight and eighteen was around the fourth grade reading level (343).
The journal that published this study is the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education
(JDSDE). JDSDE was founded in 1995 to investigate sign language, the development of deaf
children, cognition and learning among deaf individuals, and related areas (Marschark and
Humphries 1). Nearly every member of this journal editor, book editor, associate editors, and
editorial board is hearing. Most members have more than thirty years experience in their field,
primarily as psychologists, linguists, and deaf education specialists. Many of the articles in the
JDSDE are repetitions of common themes, and researchers cite each other. A Google Scholar
search shows that in the fifteen years since it was published, Traxlers study has been cited in a
multitude of publications over four hundred times. Perhaps what separates Traxlers fourth
grade reading level statement from the ones before is that her article was published when
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information had become much more accessible to the general public, and the editorial board was
unware of its movement throughout cyberspace.
JDSDE may be at odds with itself and the population it aims to serve. Unlike Volta
Review, it does not have a parent journal and in the past has made fewer efforts to establish
connections with a more diverse readership. When the executive director for Hands & Voices, a
national organization supporting the needs of parents who had deaf and hard of hearing children,
interviewed JDSDEs co-editor in 2005, she asked Marschark about the data showing the
average reading level of deaf high school graduates is grade level 3.9 (Seavers 1). In response,
Marschark emphasized that although the data did show fifty-percent of students studied reading
at around a fourth grade reading level, it also showed fifty-percent of deaf high school graduates
read above the fourth-grade level. He said to Seavers, The way that you phrased it emphasizes
everybody who's below the fourth-grade level. Marschark acknowledged that he and other
researchers may have been misrepresenting the data, and said he would no longer focus on this
fifty-percent data to emphasize failure. In other words, he said, you can't complain about one
side not giving the whole truth and nothing but the truth if you're not willing to do it yourself
(Seavers 1).
Marschark has made efforts to disseminate credible information and
move the journal out of a static space and into the network. With these
actions, he may be trying to become an anchor-actor. Potts calls actors who
act as anchors participants who step forward to organize, validate, and
distribute content (61). Marschark and his human actors at the National
Technical Institute for the Deaf may be trying to establish JDSDE as a space
that disseminates a diverse range of articles while at the same time
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promotes encounters with parents and educators and the deaf community
through their question-answer website and their new Facebook presence.
Two questions we might ask are: Is JDSDE doing enough to reverse the
negativity spread by the fourth grade reading level and can JDSDE do it
alone? The Journal, along with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf
(where Marschark and several members of the editorial board hold
professorships) are in some ways walled-garden systems, which Potts
defines as data staying captive within a single digital space (41). People
outside the institutions may read about the fourth grade reading level but
are not offered a platform to engage with and offer constructive dialogue
about this grand narrative of struggling readers and writers. To answer my
own questions, JDSDE probably cannot reverse the negativity of the fourth
grade reading level until it opens its gates to new participants. These
participants, like us as writing teachers, may be outside the field of deaf
education but may still have pragmatic and pedagogical advice to offer
based on our own experiences with struggling readers and writers, and our
own encounters with deaf and hard-of-hearing students who are
mainstreamed. In the Hands & Voices interview Marschark said, We have
done and continue to do a lousy job of teaching deaf kids to read (Seavers
1). With the right actors and actor-anchors, we can try to change this.

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