Supporting English literacy learning with young deaf people in India, Ghana and Uganda

Dr Julia Gillen, Director, Lancaster Literacy Research Centre and Senior Lecturer in Digital Literacies, Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, UK

Published 21 December 2015

The Lancaster Literacy Research Centre, based at Lancaster University (LU) in the UK,  is delighted to be involved in a pioneering international project to help develop English language lessons for deaf people in three Commonwealth countries. Our project; ‘Literacy development with deaf communities using sign language, peer tuition, and learner-generated online content: sustainable educational innovation’, has funding for one year’s work from June 2015. 

The bulk of the project’s focus is on India, where we are working with our partner – the National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH) – to provide English language teaching for deaf young people, focussing on high poverty regions. We are developing an effective teaching model, which departs from existing traditional language teaching practices in India, that will guide policy development and further innovation.


Peer tutors engage in a discussion group about teaching English during the initial training in India (June 2015)

A significant element of this innovative work is our bespoke virtual learning platform called Sign Language to English by the Deaf (SLEND), hosted at LU. It has been found that education that is co-designed and delivered by peers can lead to improved academic and cognitive abilities for both learners and tutors, as well as decreased rates of absenteeism and reports of isolation. Combined with the use of sign language and support from deaf peer tutors, SLEND constitutes a learner-driven methodology based on a participatory research approach that explores how the audience actually learns.

To put this more simply: tutors and students work together to explore their needs and discover for themselves what needs to be done in order to effectively deliver English language training. By encouraging the local deaf tutors (who are supported by trainers both in-country and from the UK), it will encourage the development of materials and teaching approaches that really respond to the learners’ needs.

The initial two week training session was led by Professor Ulrike Zeshan (who was recently awarded an honorary OBE for her services to higher education and the international deaf community) alongside Sibaji Panda of iSLanDS and Uta Papen of LU. Zeshan and Panda have a great deal of experience in leading pedagogic interventions in India, including opening up opportunities to access tertiary education for deaf people. Panda is deaf himself, mainly based in India and committed to the potential of ‘deaf-led’ projects. Papen is a social anthropologist who brings considerable experience of ethnographic approaches to participatory, learner-centred work on developing new teaching models. The team were further supported by a group of academics and learning technologists at LU and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), particularly concerned with co-designing the SLEND platform.

The project has now recruited participants and is fully underway. At our five field sites across India, the peer tutors are leading classes of between nine and 15 learners each, for a total of 57 across India. These classes are enabling the team to make observations and acquire data on SLEND participants’ access and written English output within the platform, while facilitating the development of literacy skills through the use of functional, everyday tasks such as reading an invoice. As one peer tutor reported, ‘The students felt good to learn about such topics as job applications, ATM slips, e-tickets and bank forms, even though they sometimes have doubts about complex words’.

The peer-focussed approach used by the project is being implemented into the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), with guidance from experts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) courses based at UCLan, so that the learning outcomes can be measured and expressed in terms of an internationally understood tool, appropriately adapted for deaf communities.

The project also involves small-scale investigative fieldwork in Ghana and Uganda, working with our partners Lancaster University Ghana and the Uganda National Association of the Deaf, to examine transferability across cultures and to pave the way for future collaborations. Our research assistants in both countries held focus group workshops in September 2015. Workshop participants including students, deaf teachers and deaf association members, professional teachers of the deaf, and sign language instructors were introduced to the project’s aims and the SLEND online tool, and participated in a literacy activity and group interviews, which were filmed. The Ghanaian group, led by research assistant Marco Nyarko, comprised 13 participants, while Noah Ahereza’s Ugandan workshop had 20 attendees. The literacy activity, involving writing daily schedules on a clock face, was followed by small group discussions, in which participants listed common scenarios where English is used, and talked about the influence of sign language on their reading and writing. Mid-term dissemination events to formally share the work are being held in both countries this month, though Mr Ahereza said that some attendees had already started sharing their experiences from the workshop via their Facebook pages.

The activities in the project’s first months clearly reflect our intention that through exploring systemic changes to deaf literacy education, we simultaneously increase the intellectual and skills capacity of our deaf research assistants, peer tutors, and participants, as well as bringing a real benefit to their communities.

We are happy to communicate further with anybody interested in our project, including regarding contributions or participation in our final dissemination workshop in April/May 2016 in India. You can contact me by email at

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