The variable nature of language access in the early years is quite complex and creates a continuum of students who are Deaf and hard of hearing and who have extremely diverse needs and abilities. The following description provides a picture of how this complexity impacts language accessibility in the classroom and how educators can create a language accessible education environment for all students who are Deaf and hard of hearing.
At one end of the continuum are students who, like most children, learn oral communication or signed language naturally in their families. These children are socialized through the behaviours and interactions of others. The language of these interactions provides context for the behaviours they see and are the foundation for their acquisition of language. Whether these children access a spoken language or a signed language, they will acquire language and use it in age-appropriate ways by the time they enter school. Once the language of the school is accessible to them, the opportunity for achieving academic success will also be accessible to them.
At the other end of the continuum are students who, during the early years, cannot hear (or process) the spoken language used by their families and have no access to a signed language. Their socialization is limited to experiencing the behaviours of others and how others interact with them; however, these experiences are not accompanied by language. Without language to provide them with a context for the behaviours they see, there is great risk to their language acquisition along with the development of identity and a sense of belonging to their families, the community, the culture and the society at large. Most importantly though, these children will enter school without age-appropriate first language mastery and constitute a unique group in our society – late first language learners. Whether spoken or signed language is used at school, they will not understand it. Therefore, before they can access the curriculum, they must acquire a first language.
The following section provides educators with a further delineation of the continuum to be aware of if they teach students who are Deaf and hard of hearing. This continuum of students comprises an extremely diverse language population - from those who identify as members of the Deaf community or hearing community to those who may never fully develop a first language because they did not receive sufficient linguistic input early enough in their lives.