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Teaching-learning of Sinhala literacy skills in Deaf primary schools in Sri Lanka - A mixed methods inquiry



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Wijesinghe, Thilanka 


The acquisition of literacy skills (reading and writing skills) among the Deaf population has been an age-old challenge worldwide. Anecdotal evidence from Sri Lanka also informs of the significantly limited Sinhala literacy skills of Deaf students. This challenge is viewed reinforcing a ripple effect with Deaf students poor educational performance extending to long term restrictions in societal participation. Identifying the underlying limitations and enablers, often wrapped in contextual complexities, has been viewed as imperative in the quest to minimize or eliminate these context-dependent, educational inequities. However, given the vast scarcity of context-specific empirical studies featuring such educational disparities in the global South, this study aims to understand the teaching-learning of Sinhala literacy skills of children attending Deaf primary schools in Sri Lanka. This is attempted with the intention of understanding the existing education system and identifying ways to promote equitable quality education for the Deaf student population. It answers the overarching research question, ‘What are Deaf school principals and teachers’ perceptions, processes, and social practices that enable or challenge the teaching–learning of Sinhala literacy skills in Deaf primary school children in Sri Lanka?’. It draws on principals’ and teachers’ views of primary school students who are profoundly hearing-impaired and are more likely to use sign language and receive education in residential Deaf schools, where one of the national languages (Sinhala) is the official medium of instruction.

Highlighting particularly the importance of a child’s health condition, communication, and context, three conceptual framings; a) the WHO’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health model (ICF) (2006) from the health sciences, b) Berlo’s SMCR model of communication (1960) from the communication sciences, and c) Bronfenbrenner’s work on ecological systems theory (1979), from the social sciences were merged into forming an overall blended theoretical framing, which underpinned this study. Grounded in the ‘pragmatism’ worldview, a ‘parallel mixed methods’ research design, composed of both quantitative and qualitative approaches was undertaken. Since this study took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, a strong pragmatic basis prevailed in its design. Data was collected from 16 of the 18 Deaf schools in Sri Lanka (which met the inclusion criteria) using self-administered questionnaires and these underwent descriptive and correlational analysis. In parallel, telephone interviews were carried out with participants in two purposively selected schools, and thematically analysed to confirm findings and to identify convergences and divergences. The findings obtained from both the quantitative and qualitative strands of the study were integrated and subsequently interpreted to obtain meta-inferences.

Both principals and teachers perceived Deaf students as learners of Sinhala literacy skills, however, they described the teaching process as difficult, effortful, and challenging. Views on the Sinhala literacy teaching process revealed elements of ‘equality-based, inclusive’ teaching in Deaf schools. However, whether these were equitable in practice was debatable and highlighted the many dilemmas and enablers the teachers encountered. The most relevant limitations were students having limited language levels, lack of appropriate teacher training, and the inherent linguistic complexities of the Sinhala language. Few social literacy practices were reported, however, teachers were not attuned to these, when compared to the formalised curriculum-related practices. Even though the Deaf schools reported attempting teaching-learning during the pandemic using alternative methods and mediums, the switch from a classroom to a home learning environment highlight learning gaps in the knowledge levels and a significant digital divide across the students families. As potential enablers, the parent involvement and inclusion of digital technology in teaching-learning were identified during the pandemic.

In conclusion, while explaining the existing Sinhala literacy teaching-learning in Deaf primary schools with multiple, diverse, dynamic, and complex context-specific enabling and limiting factors, this research provides implications for policy and practice in three aspects. a) at the national level, it highlights a unique Sri Lankan Deaf education journey consisting of unique contextual needs, means, and opportunities. Most relevant is the need to recognize sign language in Sri Lanka, thereby embedding and acknowledging it as a language of instruction. Further, recognizing special education as a component of the ‘formal’ category of the Sri Lankan education system b) at the school level, due to the limited adaptations of the Sinhala literacy pedagogy, the lack of parental support, and the significant teacher training gaps, there is an urgent need for re-imaging the Deaf primary school as an ecosystem with equitable, quality education. c) at the teaching-learning level, given the role and significance of both the Sign language and Sinhala language play, it informs the need for re-thinking teaching-learning of Sinhala literacy skills to a Deaf student encompassing both Sinhala language and sign language as a fluid, hybrid, social practice.





Singal, Nidhi
Sabates, Ricardo


Deaf Education, Deaf schools, Global South, Literacy skills, Mixed methods research, Primary level, Sinhala language, Special education, Sri Lanka, Teaching-learning


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development Program (AHEAD) grant (The World Bank and University of Kelaniya) University of Kelaniya Grant