Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Jack L. Michael

Second Advisor

Dr. Paul T. Mountjoy

Third Advisor

Dr. Arthur Snapper

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Harold Bate


A series of experiments on the use of sign language with hearing, non-vocal, mentally impaired individuals was conducted. Several researchers have shown that such persons can acquire signs; but in a recent review of the literature (Pulton & Algozzine, 1980), the authors conclude that there was no evidence that a "functional communication system" was acquired and in only one case had manual signing become a primary mode of communication. The problem may be related to the issue that most of the previous work on sign training has been based on traditional programs of language instruction. Such programs often place an emphasis on developing "cognitive processes" rather than language behavior, and the role of the environment is usually minimized. The current set of experiments involved the development of a sign language training program based on Skinner's (1957) behavioral analysis of language. A language repertoire was analyzed in terms of antecedent and consequent enviromental events, and the training procedures consisted of establishing verbal relationships. The methodology employed involved an analysis of the experimenter's verbal behavior (the training program) as a dependent variable which changed as a function of the contact with the contingencies of language instruction. Nine separate experiments were conducted over a period of five years. Each experiment (except two) involved the application of the current version of the training program, and each replication resulted in a new version. Each set of students acquired more effective communication skills than the previous group. The final set of individuals acquired a sign repertoire which was quite analogous to the vocal repertoire of a typical child. Even despite long histories of failure in language instruction, they acquired large sign repertoires and engaged in a good deal of signing under a wide variety of circumstances. In fact, in some cases, language developed faster than normal vocal development, with students showing more than two years of language development (by traditional measures) in a matter of months. All the students showed a clear improvement in articulation and a decrease in disruptive behavior; however, no attempt was made to directly attribute the improvement to signs although it seemed the case. Experiments were also conducted on the use of fingerspelling as a "bridge" between sign language and vocal behavior. The data indicate that fingerspelling can improve a student's articulation and that it can function as an effective "tool" to fade from sign usage. The success of these procedures and programs was attributed to: (a) the use of a completely environmental analysis of language development; (b) a methodology which allowed new discoveries to be immediately incorporated in the training procedure; and (c) a data collection system which provided the experimenter with a complete account of the verbal episodes between himself and the students for each session. These data seem to provide support for the use of sign language with the hearing, non-vocal individual; but success is clearly a function of the trainer's method of instruction.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access

Included in

Psychology Commons