Oralism: Its Role and Impact in Deaf Education

Oralism, a method of deaf education that emphasizes speech reading and spoken language, has been a significant and controversial approach in the education of deaf individuals. This article delves into the origins of oralism, its principles, the debate it has generated, and its impact on the deaf community.

The Origins of Oralism

Early Beginnings

The roots of oralism can be traced back to the early 18th century. The first notable proponent was Samuel Heinicke of Germany, who believed in the efficacy of teaching deaf individuals to speak and read lips instead of using sign language. This approach gained momentum in the 19th century, especially with the establishment of the first oral school for the deaf in Germany in 1778.

Spread and Influence

The oral method spread to other parts of Europe and eventually to the United States. Notable figures like Alexander Graham Bell, known for inventing the telephone, also advocated for oralism. Bell believed that deaf individuals should integrate into the hearing society, and he saw the oral method as a means to achieve this.

Principles of Oralism

Focus on Speech and Lip Reading

Oralism revolves around teaching deaf individuals to use their voice and to read lips. This approach discourages the use of sign language and any form of manual communication. The belief is that by focusing on oral skills, deaf individuals can better integrate into the broader, predominantly hearing society.

Teaching Techniques

The teaching methods involve intensive speech therapy, the use of hearing aids, and constant practice of lip reading and speaking. The goal is for deaf individuals to develop the ability to communicate effectively with hearing people.

The Oralism Debate

Advocates’ Perspective

Proponents of oralism argue that this method enables deaf individuals to integrate more seamlessly into a hearing world. They contend that mastering spoken language is essential for academic and professional success.

Criticism from the Deaf Community

However, oralism has faced significant criticism, particularly from the deaf community. Critics argue that oralism neglects the natural language of the deaf – sign language – and can lead to a sense of alienation. They claim that oralism often results in poor language acquisition and can have negative psychological effects.

Impact on Sign Language

The rise of oralism led to a decline in the use of sign language in educational settings. This had a profound impact on deaf culture, as sign language is a critical component of its identity.

Oralism in the 20th Century

The Milan Conference of 1880

A pivotal moment in the history of oralism was the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf held in Milan, Italy, in 1880. The congress, attended predominantly by hearing educators, declared that oral education was superior to manual (sign language) education. This decision had a lasting impact on deaf education, leading to the widespread adoption of oralism and the marginalization of sign language.

The Decline of Manualism

As a result of the Milan Conference, many schools for the deaf transitioned to oralism, and the use of sign language in educational settings significantly decreased. This shift had lasting effects on the deaf community, with generations of deaf individuals growing up without access to a natural sign language.

Modern Perspectives on Oralism

Reevaluation and Change

In the latter half of the 20th century, there was a reevaluation of oralism. Research began to show the importance of early language acquisition, including sign language, for cognitive and social development in deaf children.

Bilingual-Bicultural Approach

This led to the rise of the bilingual-bicultural (Bi-Bi) approach in deaf education. This method recognizes the importance of both sign language and spoken language, advocating for deaf children to be bilingual in sign language and the spoken language of their surrounding community.

Oralism Today

While oralism still exists today, it is generally one of several options available for deaf education, rather than the dominant approach. There is greater recognition of the value of sign language and deaf culture, and the focus has shifted towards providing deaf individuals with a range of communication tools.

Oralism has played a significant role in the history of deaf education, sparking debate and shaping policies. Its impact on deaf culture and language acquisition has been profound. Today, there is a greater understanding of the need for diverse educational approaches that respect and incorporate the cultural and linguistic needs of the deaf community.

Historical Context of Oralism

The Influence of Eugenics

The early 20th century saw the rise of the eugenics movement, which had a significant impact on the perception of deafness. Advocates of oralism, including Alexander Graham Bell, were influenced by eugenic ideas, believing that preventing the use of sign language would reduce the likelihood of deaf individuals marrying each other and having deaf children. This perspective further entrenched oralism in deaf education, often at the expense of the cultural and linguistic needs of deaf students.

Shifts During the Mid-20th Century

Post World War II, there was a gradual shift in attitudes towards deaf education. The rigid adherence to oralism began to waver as educators and researchers started recognizing the limitations of an oral-only approach. Studies indicated that many deaf individuals educated through oralism had limited language skills, both in sign language and spoken language.

Educational Practices Under Oralism

Classroom Techniques

In classrooms following the oralist method, teachers used techniques like speech reading, articulation training, and auditory training. The use of sign language was often strictly prohibited, and students were encouraged, sometimes forcefully, to use their voices and read lips.

Evaluation of Success

The success of oralism in classrooms was often measured by the ability of deaf students to speak intelligibly and to understand speech through lip reading. However, this often did not translate into effective communication skills, as many students struggled with understanding complex language structures and concepts.

The Impact on Deaf Students

Language Deprivation

One of the most significant criticisms of oralism is the concept of language deprivation. Deaf students, especially those from non-signing families, often did not receive adequate exposure to a fully accessible language during critical periods of language development. This led to issues in language acquisition, literacy, and overall educational achievement.

Psychological and Social Effects

Many deaf individuals educated through oralism reported feelings of isolation and frustration. The emphasis on oral skills often came at the expense of developing a strong deaf identity and a sense of belonging within the deaf community. There was also a reported higher incidence of mental health issues among individuals who experienced strict oralist education.

The Resurgence of Sign Language

Recognition of Sign Language

The late 20th century witnessed a resurgence of sign language in deaf education and greater recognition of its importance. Pioneering work by researchers like William Stokoe in the 1960s helped establish American Sign Language (ASL) as a legitimate language with its own grammar and syntax, challenging the view that it was merely a collection of gestures or a simplified form of English.

Deaf Culture and Identity

The revival of sign language played a crucial role in the strengthening of deaf culture and identity. Deaf communities around the world began to assert their rights to use sign language and to have access to education in their native language. This led to a growing awareness and acceptance of sign language in mainstream society.

Modern Approaches to Deaf Education

Coexistence of Multiple Methods

Today, there is a recognition that no single method can serve the diverse needs of the deaf population. Oralism, sign language, and various combinations of the two are used, depending on individual needs and preferences. There is an increasing focus on individualized education plans (IEPs) that cater to the specific strengths and challenges of each student.

Technology and Access

Advancements in technology, such as cochlear implants and digital hearing aids, have also influenced deaf education. These technologies offer some deaf individuals greater access to sound, but they are not solutions for all, nor do they eliminate the need for sign language and visual forms of communication.

The Future of Deaf Education

Embracing Diversity and Inclusion

The future of deaf education lies in embracing diversity and providing inclusive environments that recognize the varied needs of deaf students. This includes respecting sign languages, promoting bilingualism, and ensuring that deaf students have access to both the deaf and hearing worlds.

Advocacy and Policy Changes

Advocacy by the deaf community continues to play a crucial role in shaping policies and practices in education. Efforts are ongoing to ensure that deaf individuals have the right to access education in their preferred language and mode of communication.


Oralism has been a defining approach in deaf education with a complex and controversial history. Its impact on language development, deaf culture, and individual identity has been profound. As we move forward, the lessons learned from the history of oralism can guide us towards more inclusive, flexible, and respectful educational practices that honor the linguistic and cultural diversity of the deaf community.

Frequently Asked Questions About Oralism

Oralism is an educational approach for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals that emphasizes the use of spoken language and lip reading instead of sign language. This method focuses on teaching deaf students to use their voice and to understand spoken language through lip reading and auditory training, with the goal of integrating them into the hearing society.

This approach contrasts significantly with other methods such as the manual approach, which centers on sign language as the primary mode of communication. In manualism, sign language is used both as a means of communication and as a tool for teaching academic content. The Bilingual-Bicultural (Bi-Bi) approach is another alternative, which promotes proficiency in both sign language and the spoken/written language of the surrounding community, recognizing the importance of both deaf and hearing cultures.

Oralism, especially in its strict forms, often excludes the use of sign language entirely, based on the belief that reliance on signing can hinder the development of spoken language skills. This contrasts with approaches that view sign language as a natural and fully-fledged language that can coexist with spoken language, contributing positively to the cognitive and social development of deaf individuals.

Oralism became dominant in deaf education primarily due to historical, cultural, and ideological factors. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by a growing belief in the superiority of spoken language over sign language. This belief was partly influenced by the prevailing attitudes of the time, which favored assimilation of minority groups into mainstream culture.

The 1880 Milan Conference on the Education of the Deaf was a pivotal event that propelled oralism to the forefront. The conference, attended mainly by hearing educators, concluded that oral education was more effective than manual (sign language) education. This decision led to widespread adoption of oralism in deaf schools around the world.

Another factor was the influence of prominent figures like Alexander Graham Bell, who advocated for oralism as part of a broader agenda that included eugenics. Bell and others believed that encouraging oral communication and discouraging marriages within the deaf community would reduce the incidence of deafness.

Additionally, the rise of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century played a role in the spread of oralism. The movement’s emphasis on “improving” human populations by controlled breeding influenced attitudes towards deafness, leading to the belief that oralism could help integrate deaf individuals into the hearing society and reduce the occurrence of deafness.

Oralism has faced several criticisms, particularly from the deaf community and educators. One of the primary criticisms is the potential for language deprivation. Since oralism focuses solely on spoken language and discourages sign language, deaf children may not receive adequate exposure to a fully accessible language during critical periods of their language development. This can lead to delays in language acquisition, which can have long-term effects on literacy, academic achievement, and cognitive development.

Another criticism is the psychological and social impact. Oralism can create feelings of isolation and frustration among deaf students, as it often places them in environments where they struggle to communicate effectively. This approach can also hinder the development of a strong deaf identity and a sense of belonging within the deaf community, as it places a premium on assimilation into the hearing world.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of oralism in developing effective communication skills is questioned. Many deaf individuals who were educated through oralist methods report limited success in developing clear speech or understanding spoken language through lip reading. This can lead to challenges in both academic and social settings.

Critics also argue that oralism overlooks the cultural and linguistic value of sign language. Sign languages are fully developed languages with their own grammar and syntax, and they play a crucial role in the cultural and community life of deaf people. By discouraging sign language, oralism not only limits communication options for deaf individuals but also undermines an important part of their cultural identity.

Over time, the approach and perception of oralism in deaf education have evolved significantly. In the early days, oralism was often implemented in a rigid and exclusive manner, with no allowance for sign language or manual communication. However, as understanding of deaf education and linguistics advanced, the limitations of a strict oralist approach became apparent.

By the mid-20th century, there was a growing recognition of the importance of early language acquisition and the role of sign language in the cognitive and social development of deaf children. This led to a gradual shift towards more inclusive educational approaches. The latter part of the 20th century saw the rise of the Bilingual-Bicultural (Bi-Bi) model, which recognizes the importance of both sign language and spoken language in the education of deaf children.

Today, oralism is generally viewed as one option among several in deaf education, rather than the sole approach. Modern oralism is often more flexible, sometimes incorporating sign language and other forms of communication to support the diverse needs of deaf students. There is a greater emphasis on individualized education plans (IEPs) and the recognition that different students may benefit from different methods of communication and instruction.

The evolution of oralism reflects a broader shift towards respecting the linguistic and cultural diversity of the deaf community and providing education that is more tailored to individual needs.

In contemporary deaf education, oralism plays a role as one of multiple educational approaches available to deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Its role varies depending on individual circumstances, preferences, and the specific educational setting. Some families and educators choose oralism, especially when it is combined with the use of hearing aids or cochlear implants, as a way to facilitate access to spoken language.

However, there is a growing consensus in the field of deaf education that a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective. As a result, many educational programs now offer a range of options, including oralism, sign language, and the Bilingual-Bicultural approach. The decision on which method to use often depends on factors such as the child’s level of hearing loss, family preferences, and the child’s individual response to different methods.

There is also an increasing focus on ensuring that deaf students have access to both the deaf and hearing worlds, regardless of the primary method of communication used. This includes fostering a strong sense of deaf identity and community, as well as developing skills in both sign language and spoken language where possible.

In summary, while oralism continues to be a part of the landscape of deaf education, it is now more commonly integrated into a broader, more flexible approach that seeks to meet the diverse needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing students.