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Oralism is the education of deaf students through oral language by using lip reading, speech, and mimicking the mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech instead of using sign language within the classroom. Oralism came into popular use in the United States around the late 1860s, with the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts being the first school to start teaching in this manner, in 1867.
Since the beginning of formal deaf education in the 18th century in the United States, manualism and oralism have been on opposing sides of a heated debate that continues to this day. The debate of whether or how deaf children should be taught started before even Socrates, Aristotle, and St. Augustine.
Many members of the deaf population in the United States opposed the oralist belief that deaf people should learn English, speech, and lip-reading, calling it "the dark ages for deaf education in America". Leaders of the manualist movement, including Edward M. Gallaudet, argued against the teaching of oralism because it restricted the ability of deaf students to communicate in what was considered their native language. Oralists generally prohibited the use of sign language in oralist schools altogether because they believed it prevented deaf people from integrating with the hearing community. Manualists were opposed to this because “attempts to eliminate sign language were tantamount to stripping them of their identity, their community, and their culture”.
Even though students were not allowed to use manual signs within the classroom, many of the deaf students preferred manual signs and used them frequently in their dorm rooms. These early attempts at oralism were commonly criticized because of their starkness. Some deaf children were considered “oral failures” because they could not pick up oral language. Others thought that the techniques of oralism actually limited them on what they were taught because they always had to concentrate on the way the words were formed, not what they meant.
The use of oralism declined markedly in the 1970s and 1980s. Research along those lines continued, however, and studies have helped validate the assertion that children benefit developmentally, educationally and socially from modern oralist teaching methodologies like the Auditory-Oral method. Geers and Moog (1989) found that of a test sample of 100 profoundly hearing-impaired 16- and 17-year olds enrolled in oral and mainstream programs, 88% were proficient and highly intelligible with their oral language, and could read at much higher grade levels than the national average for deaf children.