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American Sign Language:

The Rochester Method

Cody Ricewood


    The Rochester Method was a way of educating deaf students by allowing fingerspelling and oral language only.  The idea behind the Rochester Method was to make deaf communication like English print as much as possible (Musselman, 2000).  The method was named after Rochester, the home of the first school to try to use this method, the Rochester School for the Deaf (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002).

    When Rochester School for the Deaf started in 1876 with Professor Zenas Freeman Westervelt as superintendent, the school used the Combined Method of signing and lip-reading (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002). Two years later, in
1878, Dr. Isaac Lewis Peet had the idea to prohibit all gestures from deaf students’ school life  (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002).   He even recommended prohibiting gestures in family life.  Professor Westervelt took on the idea and, in 1886, announced that his school was only using fingerspelling and speech.  At the school, one-third of classroom time was in lip-reading and speech  (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002).  Students learned written language more quickly because of fingerspelling (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002).

    The Rochester Method was developed to integrate deaf people into the mainstream society.   America and Europe were in a big controversy about how to best teach deaf children.  On one side were oralists who wanted to rely on speech.  On the other side were the manualists who thought gestures were the way to go.  In between were the Combinists.  Edward Miner Gallaudet, son of Thomas H. Gallaudet, fought for the manualist side.  Alexander Graham Bell was an oralist.  Bell was also speaking out for the eugenics movement, which upset many deaf people terribly (Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G. and Albertini, John A., 2002).

    In Europe in 1880, a convention in Milan voted to adopt the oralist method to teach deaf students.  However, many manualist teachers did not attend, and deaf people were not allowed  to vote.  Deaf people all over were appalled and angered.  Deaf people’s choices for how to communicate came to be seen as a human rights issue.   The fight over deaf education methods became a very emotional and still is today  (Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G. and Albertini, John A., 2002).

“The controversy [over the best deaf instruction method] has blindsided far too many educators and has pushed the goals of research into the background (Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G. and Albertini, John A., 2002, p. 32).”

    After Professor Westervelt announced he was adopting the Rochester Method for his school, Dr. Peet “expressed confidence that [Professor Westervelt’s] attempt would either be successful or in a reasonable time, [Professor Westervelt] would report the results and return to the old [Combined Method] (Rosenberg-Naparsteck, 2002, p. 12).”   Professor Westervelt never reported a failure.  Other schools tried adopting the Rochester Method, including the Louisiana School for the Deaf and the Florida School for the Deaf (Gunsauls, 2003).

    The method survived for about 70 years, but essentially died because it was impractical.  Teachers and even successful students found that fingerspelling took too much time and energy.  One former student of the Rochester Method  complained  that students were “guinea pigs” and administrators did not accurately report how effective the method was
(Bienvenu, 2003).

    Did the Rochester Method have any long-lasting effect?  The Rochester Method might have influenced the American deaf community by encouraging the use of the manual alphabet.  ASL uses a good deal of fingerspelling in comparison to other sign languages.  (Gunsauls, 2003)  Was there any benefits to the students of the Rochester Method?  Some research has shown that the Rochester Method produces better language skills, but modern educators tend to agree that using different strategies according to the child’s abilities, experience and situation is the best educational method (Musselman, 2000).


Bienvenu, MJ. (2003). When fingerspelling replace signs: remembering an encounter with Visible English.  Odyssey. 5:22-23.

Gunsauls, Darline Clark.  (2003).  How the alphabet came to be used in a sign language.  Sign Language Studies.  4:10-33, 91.

Marschark, Marc, Lang, Harry G. and Albertini, John A.  (2002). Educating Deaf Students: From Research to Practice.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Musselman, Carol.  (2000). How Do Children Who Can’t Hear Learn to Read an Alphabetic Script?  A Review of the Literature on Reading and Deafness. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education.  5: 9-31

Rosenberg-Naparsteck, Ruth. (2002).  The Rochester School for the Deaf. Rochester History, LXIV: 1-23.

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