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Review of  Teaching Language to a Boy Born Deaf

Reviewer: Marga Stander
Book Title: Teaching Language to a Boy Born Deaf
Book Author: John Wallis David Craam Jaap Maat
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Philosophy of Language
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 30.3095

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Teaching Language to a Boy Born Deaf, edited by David Cram and Jaap Maat, is a new addition to books written about the history of deaf education, such as The Deaf Community in America (Nomeland and Nomeland 2011); The Deaf Their Position in Society and the Provision for Their Education in the United States (Best 2013); The Education of Laura Bridgman (Freeberg 2002); Deaf to the Marrrow (Cooper 2017); The Ninth Year of a Deaf Child's Life (Mott 2016); Abbae Sicard's Deaf Education (Potter and Kennedy 2015); Hidden History of Rhode Island (Laxton 2009); and Laurent Clerc (Carroll 2009), amongst others. This book opens up potential research in educational issues of the deaf, whether historical or contemporary.

The authors have achieved their goal with this book, since it is an extremely rich source of information for any student or scholar interested in teaching the deaf and in the history of deaf education. Issues, such as teaching the deaf to speak, using a spoken language, or using sign language, and the language of the Deaf (culture), are touched on in this book. In a modern age and with new developments in deaf education, this book is an essential source of facts and history that cannot be ignored.

This book reports on an unpublished notebook, known as the Popham Notebook, written by John Wallis. He used this Notebook to teach language to a deaf boy, Alexander Popham, in seventeenth-century Britain. The book not only gives a replication of the Notebook, but also gives the historical background on deaf education and other relevant events before and after the time of the teaching of Popham, such as the dispute between Popham’s teachers, John Wallis and William Holder.

The Preface gives a summary of the book. A complete list of the figures from the Notebook, abbreviations, a note on terminology, and chronology is provided before embarking on the introduction.
The introduction is quite extensive, looking at deafness from various angles, such as philosophical, medical, legal and religious perspectives. Next, it gives an overview of teaching language to the deaf in general, but specifically in Spain before the 1650s. Following on this is a discussion on language education for the deaf in seventeenth-century Britain. The introduction also focuses on the education of Alexander Popham in detail and also the aftermath and retrospect of his education.

The first part of the book, and also the centerpiece of the book is the Popham Notebook. This section is a transcription of the Notebook and consists of photographs and figures from the handwriting of Wallis, his personal notes, drawings and comments. For students and scholars working on sounds in English, this part will provide valuable information for research and data purposes.

The second part of the book focuses on a range of correspondence: letters, articles, notes and other writings of John Wallis and William holder about teaching language to the deaf, matters concerning deaf persons, philosophical transactions and correspondence with the Royal Society of Britain.

In the third and last part of the book, the authors look at the aftermath and legacy of this period in deaf education and consists of writings and letters between John Wallis and other language teachers of the deaf.

This book is of importance for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it revolves around a recently discovered notebook; secondly, because of the general belief in the seventeenth century that the deaf could not become literate and therefore could not inherit any property legally; thirdly, because it contributes to the history of teaching language to the deaf; and lastly, because it relates to the history of science and the early history of the Royal Society.

The first important reason is the discovery of a small leather-bound notebook in 2008 at Littlecote House, a former family home of the Pophams, near Hungerford, Wiltshire, England. This Notebook, which forms the centerpiece of this book, was written by John Wallis to teach the deaf, and in particular, a deaf boy named Alexander Popham (1648-1708), in the 1660s. This Notebook, if discovered earlier, could have served as a key document and resolution of the widely discussed debate between Wallis and William Holder, both fellows of the Royal Society.

The second important point in this book concerns legal and inheritance issues for illiterate people, mostly deaf people, at the time. Alexander Popham came from a wealthy and influential family and he was the son and heir of the parliamentarian, Edward Popham (1610-1651). His father died when he was 3 years old, and for him to inherit the primary estate at Littlecote House in Wiltshire, it was crucial for him to be fully literate, for legal, personal and familial reasons. Since the book revolves around the education of Alexander Popham, a substantial part is devoted to his education, but the authors also give note to his birth, his upbringing, and his later life.

The third reason, and probably the one of most significance to students and researchers, comprises the history of teaching spoken language to deaf people. This aspect, and especially teaching speech to deaf people, was regarded as a spectacular novelty in Britain during this time. The book gives a detailed account of the methods and notes used by John Wallis to teach phonetics, lexicography and grammar to Popham. It also pays attention to the first teacher of Alexander Popham, namely William Holder, in 1659. The book gives a detailed account of several letters, books, pamphlets, essays and other documentation written by Holder and Wallis, and also Henry Baker, the first professional teacher of the deaf in Britain. The editors accurately report on correspondence by Wallis, Holder and other stakeholders regarding the teaching and teaching methods of the deaf.

It is also worth mentioning that the editors elaborated on the different perspectives about deafness and the teaching of language to the deaf before and after 1650 before fixating on the Notebook and the education of Alexander Popham. Still part of the introduction, the authors give background about where deaf education presumably started. It is possible that it could have started earlier, but the first reports about teaching the deaf to read only appeared in the second half of the sixteenth century. According to these reports deaf education took place in a Benedictine monastery at Oña in Spain and was started by a monk called Pedro Ponce de Leon (c.1510-1584), regarded by historians as the initiator of deaf education. The authors of this publication then elaborate on the teaching methods of Ponce as well as other teachers of the deaf in that era, such as Ramirez and Bonet. There were various views of whether deaf learners should learn writing and reading before speaking (if at all); whether they should learn to sign; whether lip-reading should be taught and how; and also the order in which these should be taught. It is worth mentioning that Bonet’s method “encompasses a wide range of linguistic subject matter” which covers phonetics, semantics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics. His method “shows considerable pedagogical sophistication.” (p.23) The term “mechanical model of speech production” can be assigned to Bonet and according to this model, “the situation of a deaf person is no different in principle from that of a hearing person” (p.25). This situation is further explained in the book. The fact is that the deaf can be taught to speak, according to the teachers mentioned in the book, for example Ponce, Bonet, Ramirez, Holder and Wallis.

The book further looks at the history of deaf education in Britain. A detailed discussion follows about different teachers of the deaf: John Bulwer (1606-56), a physician, wrote the first book on deaf education in Britain (1648); Deusing (1612-66) was a Dutch physician who taught a range of different subjects, including deaf education; Dalgarno (1620-87) was a Scot who was the author of the first artificial language to be published in 1661; and Johann Conrad Amman (1669-1724) was, a Swiss doctor living in Holland. Then the book specifically focuses on the education of Alexander Popham by William Holder, his first teacher in 1659, and a few years later by John Wallis in 1662. A significant part is dedicated to the teaching of the deaf by William Holder, but the biggest part is devoted to the teachings of John Wallis, the author of the Notebook.

The transcription of the Notebook occupies quite a large part of the book, containing photos of the pages from the Notebook in Wallis’s own handwriting, lists of vocabulary Wallis used, speech sounds and various drawings to explain the phonetics and phonology of each sound. It contains practical exercises, phonetics used in speech, word lists according to themes; and lists of simple phrases and sentences. The transcription of the Notebook shows evidence of the side-notes made by Wallis, as well as graphical characteristics of the original Notebook, such as lines, dashes, brackets, crossed-out words; indentations and words in columns as true as possible to the original.

The second part of the book, although not the most important, is about the history of science and the early history of the Royal Society. This part contains records in the form of letters, articles and writings from Wallis and Holder, which serve as background and evidence of the bitter dispute between the two teachers of Alexander Popham. These include a letter from Wallis to Robert Boyle about teaching language to the deaf in 1661; an appendix concerning persons deaf and dumb by Holder in 1669; a second letter to Boyle on teaching the deaf by Wallis in 1670; a supplememnt to the Philosophical Transactions of July, 1670 by Holder; and a defence of the Royal Society “in answer to the cavils of Dr. William Holder” by Wallis in 1678.

Part three of the book looks at the aftermath and legacy of John Wallis on his teaching and work in speech therapy. It includes his letters written in the 1690s, including an exchange of letters between him and Johann Amman on the methods of teaching the deaf. The book concludes with an essay by Henry Baker in 1723 in which he comments on the content taught by Holder and Wallis.


The authors, David Cram and Jaap Maat, have done an excellent and thorough job in providing this text, not only for its historical value, but also for the theoretical issues touched on in teaching language to the deaf.


Best, Harry. 2013. The Deaf Their Position in Society and the Provision for Their Education in the United States. Hamburg Germany: Tredition Classics.

Carroll, Cathryn. 2009. Laurent Clerc: The Story of His Early Years. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Cooper, Audrey C. 2017. Deaf to the Marrrow. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Freeberg, Ernest. 2002. The Education of Laura Bridgman. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.

Laxton, Glen. 2009. Hidden History of Rhode Island: NottoBeForgotten Tales of the Ocean State. Stroud Gloucestershire: The History Press.

Mott, Alice J. 2016. The Ninth Year of a Deaf Child's Life. Scotts Valley California: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

Nomeland, Melvia M, and Ronald E Nomeland. 2011. The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making. Jefferson North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers.

Potter, Nick, and Emmet Kennedy. 2015. Abbae Sicard's Deaf Education: Empowering the Mute, 1785-1820. Basingstoke GB: Palgrave MacMillan.
MARGA STANDER, Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics is a senior lecturer in the Department of Languages and Communication (English) at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, South Africa. She is also a research associate at the Department of South African Sign Language and Deaf Studies at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Her research interests include L2 acquisition and L2 teaching of Afrikaans, English and Sign Language. Her research focus is currently on the role of gesture in the learning of an L2, including Sign Language.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199677085
Pages: 320
Prices: U.S. $ 99.00