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Reference Words


By John-Allen Payne, Ph.D.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

"Reference words" are one of the rhetorical devices that allow a writer to create cohesion throughout a text. They constitute a large group of mostly "pronouns" and "noun phrases," less frequently other parts of speech. Reference words represent other elements in a text and allow the writer to manipulate these elements in different ways.

For examples of reference words, look at the highlighted words in the following paragraph about Germany:

Germany After World War 2

In 1939, Germany started World War 2; she was confident that she could conquer and control all of Europe. She spread death and destruction over much of the continent. But after several years of war, Germany herself began to suffer severe losses: Allied bombing raids destroyed German cities, farms, industries, and transportation systems. Food, water, and fuel began to disappear. And without these essentials, people could not care for themselves and their families. Berlin, the capital city, incurred even worse damage: Bombing raids destroyed seventy percent of its buildings. The city was left in ruins. People there lived in squalor. Vermin spread, bringing diseases: Rats and fleas infested people's homes; roaches contaminated their food. Conditions worsened daily.

An examination of the highlighted words in the paragraph will reveal two notable features about them:

1. They cannot stand alone; rather, they need to connect with other words to complete their meanings.

2. They are used when new information is added about the things that they refer to, hence, the name "reference words."

There is a small amount of research into the acquisition of reference words suggesting that hearing children begin to understand them after age 5, but that many deaf individuals as old as 17 and 18 continue to have problems with them. Moreover, experienced teachers in postsecondary programs for deaf students know that this failure to understand reference words correctly extends into the college years, as well.

In addition to this introduction, this module contains the following major sections:

A. A Grammatical/Process Summary that provides an overview of reference words with some examples of how they are used in English-Language discourse.

B. Research Findings and Implications that offers a small summary of some available studies on hearing and deaf children's ability to use certain reference words.

C. Guided Practice exercises that offer practice in identifying reference words and their antecedents.

D. Action Steps that teachers may take in order to enhance students' comprehension of reference words in their reading.

Major Considerations

1. Reference words are ubiquitous in all forms of written and spoken Modern English.

2. The ability to recognize reference words and understand them and use them correctly is a requisite for an adequate command of the English language.

3. Finding antecedents of reference words in a text poses a challenge for many young deaf students.

4. Course materials can be created in such a way as to improve students' understanding of reference words in their reading.