Although teachers in programs for deaf students even as high as college level have observed students' problems recognizing antecedents of reference words, actual data-based research with deaf individuals seems to be sparse. Below are summaries of one seminal study with young hearing students and a few representative studies with deaf students.
Research with Hearing Children - Recognition of Antecedents of Reference Words
Chomsky (1969) evaluated 40 hearing children between the ages of 5 and 10 on their ability to determine whether certain pronouns in a story referred to definite antecedents or to ambiguous antecedents. At approximately 5.5 years, her subjects were able to distinguish between definite and ambiguous antecedents. Younger subjects could not. From these results, she concluded that hearing children must acquire an understanding of pronoun reference between the ages of 5 and 6.
Research with Deaf Children - Production of Reference Words
Quigley (1969) elicited 550 writing samples from 135 deaf students between 10 and 19 years of age. An examination of these samples revealed recurring omissions of anaphoric words in two situations.
In one situation, a student would write two sentences conjoined by and such as John threw the ball, and Mary dropped, when she would have meant to say, John threw the ball, and Mary dropped it or John threw the ball, and Mary dropped the ball. Quigley invented the abbreviated term "object-object deletion" to identify this phenomenon because, when the direct objects of both sentences referred to the same entity, the second object was often dropped.
In another situation, a student would write similar conjoined sentences such as The boy saw turtles and ate the fish when he or she would have meant to say, The boy saw turtles and they ate the fish or The boy saw turtles and the turtles ate the fish. Quigley named this phenomenon "object-subject deletion" to signify that, when the direct object of the first sentence was identical to the subject of the second sentence, the subject of the second sentence might be dropped.
In order to examine these findings further, Wilbur, Quigley, and Montanelli (1975) conducted a systematic study of 480 profoundly deaf students between the ages of 10 and 18. In one task, the subjects were presented with two pictures, then asked to write a sentence about each picture and then join the sentences with and. In a second task, the subjects were provided with pairs of written sentences and asked to rewrite them while joining them with and. The results partially corroborated the Quigley (1969) writing samples in that the Wilbur et al. subjects produced sentences with object-subject deletion roughly less than half the time, but that they wrote sentences with object-object deletion much less frequently.
Peterson (1996) studied story-writing samples of 20 severely-to-profoundly deaf high schools students ranging from 15 to 17 years in age. She showed the students a wordless picture book as a writing stimulus and asked them to write about the story. Peterson's observation was that the deaf students overused nouns in their stories for the purpose of maintaining reference to a character whereas a hearing student might have used more pronouns.