Angel Wang told the story each semester in her first class with students in Teachers College’s program in Deaf & Heard of Hearing: How her father, who was born deaf in rural China, taught himself to read and write by memorizing thousands of Chinese characters on wooden blocks in the printing shop where he worked.
“She was inspired by his talent and determination — and by his optimism and readiness to embrace new things,” recalls Wang’s former doctoral student Elune Shi (Ph.D. ’20). “She told us that children’s education is a complex equation, and we have to keep an open mind about how to support and motivate deaf and hard of hearing kids to read.”
Keeping an open mind — to methodology, to children and to possibility in general — was the hallmark of Angel (Ye) Wang, who passed away on February 12th at the age of 43.
I want my students to broaden their horizons and be good teachers and good human beings.
—Ye (Angel) Wang, Professor of Deaf & Hard of Hearing
“Professor Wang passionately believed in the talent and limitless potential of all individuals,” wrote President Thomas Bailey in a message to the TC community. “Teachers College and the world have lost an extraordinary teacher, scholar and human being far too soon.”
Bailey called the loss of Wang – Professor of Deaf & Hard of Hearing (DHH) and Director of the Program in Deaf & Hard of Hearing — “a devastating blow for her students, to whom she was fiercely devoted; for the College, where she was an innovative program and classroom leader; to the field of deaf education, for which she was a bright star; and to her family, whom she adored.”
Those sentiments were echoed in testimonials by Wang’s many friends, colleagues, students and former students.
“Ye was definitely an angel—a gentle, brilliant soul that belied a tenacious inner world determined to contribute to the improvement of individuals who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing,” wrote Peter V. Paul, a leading authority on English language and literacy development for DHH individuals, Editor of American Annals of the Deaf, and Wang’s mentor and collaborator at The Ohio State University, where she earned her doctorate.
“She was never the loudest person in a meeting, but instead, the thoughtful contributor who was open to hearing everyone’s perspective,” says Laudan Jahromi, Professor of Psychology & Education, and Director of TC’s Program in Intellectual Disabilities/Autism. “She had that calm energy that people wanted to be around.”
Teachers College and the world have lost an extraordinary teacher, scholar, and human being far too soon.
—TC President Thomas Bailey
“She conducted the kind of research that directly shaped and changed the day-to-day lives of deaf and hard-of-hearing students,” says Sonali Rajan, Associate Professor of Health Education. “It was such impactful work.”
And Wang’s frequent research partner, Beverly Trezek, Associate Professor and Tashia F. Morgridge Chair in Reading at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, wrote that “Angel’s contributions to research will leave a lasting impact on the field and her legacy will live on through the students and colleagues who were fortunate to work with her.”
A New Path to Literacy
It was a 2006 paper co-authored with Trezek — “Implications of Utilizing a Phonics-based Reading Curriculum with Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing,” published in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education — that vaulted Wang into the first rank of her field.
Many deaf and hard-of-hearing students struggle to progress beyond grade-school competency as readers, largely because they do not have access to spoken or signed language early in their lives at home. At school, many are not taught to form mental representations of phonemes — distinct units of sound that, in any language, distinguish one word from another, nor are they taught how to map their sign language to print..
She told us that children’s education is a complex equation, and we have to keep an open mind about how to support and motivate deaf and hard of hearing kids to read.
—Elune Shi (Ph.D. ’20)
Wang and Trezek showed that Visual Phonics, a system of hand symbols created by the parent of a deaf child that represents the English language’s 44 phonemes, could help DHH children form those mental representations. Their study demonstrated that, with a year of instruction from a phonics-based reading curriculum supplemented by Visual Phonics, these tools enabled DHH kindergartners and first graders to significantly improve their beginning skills in word reading and reading word comprehension. The acquisition and improvement of those skills was not related to degree of hearing loss — a finding that has drawn strong interest because people who have a profound hearing loss and yet become successful adult readers are also often found to be phonetic readers, typically after they have firmly acquired a first language.
The use of Visual Phonics has declined in recent years as cochlear implants and other new technologies have enabled or improved hearing for many children. But the work by Wang and Trezek helped establish that some deaf children could learn language and learn to read and write just as typically developing children do, passing through the same stages of language and literacy acquisition. That finding has led to other new teaching strategies, enabling more children with hearing loss to read and write.
It has also sparked new research on how DHH children who use hearing technology can process spoken language and learn to speak themselves. For example, over the past five years, by providing wearable recording devices to DHH children who are learning to listen and talk through use of hearing technology, Wang amassed a unique database of thousands of hours of the language the children hear. Using accompanying software, Wang and her colleagues have measured the children’s spoken language development.
Sound Without Fury
Wang’s work put her on one end of a continuum within the field of deaf education that believes that accessing the phonology of a language with visual tools such as lip-reading and visual phonics, as well as assistive hearing technology, can be the most efficient pathway to literacy. Another end of the continuum stresses the use of sign language and fingerspelling to help DHH children map meaning to print. The debate between the two camps is often vigorous, but Wang frequently invited alternate viewpoints to the discussion.
Ye was definitely an angel — a gentle, brilliant soul that belied a tenacious inner world determined to contribute to the improvement of individuals who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing.
—Peter V. Paul
“I first met Ye (Angel) Wang when we were invited to co-edit a two-volume special issue on reading for the American Annals of the Deaf. Angel and I had diverse perspectives about reading and I imagine she felt as queasy as I did about the collaboration,” wrote Jean F. Andrews, Professor Emerita in the Department of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. “But when papers proffering views different from hers rolled in, Angel enthusiastically welcomed them. Such was her refreshing response in a frequently divided field.”
To Laudan Jahromi, Wang’s willingness to work across ideological lines reflected a humility born of her commitment to the children she served.
“It was never about her,” Jahromi says. “She was open to different ideas because ultimately she cared about identifying whatever worked for this population of children.”
Both Wang’s belief in phonics and her flexibility about methodology may have grown out of her own experience as a “CODA,” or child of a deaf adult, a role that demands both creativity and a practical mindset, focused on results.
She attracted excellence. She also opened opportunities for me and so many of her doctoral students through her connections, by facilitating grants, and by inviting all her students to publish with her. You didn’t leave the program without having a few publications.
—Maria Hartman, Lecturer, TC Deaf & Hard of Hearing Program
“People tend to go into this field because of a direct connection with deafness, and she, like me, had deaf parents,” says Robert Kretschmer, Professor Emeritus of Education & Psychology, Wang’s predecessor as Director of TC’s Deaf & Hard of Hearing program. “You end up acting as more than just an interpreter. At age 12, I was explaining to my father the differences between different types of car insurance. Some kids who play that role are resentful, and others recognize it and embrace it. I suspect she was one who embraced it.”
Wang was, in fact, quadrilingual — she spoke both Mandarin Chinese and English and was fluent in both Chinese Sign Language and American Sign Language — and thus was acutely aware of the role of phonology.
“There is a phonic component to Chinese writing, even though it’s a character print language,” Kretschmer says. “Chinese characters have embedded markers for phonemes, though they’ve lost that meaning over time.”
In China’s school system, Wang was not able to pursue a career related to language. She was tracked instead into law and in 1999 earned her college degree in that field, which, Hartman says, she never found fulfilling. She left China to pursue her true passion, earning her master’s degree in OSU’s College of Education in 2000 and completing her doctorate there in 2005. Her dissertation became the basis the first of her three books, Literate Thought: Understanding Comprehension and Literacy (Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2011), co-authored with Peter Paul.
She was an advocate for universal design for learning and inclusion for all, which included inclusion in the highest levels of academic society. In every Ph.D. cohort she led to the doctoral degree, she ensured that a significant number were deaf or hard of hearing, and that both deaf and hearing students received all the necessary support to complete their studies and contribute high quality research.
—Julia Silvestri, Lecturer, TC Deaf & Hard of Hearing Program
From 2005 through 2008, Wang served as Assistant Professor at Teachers College. She left for Missouri State University, where, for the next six years, she coordinated the University’s graduate program to prepare teachers of DHH students. She returned in 2014 to take over the DHH program at TC.
On her watch, the program has increased its international focus and drawn a growing number of doctoral students.
“She attracted excellence,” Hartman says. “She also opened opportunities for me and so many of her doctoral students through her connections, by facilitating grants, and by inviting all her students to publish with her. You didn’t leave the program without having a few publications.”
“She was the most devoted mother any of us had ever met – there was nothing she wouldn’t do for her children [Amy Su, an undergraduate at Columbia University, and Stone Su, a New York City high school student] — and she brought some of that same advocacy to her students,” Jahromi says. “She’d fight tooth and nail to get extra scholarship dollars for whoever needed it. But she was equally fierce in setting high standards, because she so wanted her students to be ready.”
Wang spent hours reading and critiquing papers, helping students think through research questions and methodologies, and — ever the stickler for detail — schooling them in the arcana of American Psychological Association formatting. She also required students to be up to speed in other fields related to DHH.
She was the most devoted mother any of us had ever met – there was nothing she wouldn’t do for her children — and she brought some of that same advocacy to her students.
—Laudan Jahromi, Professor of Psychology & Education
“Angel was without boundaries academically,” says Erika Levy, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD). “She was always at talks in our program and very aware of everything that was going on in our field. Students are required to take courses outside of our program, and many took classes with her. They loved her.”
A year ago, Wang, Levy and Hartman were awarded a major multidisciplinary grant from the U.S. Department of Education that pays for students in DHH and in CSD to take a certain set of courses, attend an annual conference and obtain placements in their fields. Wang also collaborated closely with Jahromi and R. Douglas Greer, Professor of Applied Behavior Analysis, to reimagine a joint doctoral course sequence that combined the research methodologies across DHH, ID/Autism, and the ABA program, which brings a behavioral focus to children on the autism spectrum and those with other language delays.
Wang also was deeply committed to including and supporting DHH students in TC’s program.
“Dr. Wang highly valued deaf people, their perspectives, and their capacity for achievement,” says alumna Julia Silvestri (Ph.D. ’16), now Adjunct Assistant Professor in the program, who is herself deaf. “She was an advocate for universal design for learning and inclusion for all, which included inclusion in the highest levels of academic society. In every Ph.D. cohort she led to the doctoral degree; she ensured that a significant number were deaf or hard of hearing, and that both deaf and hearing students received all the necessary support to complete their studies and contribute high quality research.”
Yet, true to form, Wang was equally likely to apply insights from deaf education to her hearing students. Prior to the COVID pandemic, she had always ensured the required accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing students who took her classes, insisting on both live captioning and two sign-language interpreters — but when the College moved all courses online last spring, she decided to provide captioning for all of her students.
“Students who were previously very quiet — particularly international students, who often were struggling to keep up in what may be their second or third language — are now much more involved,” Wang said in a story about digital teaching that appeared on TC’s home page in May. “Partly it’s the captioning, but Zoom also has a raise-your-hand feature, and in my class now, there’s always a queue. It’s very orderly but it makes things more interactive — maybe because people have more time to think.”
[Read a story about Wang’s innovative online teaching during the pandemic.]
She added that Zoom also served as “an object lesson” for her students who were themselves K-12 teachers trying to figure out how to best serve their own students.
“It’s like the principles of universal design in architecture, which I often talk about — the way that wheelchair ramps benefit people with strollers, too,” she said. “The people in my class are using what they learn, often the very next day, and some are teaching online to preschoolers — imagine that!”
But there was still another dimension to Wang’s teaching that drew students to her — an aspect reflected in an informal book club she started in one course after the pandemic began, in which the reading list touched on topics that included gender, school choice and the power of nature and nurture.
“I want my students to broaden their horizons and be good teachers and good human beings, so we read books about education, psychology and health,” Wang said.
Elune Shi sensed that commitment when she first read about Wang some years ago.
“We were both from China, where special education is still very under-developed, and where you don’t find many faculty who are focusing on or caring about these kids,” Shi says. “She really inspired me because she was talking about the need to open up possibilities for them. So I wrote to her, and she encouraged me to apply.”
Some months later, Shi came to TC for an interview and met Wang for the first time.
“I waited outside her office. When she opened the door, the first thing she said was, ‘You’re early.’ And then she smiled and invited me in.”
Special thanks to Maria Hartman for her assistance in preparing this article.