Ask Reading Kingdom: How do deaf children learn to read and write?


Michele (ASL Speaker) asks:

How do deaf children learn to read and write?

Dr. Marion Blank answers:

Sadly, the deaf and hard of hearing have long been known to have significant deficits in reading as well as in language skill.

Despite attempts to improve reading achievement there has been little change in the outcomes over at least the past half century. Test results indicate that for 18 year old profoundly deaf students, the average reading level was a grade equivalent of 3.8. For those whose hearing issues are less severe, the grade equivalent was 5.4. Other studies have found that only 40% of college age students with severe to profound hearing losses read at or above the fourth grade level, while about eight percent read at or above the eighth grade level.

The difficulties have traditionally been ascribed to the students’ limitations in hearing the sounds of the language (i.e., since they do not hear the words, they cannot put the correct sounds onto the printed words they see). However studies have shown that the students understand as much or more from what they read as from signed or spoken communication. In other words, the comprehension difficulties ae not limited to the printed page. Many display a general language comprehension problem.

It is important to note that language proficiency is greater when the children are raised in homes where the parents are deaf as well and all members of the family are fluent signers. But only a small percentage of deaf children are raised in homes where these conditions hold. In other words, many children have to struggle with having a limited language environment.

Despite all these problems, achievements in reading do exist– to some extent in almost all children and to a much greater extent in a smaller percentage of children. In this realm, Reading Kingdom has some interesting insights to offer—since it is unique in not demanding the skills that pose such roadblocks for the deaf (i.e., it does not require the usual phonics skills that involve sounding out and learning complex verbal rules). Instead it fosters the development of high levels of visual memory—a skill that is (a) rarely emphasized in traditional teaching and (b) realizable for children with hearing difficulties.

For many years, I consulted in a school for the deaf that used the reading programs I have developed. The programs were carried out in a special way. First the children were taught signed English –rather than American Sign Language (ASL). That meant that they had signs for all the words and the components of words that exist in English. For example, ASL does not have signs for words endings such as ing, ed, etc.; signed English does possess those equivalents. That meant that the children had signs for every word and every component of the words on the printed page. I remember vividly an excited 6 year old who had just learned the word “the.” It was as if a light bulb went off in his head as he pointed to the word “the” on the page and made the sign for “the” and followed that with the sign “same.” It was a light bulb moment as he realized the equivalence that exists between the sign and the written word.

My experience at that school showed that, despite the obstacles, deaf children can become fluent, and even quite advanced, readers. Deafness alone does not preclude the development of reading skills. Deaf children can learn to read –but only if we develop appropriate means of teaching them.

If your children are having difficulties as they learn to read, try our free 30 day trial of Reading Kingdom.  Lingo and company will see you soon!