[Editor’s note: This is the first post of a five-part series on the deaf and educational interventions to ensure reading comprehension and fluency.]
Chamberlain & Mayberry (2000) indicate that reading requires two related abilities. First, you must be familiar with a language. Second, you must understand the mapping between that language and the printed word — that is, how a sound in the language relates to the squiggle on the printed page. Deaf children are disadvantaged on both counts, yet some deaf children are able to read fluently. How is this possible? Today’s blog will provide an overview of the difficulties involved in instructing deaf children in written English. In the weeks following, we will address specific techniques, such as phonics, reading to deaf children, and how hearing parents of deaf children can ensure their kids don’t fall behind.
Referring to deaf children as “disadvantaged” is a rather negative term, and it can interfere with effective reading instruction by adding unnecessary bias. We should instead recognize the positive way that deaf people relate to the world — through their eyes. They see language rather than hear it. Understanding this difference is fundamental to defining our role as educators of deaf children. Educators must create a learning environment conducive to and fully accessible by these children instead of expecting them to communicate in ways that are impossible for them to understand or learn. Understanding the process deaf children go through to learn to read is necessary so we can improve that process in the deaf population and ensure reading success.
About 1 in 1,000 children in the U.S. is born with severe to profound hearing loss. That means, with the assistance of a hearing aid or cochlear implant, they may be able to perceive some sounds, but not as well as hearing children do, and they may perceive loud noises as vibrations instead of sounds. Most children learning to read must learn the mapping between a spoken language and the printed English on the page, but for the deaf child, that’s not an easy task. They don’t have access to the phonological code that forms the basis of most reading, and they may not know any language well enough to serve as the basis for knowledge.
Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore, authors of “Rousing Minds to Life,” explain a literate person as one “…capable of reading, writing, speaking, computing, reasoning, and manipulation [sic] visual as well as verbal symbols and concepts.” This means that speech is not the only means to achieve language; it can be learned through the eyes rather than the ears, and deaf children can learn to use sign rather than to use a spoken language. Carol Erting reinforces that we need to view the deaf child as a competent learner but one who requires a visual environment in order to thrive. Providing that environment is up to a combination of the parents and the educational system. We need to meet the children in the visual world where they reside and help them understand the hearing world in which we live and communicate. By tying the two together, we build a framework where literacy and fluency are possible.
Findings suggest that deaf children of deaf parents become better readers than deaf children of hearing parents. One reason for this is that the children of deaf parents are more likely to have their hearing loss identified earlier and get the appropriate educational interventions. Another reason is that the children are probably fluent in ASL or another sign language. Studies have shown that knowing ASL not only doesn’t interfere with learning to read, but it may, in fact, help the child to learn, as it provides a language basis from which to build.
So, how do we bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing worlds in the classroom? Next week, we’ll look at some of the specific instructional techniques used to help deaf students learn and master written English and become fluent readers.
 Chamberlain, C., Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (2000). In Clark, Preson. (April 29, 2003.) How Do Deaf Children Learn to Read? Retrieved from http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/literacy2.htm
 Erting, Carol. (1992.) In Clark, Preson. (April 29, 2003.) How Do Deaf Children Learn to Read? Retrieved from http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/literacy2.htm
 Clark, Preson. (April 29, 2003.) How Do Deaf Children Learn to Read? Retrieved from http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/literacy2.htm