The Deaf and Reading Comprehension – Part 2 (Phonics Instruction)

[Editor’s note: This is the second post of a five-part series on the deaf and educational interventions to ensure effective reading comprehension and fluency. To read the first part, go here.]

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. Skill in signing does not guarantee skill in reading; reading is something that must be taught.[1]

The Linguistic Interdependence Theory suggests that a language user possesses an underlying set of cognitive and language abilities, just like an iceberg has a base. The surface features of a language are similar to an iceberg’s cap.  If a person knows two languages, they have two caps with a common underlying base.  That means if you already have a language base, it becomes easier for you to acquire a second language.[2]

For hearing children, most early reading instruction starts with phonics. At its most basic, phonics is the relationship between the letter on the page and the sound (the letter name) that letter makes when you say it. By learning the various sounds and sound combinations, children can work out words they haven’t seen before when reading and choose the right letters for the sounds in words when writing.

Over the years, many educators (including Teachers of the Deaf) have thought phonics, with its obvious emphasis on hearing sounds in words, was an inappropriate instructional technique for deaf children. However, earlier testing for deafness, as well as improved hearing technology (i.e. hearing aids and cochlear implants), means that many deaf children may be able to benefit from the teaching of phonics.

Most schools’ phonics programs should be suitable for the majority of deaf children who retain some hearing ability. However, it’s important to remember that these children will not be able to hear the sounds as clearly and easily as their hearing counterparts. Your child’s Teacher of the Deaf will need to make sure that mainstream teachers know how to adapt the program to meet their special needs. These adaptations may include adjusting the child’s technology, instructing in an effective listening environment (i.e. one with little background noise), and using strategies, if needed, such as one of the visual cueing systems. Here, as the letter sound is said, a specific hand shape or movement is made for that sound. The combination of hearing the sound and seeing the hand shape or movement can help the child to identify which sound is being said. This is particularly helpful for those letters that have no clear lip movements or letters with similar lip movements.

Many deaf children may need additional accommodations while learning a phonological system. Here are a few of the areas that should be addressed:

  1. Pacing: Most phonics programs have a recommended timeframe for progression. The teacher should check that your child has learned the new sound before moving on to the next one. If not, he needs to get extra practice time at school and/or at home.
  1. Computer software and DVDs: Many programs now come with their own software, and research shows the technology can be more effective than the traditional worksheets. However, even good quality software may not distinguish between sounds enough for deaf children to tell the difference. The teacher should check with the Teacher of the Deaf about how reliable the program is, and if it’s not acceptable, what alternative resources may be employed.
  1. Auditory Memory: In phonics, the child has to recognize each letter, remember each letter’s sound, remember the order of sounds for a word, and then blend all the sounds together to form the word. This means they have to hold a lot of information in their minds at the same time, a process called auditory memory. Auditory memory is often not well developed in deaf children, making this a difficult process to learn. The teacher should be aware of the issue and allow the child additional processing time before moving on.
  1. Concentration and Attention Span: Even when a deaf child has an advanced hearing aid or implant, they will still have to concentrate a lot to hear what’s being said clearly. And when it comes to phonics instruction, they need to concentrate even harder to learn the sounds. In addition, children who lipread will also have to concentrate on the different mouth shapes that are formed when the sound is produced. A deaf child, therefore, is likely to have a shorter attention span than hearing children, and the teacher would be advised to break instruction up into a couple of shorter sessions rather than a single, long session.

Obviously, there are many more factors that need to be considered. Two very good resources for information on deaf instruction are the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) in the UK ( and the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) in the US (

Next week, we’ll take a look at the relationship between sign language and literacy.



[1] Chamberlain, C., Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (2000). In Clark, Preson. (April 29, 2003.) How Do Deaf Children Learn to Read? Retrieved from

[2] Cummins, J. (1989). In Clark, Preson. (April 29, 2003.) How Do Deaf Children Learn to Read? Retrieved from

Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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