[Editor’s note: This is the third post of a five-part series on the deaf and educational interventions to ensure reading comprehension and fluency. To read the first part, go here. To read the second part, go here.]
If a child’s primary language is ASL (American Sign Language), does this enhance or expedite the acquisition of English literacy?
ASL is a completely different language than English, and it’s also expressed in a different manner. English is communicated by speaking and writing, while ASL is signed. Hearing, English-speaking people develop an inner speech that’s basically similar to their spoken speech; their writing is based on their inner speech. If a French speaker wants to become literate in English, he can use his knowledge of spoken French to help acquire the skills of spoken English. He then has two means to learn written English. One way is to go from spoken English to English-based inner-speech and then to written English. The other way is to utilize his ability to write in French as an aide to learning how to write in English. Neither of these paths is available to deaf children.
ASL has no widely established written form, so there are no “reading and writing” skills to be transferred and applied to the acquisition of English reading and writing skills by deaf students. In the absence of transfer of reading and writing skills, what’s the benefit of a deaf child learning ASL or using a bilingual approach to achieve English literacy? ASL is expressed visually and gesturally, and it’s therefore acquired by deaf individuals more readily than are spoken languages; and, as a language, it enhances and promotes an individual’s cognitive and metalinguistic abilities. These same abilities then help facilitate the acquisition of written English. It turns out that knowing ASL doesn’t interfere with learning to read and, in fact, it may help facilitate learning. As Chamberlain and Mayberry indicated, a language base is necessary for learning to read. ASL is a fully functional language, even if it’s a visual one.
A recent study in the journal Pediatrics, however, calls this into question. It found that in later elementary grades, deaf children not exposed to sign language had a statistically significant reading advantage over children whose parents continued to sign with them after they received cochlear implants. The study provoked controversy among educators and the deaf community, and it’s not clear if this conclusion will be supported by further research.
The ultimate goal is for the deaf child to learn to map between the sign and the print. One method, described by Padden and Ramsey (2000), is “chaining.” The teacher fingerspells a word, then points to the word written on the blackboard, then uses an initialized sign for the word. It helps bridge the gap between spoken language and visual language. New techniques need to be developed to maximize the learning experience; teachers and parents of deaf children need to work together to create solutions.
The bottom line is that reading does not come naturally to all children or all individuals and must be taught, both to hearing and to deaf children. There is a lot to learn on this subject, and both deaf and hearing people must work together to understand how best to instruct and turn signers into readers.
 Chamberlain, C., Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (2000). In Vicars, William. (January 1, 2003). The Relationship between Literacy and ASL. Retrieved from http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/literacy1.htm
 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
 Geers, Ann, et. al. (July 19, 2017). In “Debate over Sign Language’s Use for Some Deaf Students.” Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/07/19/fierce-debate-over-sign-language-use-by-some.html?r=1700560203
 Patton and Ramsey. (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