[Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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. To read the third part, go here.]
Reading aloud is just as important for deaf children as it is for hearing children. In fact, comparative studies show that deaf children with deaf parents achieve greater success in academics, reading and writing, and social development than do deaf children with hearing parents (Ewoldt, Hoffmeister, & Israelite, 1992).
Hearing parents and non-signing teachers can learn from deaf parents’ read aloud strategies about the best way to engage their children to achieve proficiency in English language reading. Research has identified 15 specific strategies that deaf parents use. We’ll touch on five of them here and provide links to other resources for those who wish to learn more.
Strategy #1: Deaf readers translate stories using American Sign Language
A prominent dilemma for parents of deaf children is whether they should sign the stories in ASL or in a manual code that represents English. Both parents and teachers are concerned that if they don’t sign everything in the correct English word order, the deaf children won’t understand the English as it’s written. Research, however, shows that deaf parents read to their children using ASL, without creating confusion.
Strategy #2: Deaf readers keep both ASL and the English text visible
When deaf parents read to their deaf children, they keep the English print visible as they interpret the story in ASL. This allows the children to look freely from the parent (ASL) to the book (English) and make sense of both. In addition, researchers have observed deaf parents first calling the child’s attention to the story’s written text, then signing, then pointing again to the text. This allows the child to connect the meaning of both languages.
In an interesting study, Mather (1989) observed both a deaf teacher and a signing but hearing teacher read stories to deaf students in a classroom environment. Though both were fluent signers, the primary difference between the two was that the deaf teacher kept the text visible to the class while signing, while the hearing teacher did not.
Strategy #3: Deaf readers aren’t constrained by the text
Deaf readers elaborate extensively on the text written on the page. They pull additional information from the illustrations, from what’s happened previously in the story, from the book’s basic theme, and from the needs of the children. In this way, they help build the background knowledge necessary for the children to understand the story. This suggests that when reading to deaf children, parents and teachers should place a higher priority on conveying the story than on the children knowing each and every word on the page.
Strategy #4: Deaf readers re-read stories on a “storytelling” to “story reading” continuum
Just like hearing children, emerging deaf readers enjoy having the same story read over and over to them, and this is a natural and necessary part of language development.
Trelease (1995) states: “These re-readings coincide with the way children learn. Like their parents, they are most comfortable with the familiar, and when they are relaxed, they’re better able to absorb. The repetition improves their vocabulary, sequencing, and memory skills. Research shows that preschoolers often ask as many questions (and sometimes the same questions) after a dozen readings of the same book, because they are learning language in increments, not all at once. Each reading often brings an inch or two of meaning to the story.”
We’ve seen that deaf readers tend to elaborate on the text extensively the first time they read a story. However, each successive reading contains less and less elaboration, with the signing coming closer and closer to the actual text. This forms a continuum, moving from a great deal of signed elaboration toward a more direct translation of the English text into American Sign Language so that children understand the relationship between the two.
Strategy #5: Deaf readers make what’s implied explicit
When deaf readers sign a story, they not only elaborate on the text, but they also emphasize ideas that aren’t directly stated but are clearly implied. The addition of information, such as a main idea or the moral of the story, appears to be a common technique used by deaf readers and one that’s intuitive and unconscious on the part of the deaf readers. However, it’s easy to see that such a practice directly impacts the deaf children’s reading achievement. The deaf readers model the comprehension process and demonstrate how to read between the lines; in this way, they show how a story has meaning that goes beyond the printed text.
For those wishing to learn more about these and other strategies for reading to the deaf, three very good resources are the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) in the UK (www.ndcs.org/uk) and the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) (www.asha.org) and the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center (www.clerccenter.gallaudet.edu/) in the US.
 Ewoldt, Hoffmeister, & Israelite. (1992). In Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. “15 Principles for Reading to Deaf Children.” Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/15-principles-reading-deaf-children
 Lartz & Lestina, 1995; Mather, 1989; Schick & Gale, 1995; Whitesell, 1991. In Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. “15 Principles for Reading to Deaf Children.” Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/15-principles-reading-deaf-children
 Akamatsu & Andrews, 1993; Lartz & Lestina, 1995; Mather, 1989; Schleper, 1995b; Stewart, Bonkowski, & Bennett, 1990. In Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. “15 Principles for Reading to Deaf Children.” Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/15-principles-reading-deaf-children
 Trelease (1995). In Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. 15 Principles for Reading to Deaf Children. Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/15-principles-reading-deaf-children