[Editor’s note: This is the last 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. To read the fourth part, go here.]
If you’re a hearing parent of a deaf child, it may seem a bit overwhelming when you consider how you’ll help your child both learn to communicate and to read and comprehend written text. While it’s certainly a challenge, there are a number of things you can do to make the processes easier for you and your child.
- Learn how to sign – While your child may be able to hear somewhat with a hearing aid or cochlear implant, vocal language will never be their primary means of communication. To teach them how to communicate, and to communicate with them, ASL (American Sign Language) or another signing language is the most effective means of expression. In addition, Chamberlain & Mayberry (2000) have shown that knowledge of a language is critical to learning how to read. As ASL is a fully functional language, it can serve as the basis for later reading comprehension.
- Focus on visuals – Picture books are great for helping all children, and especially deaf children, learn to read. If the child is still young, point to parts of the pictures in the book, then sign the story about those pictures. Encourage your child to help tell the story if it’s one they’ve seen before. If the child is learning to read, sign-spell a new word, then point to the printed word and the accompanying picture on the page, and finally use the sign for the word. Repeat this again and again until the child understands the relationship between the parts. If you’re teaching your child to read lips, point to the picture, point to the word, and then have them watch your mouth as you slowly and deliberately speak the word.
- Use letter cards – Using letter cards is another way you can help your deaf child develop language and reading skills, as they show how individual letters combine to form words. Place each letter on a card, and place common letter combinations on their own cards. Mix and match the cards to show how each of the letters or combinations creates a new word. You can also demonstrate the difference between vowels and consonants by placing each class in a different pile and putting words together from the piles. Try to work on a new letter or combination each day.
- Build vocabulary – As you would with any child developing their language fluency, work to increase the size of their vocabulary. Try to introduce a new word each day. Work the word into your conversations, put it up on the fridge for easy viewing, and place it next to a picture of the signed letters for the word so the child will make the connection between the two.
- Focus on the positive – Don’t think of your deaf child as “disabled” or “disadvantaged.” Turn that into a positive by thinking of them as “seeing” instead of “hearing.” You need to present new material in a visual manner for it to be learned effectively, but that doesn’t mean that the child can’t be successful at learning it. And focus on the fact that being deaf gives your child a unique perspective on life that others don’t get to experience.
- Adjust your environment – Deaf learners are visual learners, and they therefore need a visual environment in which to thrive. Make a joint activity out of labeling items in their room and around the house with the written word for it, or even the written word and the sign for that word. If you’re homeschooling your child, be sure to incorporate a lot of visual aids into the lessons.
- Test for comprehension – Good signing skills are not necessarily a reflection of good reading skills, although they’re helpful. Make sure your child understands what they’re reading by pointing to a picture or a printed word in a book and having them give you back the sign. As their language and reading skills advance, start asking your child questions about the characters and plot of a book, and let them either sign the response or provide you with a written response to strengthen their writing skills.
These are by no means a comprehensive listing of everything you can do to help your deaf child become successful at reading and writing, but they’re a start. If you’d like to learn more, 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.
 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