HOW DO DEAF CHILDREN
LEARN TO READ?
It has been said that reading requires two related capabilities, first you
must be familiar with a language and second you must understand the mapping
between that language and the printed word (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000).
Deaf children are disadvantaged on both counts, but some deaf children do
read fluently. Recent research has suggested that individuals with good
signing skills are not worse readers than individuals with poor signing
skills (c & m, 2000). Skill in signing does not guarantee skill in reading,
reading must be taught.
Let’s ask ourselves, how do we see the deaf child? Ben Bahan
(1998) has suggested changing “deaf person” with “seeing person” so that the
emphasis shifts away from the negative toward the positive way deaf people
relate to the world, through their eyes. According to Carol Erting
understanding this difference is fundamental to conceptualizing our role as
educators and parents of deaf children. It is the task of educators to
create a linguistic and learning environment that is fully accessible to the
child, rather that expect the child to communicate in ways that are
impossible for him/her. Understanding how deaf children learn to read is
important so that we can improve that process in the deaf population.
Roughly 1 in 1000 children in the U.S. are born with severe to profoundly
hearing loss. A child with a profound hearing loss may hear loud sounds
perceived as vibrations. Learning to read the child must learn the mapping
between the spoken language and the printed words, for the deaf child this
is not easy. The deaf child does not have access to phonological code and
many do not know any language well. Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore
(Rousing Minds to Life), explain literacy as “…patterns of language and
cognitive development that can develop through teaching and schooling”.
They also say that a literate person is one “…capable of reading, writhing,
speaking, computing, reasoning, and manipulation visual as well as verbal
symbols and concepts.” This means that speech is not the only way to
language. Language can be learned through the eye rather than the ear. Deaf
children can learn sign rather than spoken language. Erting says that we
need to view the deaf child as whole, as a competent learner but one who
requires a visual environment in order to thrive and that the problem does
not reside in the child but in the environment. We need to meet the
children in the visual world where they are and help them understand our
world, which takes hearing for granted.
Children are active and creative learners, but they need to be provided
with social interactions frameworks if they are to learn (Bruner 1977).
Before 1960, the only education that was available to a deaf child in a
classroom was oral instruction. In 1960 Stokoe published the first
linguistic analysis of ASL. Teachers of deaf thought that learning to sign
English ought to be better to learn to read English than learning ASL, so
they invented different systems (Signing Essential English, Seeing Essential
English, Signing Exact English, Signed English; Lou, 1988) they referred to
this group and Manually Coded English (MCE). The goal is for the child to
learn through lip-reading and signs. MCE is signed while speaking, but most
teachers find it hard to sign and speak at the same time. Also, some
aspects of MCE are not easy to learn and the children distort these
difficult aspects and change them to resemble signs in ASL.
Studies by Mayberry & Eichen show that children who are exposed to sign
language late in childhood turn out to be less proficient and may never
catch up in adulthood than those in early childhood. Findings suggest that
deaf children read by using a code that is not based on sound and that deaf
children of deaf parents are better readers than deaf children of hearing
parents. One reason for this is that deaf children of deaf parents are more
likely to have their hearing loss identified earlier and get the appropriate
educational needs and they are fluent in ASL or other sign language. A
study showed that knowing ASL does not interfere with learning to read in
fact it may help to learn. Knowing a language is better for learning to read
than not knowing one at all.
The goal here is for the child to learn to map between the sign and the
print. Padden and Ramsey (2000) call this technique “chaining”. The
teacher fingerspells a word, then points to the word written on the
blackboard and finally the teacher uses an initialized sign for the word.
Currently there are several programs in use for educators and deaf
children. The teacher and the child must establish a dialogue to
communicate but the problem is that they begin in different places. Very
few teachers are deaf and / or fluent in sign language. Teachers and
parents of deaf children need to work together to create solutions. “The
deaf community- comprised of people who share a common visual orientation to
the world- is the most important resource we have, and it remains untapped”
The bottom line is that children need to be taught to read both hearing and
deaf. Learning to read is totally different then learning to speak.
Children will learn the language of their community just by living there.
Reading does not come naturally to all children or all individuals, it must
be taught. Deaf and hearing must work together to understand how to
instruct and turn signers into readers. There is a lot to learn on this
subject and together hearing and deaf can teach and learn together.
Learning Disabilities Research & Practice,
Copyright 2001, The Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for
“How Do Profoundly Deaf Children Learn to Read?” Susan Goldin-Meadow
(University of Chicago) ; Rachel I. Mayberry (McGill University)
Sign Language Studies n75 p97-112 sum 1992
“Deafness & Literacy: Why Can’t Sam Read?” ; Erting, Carol J