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Deaf Education:  Literacy
Also See "Literacy (1)"
Also See "Literacy (3)"
Also See "Literacy (4)"
Also See "Literacy (5)"



By Preston Clark

             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" (Erting). 

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, 16(4), 222-229
Copyright 2001, The Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children

"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


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