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Deaf Literacy:
Also See: Literacy (1)|(2)|(3)|(4)|(5)|

By Razi Zarchy
November 26, 2008

Deaf Language Acquisition and Transfer to Literacy

For many years, there has been an ongoing debate in the field of deaf education about the best language modality for deaf children. Today, there is a constant push-and-pull between the use of signed and spoken language, particularly for the deaf children of hearing parents. Because hearing parents often want their children to communicate in the same way that they do, they may choose spoken English as the primary language of their deaf child. In this paper, I will demonstrate that this emphasis on spoken English is not the best alternative for providing a deaf child with the optimum environment for learning language. Rather, an approach using American Sign Language (ASL) as the child's primary language of communication, along with the introduction of English literacy from a young age, is a better method to allow the child to reach their optimum language and literacy capabilities.

Deafness or other hearing loss is generally considered to be a risk factor for language difficulties. R. Paul (2007) lists the aspects of language with which children with hearing impairments often struggle. They often have disordered phonology in spoken English, as well as greatly delayed syntax. It is of note that when it comes to semantic relations, children with hearing loss who are learning speech show delays in semantic relations, while children learning sign language show the same rates of semantic development as hearing children learning spoken language. However, little of the literature on language disorders addresses the positive effects that learning sign language can have on the language outcomes of deaf children.

For various reasons, many deaf children do not have the opportunity to be exposed to language from birth. This delayed language acquisition causes a significant difference in signed language knowledge and processing between deaf individuals exposed to language at earlier ages versus those who were exposed to language at later ages (Chamberlain, Morford, and Mayberry, 2000). If deaf children do not have this essential exposure to sign language from a young age, even attempts to include deaf children in mainstream classrooms by providing interpreters can be ineffectual because the children's language abilities are not high enough to understand what is being signed to them (Marschark, 2000). Language exposure from birth is imperative to positive outcomes later in life, particular in the realm of literacy.

The level of a deaf child's ASL proficiency has been tied to that child's English literacy. Cummins's (1981, 1989) linguistic interdependence theory states that "all languages share a common underlying proficiency and that cognitive and academic skills acquired in a first language will transfer to related skills in a second language" (as cited in Strong & Prinz, 2000, p. 132). To prove this point, Strong and Prinz (2000) found significant correlations between ASL ability and English literacy in their research sample as a whole. They also found that students with deaf mothers outperformed students with hearing mothers on both measures. In addition, they found when it comes to deaf children of deaf and hearing parents, the academic differences can be attributed to fluency in ASL.

According to Prinz and Strong, (1998), research has found a positive relationship between ASL and English literacy when ASL is used as the primary mode of communication in the classroom (as cited in R. Paul, 2007). Exposing deaf children to print at home and at school, reading them stories, and making literacy a fun activity can encourage them to develop literacy skills analogous with those of their hearing peers. If native ASL signers learn English as a second language as a young age, they perform just like hearing children who learn English as a second language at the same age.

When a view of deaf children's language is confined to spoken English, the outcomes are often disordered or delayed. It is well known that children with disordered or delayed language often have difficulty with literacy once they reach school age. However, early exposure to sign language for deaf children can reverse this effect. The stronger these children become in their native language of ASL, the more proficient readers they will become. Early mastery of ASL is necessary for these children to learn English as a second language at a young age. Improved literacy can lead to improved outcomes in education and employment throughout life.


Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3-50). Los Angeles: California State University, Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering minority students. Sacramento: California State Association for Bilingual Education.

Marschark, M. (2000). Education and Development of Deaf Children--or Is It Development and Education? In Spencer, P. E., Erting, C. J., & Marschark, M. (Eds.), The Deaf Child in the Family and at School (pp. 275-291). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (2000). A Reexamination of "Early Exposure" and Its Implications for Language Acquisition by Eye. In Chamberlain, C., Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (Eds.), Language Acquisition by Eye (pp. 111-127). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Paul, R. (2007). Language Disorders: From Infancy Through Adolescence (3rd ed.). St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby Elsevier.

Prinz, P., & Strong, M. (1998). ASL Proficiency and English literacy within a bilingual deaf education model of instruction. Topics in Language Disorders, 18(4), 47-60.

Strong, M., & Prinz, P. (2000). Is American Sign Language Skill Related to English Literacy? In Chamberlain, C., Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (Eds.), Language Acquisition by Eye (pp. 131-141). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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