Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Achievement and Educational Outcomes

I am needing help with explaining how an 11th grade student who is deaf with ASL as his first language and English as his second language and uses an ASL interpreter in class is struggling with learning Latin IV. He uses a CI and hearing aid.

Question from A.D., Ohio. Posted October 30, 2014.
Response from Kearsy Cormier - Deafness Cognition and Language Research Center (DCAL)

Research on deaf signers who have ASL as their first/preferred language has clearly shown that their skills in using spoken/written English vary enormously. Those who acquire ASL earliest tend to be better at English overall than those who learn ASL later, but many do struggle with English as it is for them a second language (just as learning say French would be for a native English speaker). Learning then additional spoken/written languages beyond English is even more challenging for the deaf student, particularly when they are being taught alongside hearing students via interpreters. This would be like a native English speaker who can read and write French as a foreign language trying to learn Latin as an additional language in a class full of monolingual French speakers where the class was taught exclusively in spoken French and interpreted (just for that one student) into spoken English. There has been very little research on acquisition of additional/foreign languages by deaf signers in these kinds of situations, but it is clear that such a student must be given proper support in order to achieve the same level of success as his hearing peers.

We have a 5 year old, bilaterally implanted son who has been mainstreamed into a general education kindergarten. He is awesome at reading people’s body language and just assuming answers to questions. He is an awesome parrot. [But these do not mean he is understanding fully.] The school continues to say that he is a typical 5-year-old boy and that he has adjusted well to being mainstreamed.

He is a very visual child, and we use sign language and spoken language to communicate at home, but the school says they cannot accommodate that, even though we know that there is an interpreter around the corner who has a contract with the school. Is there any way to get sign language into the classroom? We were originally told that if they got an interpreter for him they would need to get one for every foreign language student in the school. Which we know is against the law.

He went to the deaf school for half a day last year in Pre-K, and were told that that was all they could offer him, as he is so advanced due to us working so hard with him. But his working so hard has come back to bite us. He now comes home tired and burned out, not wanting to listen to us anymore. All we want is for him to get the same education as his hearing peers, please help!

Question from L.W., New York. Posted October 9, 2014.

You and your child are going through a difficult time that needs to be resolved as soon as possible. Your mentioning that he is in a mainstream setting suggests that he has had an evaluation through special education and has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If he has, I would suggest requesting a meeting to review his current placement. If an evaluation was not done, you can request a referral for an evaluation through special education.

Your child is entitled to have access to the curriculum and to instruction in the classroom based upon the evaluation and the IEP (it is important that the assessment regarding modalities of instruction be done by someone knowledgeable with regard to hearing loss). If that access requires an interpreter, then it is the school department’s responsibility to provide that service, assuming that it is part of the IEP. There should be no negative consequences for your child because he has had opportunities (with your support) to develop his skills. The goal of special education is to insure that all children achieve to the greatest extent possible given their capabilities. Your son’s strong abilities are no less worthy of support than if he was weak in the same domains.

With regard to the school’s response to your request, not speaking English is not a disability. A child who is a native speaker of a language other than English does not qualify for special education services. That argument is a “red herring” and has nothing to do with your son’s situation.

What language/sign system/ communication mode is best in regards to educating deaf children? In particular, does using SEE correlate to higher reading and writing levels when compared to ASL, total communication, or Sim Comm? Many times people argue that SEE is best because a certain school or program’s students have higher reading levels. To me that is not evidence based data. There are many factors that can contribute to higher reading levels at a certain school when compared to another school or program. Looking at one aspect is not enough unless the schools are identical in all other areas. Is there any evidence based research to support SEE? Also, is it possible to use elements of SEE, but still continue signing ASL or conceptually?

Question from L.L., Texas. Posted June 30, 2014.

I just love loaded questions! Here’s an answer many people will dislike:

There is no language/sign system/communication mode that is “best in regard to educating deaf children.” Certainly, you can find proponents (and data) to support any of the ones you listed. What that tells you is that different things work for different children in different settings. Generally, forms of manually-coded English were created to help deaf children acquire English literacy skills. Generally, they have not proven more successful over the long term than American Sign Language (ASL) or anything else, but the comparison is not a simple one. Proponents of ASL as a link to literacy typically cite data showing that early ASL (e.g., from deaf parents) supports early literacy. So does early spoken language (e.g., from a cochlear implant). The key is early access to fluent language and being surrounded by it in formal and informal settings.   There are programs that use SEE, ASL, SimCom, and other systems that report successful reading achievement in their students. The data from these programs vary in how strong they are, but, again, what this shows is that when deaf children are surrounded by consistent language they will excel. SimCom, for example, has been criticized for not being “a true language,” but has been found to work as well as anything else in the classroom, at least in high school and college. And children in a real total communication school (i.e., SimCom, ASL, assistive listening devices, etc.) have been found to read as well or better than peers in a well-known bilingual program (in which over one third of the children had deaf parents) (see Knoors & Marschark, 2012, below). SEE is an English-based sign system; ASL has a completely different grammar. Many deaf and hearing people use signing with English word order and characteristics of ASL, but trying to mix in SEE signs rather than using ASL signs seems an unnecessary complication. The goal is to give young deaf children a foundation for language (signed and/or written/spoken). Unfortunately, there is no simple solution.

Further reading

Knoors, H. & Marschark, M. (2012). Language planning for the 21st century: Revisiting bilingual language policy for deaf children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 17, 291-305.

Schick, B. (2011). The development of American Sign Language and manually coded English systems. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education, Volume 1, second edition (pp. 229–240). New York: Oxford University Press.

Are their any summer programs for hard of hearing children? My daughter is 7 years old and going into the 2nd grade in the fall. She has had a pretty good year, but is struggling with reading and spelling. Her low test scores in spelling have made her feel so badly about herself she is no longer interested in trying. I need to be able to find a way to encourage her to do better and try. What can I do? I hope to find a program for summer to keep her involved with learning.

Question from L.M., California. Posted June 12, 2014.

Keeping your daughter interested and motivated in reading is important – Children who read more become better readers (and spellers).

To help keep her motivated, read books together, allowing her to take the lead at times in explaining what is happening in the story. Choose materials that within her range and on topics she is interested in (comic books and children’s magazines work well: simple language and interesting material).

You might be able to find an summer program through one of the schools for the deaf in your state, or you can contact GLAD (Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness), the NorCal Center on Deafness, which runs Camp Grizzly for KODAs, or the California chapter of Hands & Voices about locating or even starting one.

I am an itinerant teacher of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I have a 4th grade deaf student (severe sensorineural hearing loss) who has an interpreter but uses spoken language as well. She is reading on an early 2nd grade level. Has the literacy program LANGUAGE! been used with success to help hard of hearing students improve their reading skills?

Question from L.K., California. Posted June 12, 2014.

Two of the counties in our area use this program, and teachers of the deaf have mixed feelings about it. Some love it, some don’t. Based on our knowledge of the students that they have in their programs, it seems to work well with children who have some available usable hearing and basic English proficiency, but the farther along the continuum of organized language to disorganized language (whether English or ASL) and the older the child is, the less effective the program has been.

The positives about the curriculum are that the lessons are systematic and explicit; the instruction can be individualized; the assessment is ongoing; and the lessons tie in reading, writing, and spoken language.  From a deaf educator’s perspective, however, the curriculum seems to focus on phonological decoding rather than meaning, assuming that if the student can sound out the word then they would automatically know the word.  There also are some activities that are difficult to access for students with hearing loss: identifying the stressed syllables in words, learning spelling through sound-spelling correspondence, etc.  Teachers would need to think about having visual supports for their deaf/hard-of-hearing students, connecting practice activities to what they would be doing the next day (or even the next minute), and ensuring  that  students understand the point of the exercises (e.g., why it is important to be able to identify the stressed syllable or use the morpheme “un-“ to make new words).    Overall, teachers likely cannot rely on the Language! curriculum alone, and would need to pull in other resources and deaf education strategies to have an effective English Language Arts class.

All the research that has been done with the curriculum has been completed with middle school and high school students (6th grade and older), although, the lowest level (Book A) is in the pre-primer to 2.5 readability range. There is no research we can find that has included students who were deaf or hard of hearing.

My deaf son is in a public elementary school; they have helped him a lot. But, I think he needs a school that can “go a little deeper.” In reading, he needs to understand the words he’s learned. He sometimes acts like he’s afraid to open his brain. I encourage him, telling him he can do it, but I am not the greatest teacher. Can you offer advice? Would it help to ride the bus to school, giving him more language exposure?

Question from M.B., Tennessee. Posted June 8, 2014.

You’d be surprised – I bet you are his greatest teacher.  You recognize he needs more exposure to language in order to help his reading, and repeated exposure to new words in context and practice using new words in day-to-day situations is a great way to do this.  You have the opportunity in every exchange with your child to provide slightly more complex language input than what he is currently expressing himself.  There is great potential for language growth when new words and expressions are used in the real and meaningful day-to-day moments.  My greatest piece of advice would simply be to communicate for understanding even more.  See if you can increase (maybe even double) the number of exchanges happening between your son and family members or friends.  Then when you sit down to read together (as often as possible while being fun), help him make those connections between the words on the page and the experiences you’ve shared.  Riding the bus could help if he has a friend with whom he can engage in meaningful communication; at the same time, it may not help at all if he is not interacting with others and the language is just taking place around him.

I work with a CI student who is in 2nd grade. He received one implant at the age of 3 and now has two. He is unable to comprehend what he reads for the most part. I realize CI children have difficulty learning to read. My question is: What is your opinion about retention of CI students. This particular child is the youngest student in his grade with a birthday falling just at the deadline day for entering school. I feel he needs another year of language skills (academic and life vocabulary) so that he even has a chance of success. If he were not a CI student, I would recommend retention because of delays and his age.

Question from E.T., South Carolina. Posted April 21, 2014.

If the child needs to be held back, he needs to be held back. Whether or not he has a CI  should not change the educational decisions. At the same time, retaining a child and just giving him the same instruction is not going to solve the problem. I would recommend that first you make sure the implants are working and, second, that the child receives a full diagnostic reading assessment. My hunch is that he needs intensive and explicit phonics instruction but it depends on the results of the assessment.

What is the average ACT score for students with a unilateral hearing loss? Is it lower than the national average for hearing students? My daughter has microtia/atresia of her left ear and is a great student but has taken the exam multiple times with a highest score of a 26. Wondering if her hearing loss is some of the issue.

Question from K.W., Michigan. Posted January 3, 2014.

As far as we can tell, ACT (American College Test) scores are not available for sub-populations like students with unilateral hearing losses. Generally, however, even mild and unilateral hearing losses will affect spoken language comprehension, especially in noisy environments (like classrooms). It may be that your daughter has other skills that allow her to compensate in school, but standardized entrance tests tap a variety of  knowledge and abilities, not all of which necessarily are reflected in her school grades. (I am assuming that your daughter has not had difficulty understanding spoken instructions during the ACT test administration.)

It is wonderful that you (and presumably her daughter) aspire to higher ACT test scores, but you might want to recognize that students with almost any degree of hearing loss generally struggle academically as well as with standardized tests;  a composite score of 26 is quite good in that context. The Gallaudet University website, for example,  indicates that as of 2007-2008, deaf and hard-of-hearing students only have been required to have a composite score of only 14 to gain entrance.  Compared to deaf and hard-of-hearing students currently enrolled in baccalaureate programs at Rochester Institute of Technology , your daughter’s score put her in the top 50%.

Which reading curriculum(la) do you recommend using with deaf/hh students? Do you support using cued speech with English speaking deaf/hh students?

Question from D.D., Arkansas. Posted December 9, 2013.

Thank you for providing the opportunity to remind visitors that this site tries to provide people with evidence-based information about raising and educating deaf children. Only in rare circumstances does the site offer opinions or preferences, and then we ensure that the person writing the response is clear about that.

I do not recommend any particular reading curriculum for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I know of different schools and programsusing different curricula, and I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests that one is any better than the other. The issue is the extent to which the curriculum is appropriate for the student and matches their strengths and needs (and is delivered in a corresponding manner).

With regard to cued speech, I used to be a stronger proponent than I am now. Cued speech clearly supports the reception of spoken language by deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. I infer, however, that your question relates to reading. There has never been any evidence that cued speech supports deaf children learning to read English.  The evidence demonstrating cued speech to support reading subskills comes from work involving French or Spanish, which are far more regular in their sound-to-spelling correspondence. Clearly, cued speech has its proponents, and some children succeed well with it. But the evidence for supporting the the reading of English is lacking, and has been for the more than 40 years since cued speech was created.

Is research on Cued Speech being taken into account when evaluating and recommending a communication mode that promotes literacy in deaf children?

Question from R.M., Colorado. Posted October 13, 2013.

The wording of your question makes it a difficult, or perhaps sensitive one to answer (especially for someone who has been an advocate of cued speech). For those know unfamiliar with it, cued speech involves the use of handshapes and locations around the mouth to distinguish speech sounds that look the same. It thus supports the visual perception of speech (i.e., speechreading or lipreading). A recent study involving a large nationally-representative sample of deaf high school students indicated that over 50% of their parents thought they were using cued speech in school. The true figure is less than 5%, suggesting that many parents (and perhaps students themselves) are not familiar with the terminology used in educating deaf students.

Because you are writing from the United States an honest answer to your question would be “if research on cued speech is taken into account when evaluating and recommending a communication mode that promotes literacy in deaf children, it should not be used.” Cued speech has been shown to support the acquisition of reading-related subskills, when used both at school and at home, among deaf children who are learning French and Spanish as their first language. In its more than 60 years of existence, it has never been found to facilitate the acquisition of reading skills by deaf children who are learning English. According to Leybaert, Aparicio,  and Alegria (2011), well-respected proponents of cued speech, this likely is because relative to French and Spanish, the sound-to-spelling correspondences of English are highly irregular.

Recommended reading: Leybaert, J., Aparicio, M., & Alegria, J. (2011). The role of cued speech and language development of deaf children. In M. Marschark and P. Spencer (Eds.) The The Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education, volume 1, 2nd edition (pp. 276-289). New York: Oxford University Press.