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

Curriculum Officers in my school are saying that phonemic awareness is not critical in learning to read and write because Deaf children don’t hear sounds and cannot be phonemically aware before learning to read and write. How critical is phonemic awareness in the scheme of deaf students learning to read?

Question from P.R., Australia. Posted May 29, 2015.
Response from Connie Mayer - York University

It is well documented that developing phonological sensitivity is a necessary aspect of learning to read and write for all hearing learners. Phonological sensitivity is an umbrella term that encompasses both phonological and phonemic awareness; that is the broad array of abilities and skills associated with manipulating the sound structures of a spoken language (e.g., alliteration, rhyming, blending, segmenting). These are critical in order to make sense of the systematic relationship underlying the mapping of sound onto print in the processes of both decoding (word reading) and encoding (spelling), especially in an alphabetic language such as English. The essential role that phonological sensitivity plays in reading and writing development does not change because the learner has a hearing loss.

Some deaf children develop these phonological skills via an auditory route in a similar fashion to their hearing peers through the use of hearing technologies such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. For those children for whom the auditory route is not possible or needs to be supplemented, visual strategies such as Visual Phonics or Cued Speech Language can be used. Research has shown that these approaches are effective in developing phonological sensitivity even in profoundly deaf students.

It should be emphasized that phonology alone (i.e., decoding and encoding in the absence of language) is not sufficient for becoming a fluent reader and writer. However, if deaf learners do not develop phonological sensitivity and the ability to decode and encode with ease and automaticity, they will face challenges in learning to read and write, and in developing age-appropriate literacy outcomes.

For further information on the importance of phonological sensitivity in the literacy learning process, you could visit the Reading Rockets website.

For information specific to teaching phonology to deaf learners, you could look at this information from the Clerc Center in the U.S. and the National Deaf Children’s Society in the UK.

I am a TOD on the high school level. I have been for 18 years. I had four years in the preschool. I am a self-contained teacher and an Inclusion teacher. I was wondering if you had a suggested materials for me to use in the classroom. I currently teach World History. My students have very low Lexile levels. My biggest struggle is reading comprehension and my boss constantly telling me I need to ask higher order questions to my students. My students struggle with basic questions: who, what, where, when, …. My vice principal has a special education degree. I have tried to explain that my deaf students think and process information differently than the special needs and regular education students. Also can you suggest any books that I should read to help me in the classroom with my students? My students’ parents do not sign and two out of three students come from Spanish-speaking homes.

Question from K.W., New Jersey. Posted March 20, 2015.

My favorite high-interest, low-reading level materials are published by Steck-Vaughn. The World History book is “World History and You” by Vivian Bernstein which is a 2nd-3rd grade reading level. They also have similar books for other Social Studies courses (America’s Story, World Geography and You). They are short reading selections and include activities and assessments. AGS also publishes social studies books, which are written at a 4th grade level. Reading A-Z is another program that has leveled readers about various topics that may include some information that you are covering. Unfortunately, there are not many other options that I have found that work well with students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing who are reading significantly below grade level. If those texts don’t match up with my student’s needs, I tend to rely on teacher made materials and websites such as edhelper.com and enchantedlearning.com.

If your students are having difficulty reading the material, perhaps you could have the students put the reading portion on hold at first. I’ve had success by pre-teaching new vocabulary with pictures, then story telling and having the students do a non-reading/writing activity (role-playing, make a picture book together, create a time-line with titles/pictures only, etc.) Once they understand the concepts “through the air”, the students can then apply that to the text.

As far as books that you can read, there is a lot of information out there about embedding formative assessment, which has helped me recently in my classroom with struggling learners. Try publications by Dylan Wiliam.

Strategies that I feel are necessary for student success are:
• Visuals – Use as many visuals as you can find.
• Repetition – After the initial instruction, take some time each day to warm up by touching on previous information and do this often.
• Vocabulary – So many students have difficulty reading simply because they don’t recognize the words. This happens even with simple words that they actually DO know the meaning of, but just don’t recognize the written word. Step up your vocabulary study with vocabulary notebooks, word walls, etc. Use pictures along with simple definitions and even pictures of the signs when able. Avoid definitions from the dictionary, which can be confusing for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Quizlet.com (there is also an app available) is a fantastic way for students to practice vocabulary. It gives the option to add a definition and/or picture for each vocabulary word, as well as games and assessments.
• Real Life Connections – Find a way to connect the information to the students’ real life. This could be by paralleling English to Spanish (written, spoken or signed) or events that have occurred in their everyday life.

I agree that it IS extremely difficult for students to be able to answer higher level questions if they are struggling with basic WH- questions. To improve your students reading comprehension, critical thinking skills, and ability to answer questions, consider trying readtheory.org. It is a tool that offers reading exercises for all ages and reading ability levels. The students start off by answering lower level questions, and as they become more skilled in doing this, they move on to higher level questions. This may be ideal for your students because it gives you the freedom to individualize for each student. In addition, it also gives you analytical statistics for each student about their ability to answer higher order questions, so you can have data to show your boss to back up the way that you question your students.

Is there evidenced based research available relative to the Expanded Core Curriculum for DHH students?

Question from J.E., Georgia. Posted March 12, 2015.

Several states, including Iowa (this link provided by the Georgia DoE and several others) and Wisconsin, have provided guidance on the Expanded Core Curriculum with regard to DHH learners. However,we cannot find any indication that the recommendations are evidence-based beyond what is generally recommended in educating DHH students (some it, also, without an evidence base). The reference list at the end of the Georgia DoE document are a good starting place for the more general literature, although be aware that a number of the references are incorrect.

It may just be too soon for such research to have emerged, but it is clearly needed. Perhaps investigators working on the issue will see this and offer some references that can be posted.

With the number of children getting cochlear implants and their parents not using sign language with them, what are their outcomes in mainstream schools…are they still affected like deaf signing children (missing out on full access)? What percentage of the deaf student population in mainstream today, use sign language verses oral?

Question from T.H., Florida. Posted February 23, 2015.

Several studies have found deaf children with cochlear implants to be reading at or near grade level during the elementary school years, a great improvement over what typically has been seen among deaf children without implants. By high school and college, however, implants are no longer associated with better reading achievement (although use of spoken language is). Interestingly, the same is true of deaf children who are native users of sign language by virtue of having deaf parents. That is, studies have found those children also to be reading at or near grade level during elementary school, but neither parental hearing status nor sign language ability is longer associated with better reading achievement by high school. These findings might suggest that full access is an issue for both groups, but they also may be related to the greater difficulty and complexity of to-be-learned material in the higher grades.

With regard to language use in the mainstream, you would think this would be a straightforward question with a straightforward answer. Unfortunately, it’s not. According to data drawn from the Gallaudet University Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth, 19.5% of DHH students under age 13 are taught through spoken language only and 22% through sign language only. For students aged 13 and older, 6.7% are taught through spoken language only and 37.2% through sign language only. Data from the Annual Survey, however, are known to be weighted toward special schools and programs for DHH students, and it does not appear that the data are broken down by school type. According to data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTSES 2), a study of a nationally representative sample of DHH high school students, 51.6% of students in regular schools use sign language (compared to 98.1% in special schools) and 94.5% of them use spoken language (compared to 59% in special schools). What all of this tells you is that most DHH students use both forms of communication, although knowing their fluencies in each and the contexts in which they use them (including school) would require further investigation.

Further Reading:
Allen, T. E., & Anderson, M. L. (2010). Deaf students and their classroom communication: An evaluation of higher order categorical interactions among school and background characteristics. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 15, 334–347.

Marschark, M., Shaver, D.M., Nagel, K., & Newman, L. (in press). Predicting the academic achievement of deaf and hard-of-hearing students from individual, household, communication, and educational factors. Exceptional Children.

Marschark, M., Tang, G. & Knoors, H., Editors (2014). Bilingualism and bilingual deaf education. New York: Oxford University Press.

I am an educational interpreter for a deaf student in high school. She has been taught by a teacher if the deaf all her schooling life in a pull-out English/reading class. This year she was mainstreamed into an English/literature class. She reads at just below grade level. During class, when the (hearing) teacher has the whole class independently read from a book, should I use my finger to guide the student’s reading, or should I sign the whole thing? If the teacher has other children read out loud or uses a audio recording to help read out loud for the hearing students, should I encourage the student to look at the text and guide with my finger, or should I sign the whole thing? The goal I presume is to help enhance reading skills, and my gut tells me to have the deaf student read the visual. But my teacher of the deaf tells me to sign everything. I find that counter intuitive. If the student was learning to read, I would sign and attach the visual word to it at an elementary or preschool level. But this student knows how to read; this is now a high school level reading class. We are talking novels, short stories, etc.

Question from W.D., Maine. Posted February 19, 2015.

While we have little information about the effectiveness of interpreted education for school age students (e.g., Schick, Williams, & Kupermintz, 2006), researchers have found that college-age deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) students may gain equally as much or more knowledge from reading as they do from seeing someone sign a lecture (Borgna et al.,2011; Marschark et al., 2009). This information might be something to consider when you begin having important conversations with the English teacher, the teacher of the deaf, and the student.

First, you should talk with the classroom teacher and teacher of the deaf to gather what their goals are for this activity. If the classroom teacher is listening to the hearing students read to gauge their decoding skills, then helping the DHH student follow along by tracing your finger above the words would be appropriate. This way the DHH student would be ready to read when her turn came. Asking the teachers about their goals will clear up any assumptions on your part and you can work with them to be ensure these goals are met.

Second, you should talk with the student and find out her preferences during English class. The student might prefer to read while you aid in tracking or the student may feel uncomfortable having someone that physically close during class. These preferences should be taken into consideration when deciding how to interpret in the classroom but may not be paramount to the teacher’s goal during the lesson. Your combined knowledge and ability to communicate as an educational team will resolve this issue as well as many in the future.

Further Reading
Borgna, G., Convertino, C., Marschark, M., Morrison, C., & Rizzolo, K. (2011). Enhancing deaf students’ learning from sign language and text: metacognition, modality, and the effectiveness of content scaffolding. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(1), 79–100.

Marschark, M., Sapere, P., Convertino, C. M., Mayer, C., Wauters, L., & Sarchet, T. (2009). Are deaf students’ reading challenges really about reading? American Annals of the Deaf, 154(4), 357–70.

Schick, B., Williams, K., & Kupermintz, H. (2006). Look who’s being left behind: Educational interpreters and access to education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11(1), 3–20.

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.

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.