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

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.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

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.

I am a deaf educator looking for a research based reading program to teach deaf students. I am currently being required to use programs created for hearing children with “modifications” for the deaf. There has to be a program someone has come up with created specifically for the deaf. I can modify all I want but if the program does not take into account the special language concerns, it turns into just “the best we can do” and I want more for my students. They can “work” the program but it has no meaning to them. Any suggestions ?

Question from D.C., Missouri. Posted October 1, 2013.

Many teachers today are required to use Evidence-Based Practices in teaching students. As most teachers have discovered, materials with an evidence base are few and far between. This is of great concern for those of us who teach DHH children. The fastest way to answer your question is to refer you to Easterbrooks and Beal-Alvarez (2013), Literacy instruction for students who are deaf and hard of hearing. New York: Oxford University Press. Pages 18 through 33 address what material is presently available and what to do if you cannot find a curriculum or set of materials that does not have an evidence base. Table 2 in chapter 1 lists several sets of materials that have a developing evidence base. However, no one package can meet all literacy needs of all students. When there is no material with an existing evidence base, we recommend that you examine the material to determine whether it includes features that we know lead to better outcomes. For example, we have clear evidence that visual supports to learning lead to better outcomes for DHH readers. When reviewing material, if it incorporates routine use of visual supports (which we call a “causal factor” because visual support causes better outcomes), then based on that feature of the material, you can argue that it has a developing evidence base. There are five causal factors that we know support better outcomes: a) higher-order thinking skills, b) teacher’s communication, c) visual supports, d) explicit instruction, and e) scaffolding. If the material is founded in at least two or three of these causal factors, then you can argue with your administrators that it is based in the evidence, even if there is no single research article on the product itself.

You will also want to watch what is happening with the National Research and Dissemination Center of Literacy and Deafness (CLAD; http://clad.gsu.edu). This research group is studying DHH children in sites around the nation and will be creating targeted literacy interventions over the next several years.

My daughter is 15 and profoundly deaf. She is not oral and has fluent and excellent sign language skills. She has a cochlear implant but it doesn’t work for her – epileptic activity has damaged the area of her brain that processes sound. She began to sign at 11 months. Her mainstream high school has an integrated deaf facility and she is doing very well at school. It has become apparent that there is an issue with reading/writing/comprehending English – I want to find out what it is and how to help to overcome it. My daughter is very keen to improve as she has academic ambitions. I have made several enquiries but have not been able to find out who to consult. The usual avenues are not set up for testing through sign language.

Question from D.N., Australia. Posted July 17, 2013.

Your email emphasizes that contrary to what parents might believe, cochlear implants are not appropriate or necessarily useful for all deaf children. Most do benefit, but outcomes are quite variable (and often unpredictable) due to the large individual differences among deaf kids. As much as we would like to think so, there are no “silver bullets” in raising and educating deaf children. However, there are a variety of alternatives that can be helpful in situations like yours. In Victoria, contact the Victorian Deaf Education Institute in Melbourne at vdei@edumail.vic.gov.au. The Student Well-Being Division has the resources and contacts to assist you. In New South Wales, contact the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children online@ridbc.org.au.