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 a teacher for deaf children in Kenya and looking at English compositions written by most deaf children in our school now and in the past, most tend to take the sign language structure. Is there any research which has been carried out to find the relationship between sign language and written English and how can I access it?

Question from O.M., Kenya. Posted December 31, 2011.
Response from Connie Mayer - York University

Many teachers notice that children will write the way they sign. Teachers can sometimes read and understand these texts, but because they are not written in standard English, they are often not understood by readers who do not know sign language.

A considerable amount of research has been done describing the nature of this writing and the writing of DHH children in general (see Mayer, 2010 for a recent review).  As to the issue of the relationship between signed language and written English, it is worth thinking about this from two perspectives –meaning (content) and form (syntax, grammar etc.).  Children can discuss and develop the ideas for what they will write about in a natural signed language (e.g., ASL. BSL). This can be helpful in the planning stage of writing. But when it comes to writing down these ideas, children need to have control of English as well. If they are generating ideas in a natural sign language, they will need to translate these ideas into English before they write them down.  This can be very challenging and there is evidence of interference from the L1 (e.g., ASL) to the L2 (e.g., English). This can make it look like “sign language written down.”

Suggestions for further reading:

Mayer, C. (2010). The demands of writing and the deaf writer. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education: Volume 2 (pp. 144-155). New York: Oxford University Press.

Mayer, C. (1999). Shaping at the point of utterance: An investigation of the composing processes of the deaf student writer. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4, 37- 49.

Singleton, J.L., Morgan, D., DiGello, E., Wiles, J. & Rivers, R. (2004). Vocabulary use by low, moderate and high ASL-proficient writers compared to hearing ESL and monolingual speakers. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 9, 86-103.

Do you have any resources for parents of profoundly deaf children who are above grade average ? My daughter is 10 and has already gone through several Harry Potter books (which is not interesting conversation to her peers). My problem is that I cannot keep up with the sign language vocabulary and meeting her intellectual needs. She attends the local district school currently with an all day interpreter. Prior to 3rd grade she attended the local school for the deaf (including pre-k).

Are there any ‘mentor/tutors’ on VP? Where can I find a listing of perhaps other children with hearing impairments who would be interested in talking with her on the videophone or through chat?

Question from W.W., Florida. Posted December 6, 2011.

First, let me congratulate you on how well your child is doing.  As parents, we need to be vigilant – both when our child is lagging behind, AS WELL as when he/she is above grade level. You’ll want to ensure that your daughter is being challenged and not compared to others who are not doing as well.  You want to make sure your daughter is reaching her individual potential. Your email proves that is exactly what you are striving for. So, here are a couple of suggestions:

For information on how to best identify and serve deaf and hard of hearing students who are intellectually gifted, visit http://deafgifted.blogspot.com/2008/06/bibliography-deaf-gifted-students.html

With regard to peer mentors , can you ask the school for someone (maybe a high school student) who can relate to your daughter’s level of intellectual curiosity?

Regarding staying up with the sign skills of your daughter,  as most hearing parents can attest, keeping up with your child’s sign skills when they are exposed at school all day and, in general, parents are not takes some extra energy, positive attitude, and commitment to improving.  Some basic strategies parents can pursue are local deaf events where they can practice their skills, university level sign classes, and under the IEP provision of ‘parent training and counseling’ they can ask their school to provide them with ASL training. Practice times with your own child also can improve your skills as can getting together with other parents and having ‘silent’ practice sessions to improve your skills.

Regarding your question, “Are there mentors/tutors on VP?”  here are a couple of resources: http://deafness.about.com/od/schooling/a/howtotutor.htm


Finally, you asked about other children who you could connect your daughter with.

I would contact Your local Hands & Voices chapter. There are some chapters that do this type of project   click on www.handsandvoices.org Also, your state school for the Deaf may also be a resource.

My sister-in-law is a junior in high school and is deaf. She has an interpreter who goes to her classes with her, she is in honors classes, and she is very smart. The school she goes to has changed the rules for graduating at the “recommended” level. Now, she will have all the classes she needs except a language class. But, the only foreign language class her school offers is Spanish. She can’t learn spoken Spanish and I am trying to find out if there is a law to protect her from not graduating “recommended” even though she knows sign language.

Question from J.M., Texas. Posted December 5, 2011.

The school did not change the rules, because it is the state, not the school that mandates the graduation requirements. There are 3 graduation plans in Texas – minimum, recommended, and distinguished. The “recommended” graduation plan requires 2 credits of a foreign language. The “distinguished” requires 3 credits. ASL does qualify as a foreign language requirement in Texas. If her HS does not offer ASL, she could ask her school whether they offer a dual credit program. Then, she could take ASL classes from the local community college and get both HS and college credit.  At Austin Community College, for example, one semester of a foreign language from the college equals 1 full credit of the HS requirement, so she could potentially get 2 years HS credit by completing 2 semesters at a local college. Programs vary by area, so she would need to find out how her school and local colleges handle the credit transfer.

Here is a link with more information about ASL as a foreign lang. requirement in Texas:  http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/deaf/certinfoupdate.html

and here is a link explaining the various graduation plans: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/graduation.aspx.

I’m considering applying for a grant to establish the Clerc Center’s Shared Reading program as a pilot project in our state, but need to be able to document that it is an “evidenced based” program. Is there strong research to back it as an “evidence based” program and if so, can you direct me to the research articles?

Question from L.H., Missouri. Posted August 25, 2011.

Shared reading is just what the name implies: books as the shared focus of an interaction between an adult, typically a parent or caregiver, and a young child. At the earliest stages, this may consist of simply looking at pictures together and allowing the object of shared attention to be labeled or become the communication topic. For example, looking at a picture of a car, a parent might label it and then ask the child something about “Mommy’s car.” At later stages, stories in the books, as reflected by the pictures, may be “told” without regard for the actual text. Intermittently, or at a later stage, parents may actively lead the child to recognize connections between printed and either spoken or signed words. The initial purpose of such activities is to introduce children to the idea of books and print, and shared reading progresses more smoothly when parents follow the children’s lead regarding the focus of attention and the duration of time spent on the activity.

Hearing parents of deaf children often suggest that their children do not enjoy books, and that they themselves do not know how to create interest and sustain attention in the activity; that can be a challenge. David Schleper therefore developed a shared reading program for deaf children. The idea is that hearing parents of deaf children could learn from the reading strategies of deaf parents reading to their deaf children. Although some studies of deaf children have reported positive results from shared reading activities, these studies have tended to have few participants, qualitative or case-study designs, and/or no comparison groups. Further, the program is based on the belief that deaf children of deaf parents generally have superior reading and academic achievement relative to deaf children of hearing parents. There is little support for that contention; early access to language is the key, not parental hearing status. Whether or not share reading leads to long-term benefits for reading achievement is unclear. It certainly can’t hurt, and it appears likely to have indirect benefits for communication and parent-child bonding. (The program has been around long enough that someone should be doing those studies.)

The above is mostly excerpted from and you can find more information in:  Spencer, P.E. & Marschark, M. (2010). Evidence-based practice in educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students. New York: Oxford University Press.

Our child got his first implant at 5 and his second at 7. He is 8 now and only speak in 5-6 word (grammatically incorrect) sentences and understands slightly more. He can only read at the Kindergarten level. We were at a poorly run school so we moved to a great private oral school 8 months ago. He’s gaining language and literacy skills, but we fear its not fast enough to close the gap. I know we have not been at this school very long and should give it time, but time is something we ran out of long ago. I don’t want a 20 year old who has no usable language and can’t read, but I also feel that switching to ASL will hinder reading even more. What do I do?

Question from J.D., Missouri. Posted August 21, 2011.

Okay, I confess: My first thought was “Who can I get to answer this for me?” The (my) problem is that you’ve touched on several realities of having a deaf child that tend to bring out philosophies and controversy, while frequently ignoring the evidence. The realities according to the research: (1) Almost all deaf children have difficulty learning to read. (2) “Oral” education does not eliminate language delays. (3) Learning sign language does not interfere with learning spoken language (for children with or without cochlear implants), but it won’t lead to print literacy either. (4) Cochlear implants are tremendous help for many deaf children, but it does not make them hearing children. Unfortunately, there is no simple or single answer to your situation…shared by many if not most parents of deaf children.

With regard to reading, my best advice is to look at the answer to the posting by Dawn M. (March 1, 2010), as suggested in the previous post. With two cochlear implants, assuming they are both functioning and have been mapped properly, you are doing all you can for your son’s speech and hearing. If you think about how long he was without full access, however, you should not expect him to catch up in any less time than that – he is that far behind in “figuring out” spoken language and has to be catching up as well as learning anew. Having a sign language prior to acquiring spoken language can be a real benefit for deaf children, but I do not know of any research looking at adding sign language in a situation like yours. But it can’t hurt. If anyone claims either that it will confuse your son or help him learn to read – you will be told both – ask for the published evidence (it’s not there).

If you are not sure that both implants are working as well as possible, have them checked and possibly re-mapped. If your son is receiving speech therapy, stick with it. If there is the opportunity for him to learn ASL and/or interact with other deaf children who use ASL, give it a try. If he takes to it, it’s working for him. If he doesn’t, it isn’t. Most importantly, studies that have looked at students with the best literacy skills point to parent involvement as the key. Read with your son, be a model who enjoys reading, and be involved without being too pushy.

I have a 9 year old daughter who was born deaf in left ear and lost half of her hearing in her right ear at age 3. By age 5 she lost all the hearing in her right ear. She recieved a cochlear implant at age 5 and has struggled in school with everything. She is in third grade, but most of her skills range from kindergarten to first grade. She is in special ed, but we are in a rural school with a special ed teacher who has no experience with deafness. Do you have any suggestions for helping her learn to read? She also has seizures I know this has an impact on her performance in school.

Question from E.D., Arkansas. Posted August 19, 2011.

With regard to your reading question, I suggest you take a look at the question from Dawn M. posted March 1, 2010, and the very helpful answer from Karen Roudybush; you can search by date or name. Reading is a continuing challenge for deaf children, regardless of where they live, what kind of school setting they are in, and whether or not they have a cochlear implant. There are a number of helpful online resources available, but as Karen Roudybush emphasizes, the key is “read, read, read.”

Presumably, you have already addressed the seizures issue with a pediatrician. In addition, you might want to chat with a school psychologist (there will be one serving the district, you may need to find out when s/he will be in town), because the seizures may have social as well as academic implications.

I have a daughter that is 10yrs old and uses a cochlear implant to hear. She is mainstream and is presently performing at an average level. My concerns are that I have noticed some of her weakness in math and reading. These are not easily identified as to what is the underlying cause for the weakness. Are there techniques that her teachers and I can use to help her in these areas?

Question from E.K., Pennsylvania. Posted June 21, 2011.

I have talked to a couple of colleagues about this, because I have to confess that my first thought was to be impressed with that your daughter is doing so well. English and math traditionally have been the most difficult areas for deaf children, and as much as I wish we had the solutions (note the plural), we have not made a lot of progress in the last few decades. Certainly, kids with implants are doing better on average than kids without implants, but they still generally perform behind hearing peers. That, in itself, is a clue of where we need to look for some answers.

All of this doesn’t mean anybody’s giving up! There is a lot of work going on today concerning the cognitive and linguistic underpinnings of deaf children’s learning, trying to identify ways in which teachers can build on their particular strengths and accommodate their particular needs rather than assuming that ‘deaf children are just hearing children who can’t hear.’

The first suggestion would be to find a good school psychologist to do a full evaluation of your daughter, perhaps including neuropsychological testing to identify those strengths as well as needs. And, historically, one-on-one teaching/tutoring has perhaps been most effective. Although there are some people who argue that we need to move away from “drill and practice,” the evidence suggests that deaf children need and benefit from it. Missing a lot of incidental learning (even with cochlear implants) means that some of what hearing children learn implicitly has to be provided explicitly to deaf children and repeated sufficiently so that it becomes automatic. Indeed, the lack of “automaticity” which comes from over learning is one of the consistent factors in the literature about deaf children’s learning… although one that seems widely ignored.

Finally, you seem to have the most important ingredient. While most people obsess about deaf children who are poor readers, there have only been two studies that have looked at what makes for the better readers. Both studies have indicated involved parents to be the key. And clearly, your daughter has that!

Do you have any information on the benefits of educating a deaf child throughout college so that they are able to become fully independent and off of social security. I am trying to justify the additional expense we are incurring now vs the cost to the government in the long run if my child should stay on social security. I would appreciate any help you could send my way. We are under a deadline to explain this cost.

Question from J.B., Michigan. Posted June 6, 2011.

In the next issue of the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, there will be a paper by Schley, Walter, Weathers  Hemmeter, Hennessey, and Burkhauser that directly addresses your question. You can find a summary of the study in a 2010 NTID Research Bulletin, but this is from the JDSDE abstract:

“We find that those who graduate, even those who graduate with vocational degrees, experience significant earnings benefits and reductions in the duration of time spent on federal disability programs when compared with those who do not graduate with a degree. This finding suggests that reductions in the duration of time spent on Social Security programs are not limited to those with the highest level of scholastic aptitude and that investments in post-secondary education can benefit a broad group of deaf and hard-of-hearing persons. In addition, the data show that individuals who attend college, but withdraw before graduation, fair no better economically than individuals who never attended college.”

This is a follow-up question to a response I was given about reading and my profoundly deaf daughter (see Query from S.S., below, from April 10). First of all, thank you for the great information – it will be very helpful as I continue to try to support her reading progress. Since my daughter has no access to auditory input whatsoever, I would need to depend on something like visual phonics to teach her how to decode words. It also makes sense that when a person does that they would want to provide language instruction in a Signed English system so that there is a connection. My daughter does learn concepts best using more ASL, and it comes very naturally to her, so I feel that she would need to continue that as well, and therefore use of the most appropriate system depending on what was being taught at the time would probably be best. Example, if she was in English class doing reading and writing work that would be a time to use an English-based system, and if she were in Science class trying to und erstand a concept, I would hope that teacher could explain things more conceptually with more ASL (of course this gets in to many other issues as well, such as finding a school that can provide that kind of instruction). Anyway, I am still confused about something, it seems that even if she were able to decode words well, since she can’t hear them at all, how does she make sense of what was decoded? Say she decodes “dinosaur” perfectly, isn’t it correct that those “sounds” (even with visual phonics) together don’t have meaning unless she has encountered the word before. I hear “dinosaur” and know what it means, but she could decode “dinosaur” and it could mean anything if there is no prior connection. So even if I had signed the word dinosaur to her many times using ASL/CSE or anything else – unless she has encountered the word and been taught it prior to decoding it, it still has no meaning either reading it or decoding it. Doesn’t that lead me to the same conclusion as before — s he will have to be taught every new word, and memorize it, in order to read even if she can decode it? Am I misunderstanding the link between decoding and understanding what is decoded?

Question from S.S., South Dakota. Posted April 14, 2011.

You are not misunderstanding the link between decoding and comprehension.  While decoding skills are necessary for learning to read, they alone are not sufficient for comprehension.  As in your example, a child can “sound out” the word dinosaur but if she does not know the word dinosaur in English, she will not understand the word that was decoded.  The fact that she understands the concept of dinosaur or is able to sign dinosaur in ASL is useful in a broad sense; however, this knowledge is not adequate to achieve success in the reading process as it gives her little knowledge of the English word.

In order to address this issue, deaf children require access to some form of face-to-face English (e.g., contact signing, Cued Speech, signed form of English, speechreading, etc.) in sufficient quantity and quality so that they can acquire the language that they are going to need to make sense of text. While we recognize that it can be challenging to consider the balance between the two languages in your daughter’s life, there is no way around the fact that she will need control of English vocabulary, grammar, and syntax in order to read and write it.

I have a profoundly deaf 8-year-old who is doing well in reading, and seems able to visually pick up new words easily. I would like to know the most effective ways to continue to support this as she gets older and reading materials become more difficult than just site words. She is not going to be able to “sound out” words, and even if she could, she would never have heard the word in order to link it to anything with meaning. To me, that seems to indicate that she would have to “visually memorize” and retain every new word she encounters through the years in order to be able to read fluently – which seems incredibly difficult given how many words she would need to be a proficient reader as an adult. Not to mention the aspect of comprehension once all those words are strung together in a sentence. I am also an educator and would like to know what you feel are some of the best professional materials I could read which would help me understand the process of how a child with profound deafness learns to read.

Question from S.S., South Dakaota. Posted April 10, 2011.

The issue your daughter is facing are very familiar to us.  We both spent extensive time as classroom teachers for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and encountered many who relied heavily on sight word recognition as the primary method of learning to read.  Your insights into the struggles associated with learning to read by memorize words are accurate.  It is nearly impossible to memorize the number of words needed to be a proficient reader and even if this were possible, it does not account for the fact that reader also needs to have command of the grammar and syntax of the language their reading (i.e., phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc.).  So, let us respond to your question in two parts.

First, in regard to sounding out words, there are alternative means that are either auditory (i.e., amplification, cochlear implants) or visual (i.e., speechreading, Visual Phonics, Cued Speech) or a combination thereof.  In concert with these means of acquisition, we would also recommend a systematic and explicit approach to teaching the alphabetic principle (i.e., letter/sound relationships).  There are many resources and curricula available (e.g., Direct Instruction Reading Mastery or Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, see also Florida Center for Reading Research for activities and curriculum reviews).  The most important point is to differentiate the instruction using one or more of the alterative strategies above.

The second question of language is a bit more challenging to address.  Not knowing your daughter, our response depends a great deal on the nature of the language she uses (e.g., spoken English, some form of sign based English, simultaneous communication, American Sign Language [ASL], etc.) for face-to-face communication. If English is already her first language, the challenges are fewer as once she learns to decode, she will be able to comprehend what she has read because it is in her language repertoire.  As you have pointed out, this is essentially what hearing children do.

If ASL is the primary language for communication, your daughter needs to be given opportunities to develop English in its face-to-face form.  This can be accomplished by making English accessible “through the air” through some combination of auditory and visual modalities depending on your daughter’s needs.

Suggestions for further reading

Mayer, C. (2007). What really matters in the early literacy development of deaf children? Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 12(4), 411-431.

Mayer, C. & Trezek, B. J. (in press). New (?) answers to old questions: Literacy development in D/HH learners. International Congress on Education of the Deaf Conference Proceedings. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Trezek, B. J. & Wang, Y. (2006).  Implications of utilizing a phonics-based reading curriculum with children who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 10 (2), 202-213.