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.

Question from P.R., Australia

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.