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 S.S., South Dakaota

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.
Response from Connie Mayer, York University and Beverly Trezek, DePaul University

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.