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 T.S., Michigan

I became totally deaf at the age of 34, and am now 47. I am a full-time student working towards my Bachelors in Social Work. Having been on both sides (hearing and deaf), and through my education, I know the importance of communication regardless of what mode a parent uses to teach a child.

My question is this, in my internship I am working with a client whose parents want me to teach their child phonics. Their child has never heard a sound what-so-ever. I honestly don’t see the point in it, as how do you describe a “hard C” vs. a “soft C” to someone who has never heard. I do understand wanting to teach them the correct endings to words, such as when to add “ed” (as in worked). In ASL one would sign “finish” + “work” or vice versa. I can see how that would benefit a deaf child in knowing how ASL and English connect for reading, writing, and comprehension.

What are your thoughts on the parts of the phonic’s lessons that rely on having some auditory hearing to use as a base for teaching it? What does one say to hearing parents who want their deaf child to know how each letter is pronounced with phonics, when the child is completely deaf? For me, I still have use of my voice, I just don’t hear anything at all, but knowing phonics has helped my interpreters and friends in teaching me how to voice a new vocabulary word or someone’s name correctly. I just can’t imagine the benefits of this information to someone who has never heard. Am I wrong in my thinking? Or should I focus on helping this child make the connection between ASL and English?

This child’s ASL understanding is wonderful, and they can communicate and articulate very well, but lacks in English comprehension skills. I have noticed this when I ask if they understood the paragraph they just read, and they reply yes. Then when I pick out a word and ask them to tell me the meaning, they say they don’t know. When I then show them the ASL sign for the word, their face lights up and they fully understand then.

Question from T.S., Michigan. Posted June 20, 2011.
Response from Marc Marschark-NTID

My first thought was to refer this question to a speech therapist… or language person of some kind. However, that’s not what this is about. First of all, you really do not have much choice in this matter; it’s the parent’s decision. Yes, you can and should educate the parents to the greatest extent possible (and appropriate), but their desires are not surprising, and you have to respect their wishes if you were going to continue working with the child. But, you raise an excellent second point. There is no evidence that fluency in a signed language is sufficient to provide a deaf child with the underpinnings necessary for English literacy. Research and theory both point to the need for some kind of a bridge. For some deaf individuals the bridge is speechreading, for others it is cochlear implants or an English-based signing system. Supporting this child’s ASL skills will help to provide a fluent first language on which to build literacy. Phonics will help to bridge the child’s language skills to English literacy. You are an outstanding model for both the child and the child’s parents. Hopefully, you can help to educate all of them at the same time.