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 J.D., Missouri

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.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

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.