You just gave birth to a glowing infant. As she nestles in your arms, you’re enamored with her. The rest of the world vanishes. Soon the doctor’s take her away to perform the hearing test. You devour your hospital food because you’re so hungry. All the while, you can’t wait to hold her again. When your infant finally returns, a doctor enters the room. He looks like he has to tell you something important.
You learn your child has failed the hearing test. This comes as a surprise. No one in your family was born deaf. Through all the information you receive, you gather that there’s a lot unknown about teaching deaf and hard of hearing students. Will my child ever communicate? How will she learn to read?
In this post, I interview Chelsea Hull, a deaf and hard of hearing education specialist. She’s the daughter of a hard of hearing mom. In an effort to pass down the deaf culture she grew up in, she’s also taught her two children ASL. Chelsea is troubled by the low literacy rates in the deaf and hard of hearing community, and as an education specialist, she works to improve learning opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing children. Here’s the interview:
There isn’t a lot known about teaching deaf and hard of hearing students to read. They’re an overlooked subset of struggling readers, but their struggles are profound. Why do deaf and hard of hearing children struggle so much with reading?
Deaf and hard of hearing students graduate high school at the 3rd or 4th grade level in reading. Teaching deaf children to read is a challenge for educators, because educators don’t often understand the unique language, culture and needs of deaf and hard of hearing students.
Most importantly, most deaf and hard of hearing kids are born to hearing parents. This means, their parents often don’t speak sign language. Since their parents often don’t know sign language, these children grow up in a language poor environment.
When deaf kids start school, they’re often still trying to learn sign language. Since they haven’t even learned their native language, it’s difficult to begin reading in English, an entirely different language.
Teaching deaf children to read really involves two different languages. Can you describe some differences between English and ASL?
Yes, ASL is completely different from English. The grammar rules are different. Sentence structures are different. There are different words that don’t necessarily even exist in English. ASL also conveys messages through facial expressions much more than English. You have to be very expressive if you can’t change your tone of voice. You don’t have a tone of voice!
Teaching deaf kids to read is difficult, partly because they cannot read in their native language.
By definition, ASL is not a written language. Therefore, all deaf and hard of hearing kids must learn to read in a nonnative language.
How are deaf and hard of hearing children diagnosed?
Newborns receive the Newborn Hearing Screening, which is a very accurate test. If a newborn fails the test, they come back for another test at one month. The tests are sophisticated and reliable.
About how many children are deaf and hard of hearing?
3 per 1,000 babies are deaf and hard of hearing. Among those 3, 1 will be severely, profoundly deaf, another will be hard of hearing and another will have a chromosomal disorder. All of these kids will likely struggle with reading. Teaching deaf children to read is a process that begins with teaching them both English sounds and sign language as soon as possible.
After a parent learns that their child is deaf or hard of hearing, what are the next steps?
Parents are referred to a local intervention center. Often kids start receiving intervention services at 6 months of age. The hard of hearing children are fitted with a hearing aid at 3 months. The profoundly deaf can receive cochlear implants sometime around 1 year of age. This means, many of these children will not have access to sound during much of the first year of life. Thus, they will not have access to spoken language.
Teaching deaf students to read requires helping them with phonics sounds. In reading instruction, phonemic awareness is the ability to play with sound. If by definition deaf and hard of hearing students have limited access to sound, how do they acquire phonemic awareness?
During the first year of life, a hearing baby has access to sound. This is critical for their language development. Deaf and hard of hearing children can’t hear all sound for much of that first year. This sets them up for a language delay.
Since they don’t hear sound as well, that can’t develop phonemic awareness as well either. In reading instruction, phonemic awareness is critical. From reading research we know that phonemic awareness (or sound awareness) is the greatest predictor of future reading success. Well, deaf and hard of hearing kids enter school with very poor sound skills and often overall language skills.
How do we help deaf and hard of hearing students acquire phonics sound knowledge?
Deaf children need step-by-step sound (or phonics) acquisition. Since they struggle with sound, they need a systematic approach to reading. If they adapt and learn the sound structure early, they’ll have a better chance in reading.
Also, educators need to make sure classrooms are set up appropriately for deaf and hard of hearing students. Even if a child has a hearing aid, her radius of hearing is about 3 feet. Classrooms are noisy. Kids chit chat, blow their noses…etc. There’s a lot of ambient noise. Since there’s so much ambient noise in classrooms, many hard of hearing students cannot even hear the lesson!
In these environments, they don’t even have a chance to acquire reading skills.
What else can improve learning outcomes for deaf and hard of hearing children?
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning ASL. Deaf and hard of hearing kids need a native language. In my field, we all know who does best. We call them deaf with a capital D. These are deaf children born into deaf families, meaning mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt—many family members—are fluent, expert speakers of ASL.
The whole family works together to give the deaf child the gift of language. They teach that deaf child to become an expert ASL communicator. If a child has a native language, they’ll perform better in school and have more opportunities in life.
However, most deaf children are born to hearing parents. If the parents learn ASL, their child will do much better. Essentially, deaf and hard of hearing children need a way to communicate early, just like everyone else.