Casualties of our Educational System: The Illiterate Deaf Inmate

By Jean F. Andrews

Montana School for the Deaf and Blind
Montana School for the Deaf and Blind

Teaching a deaf child how to read and write is an area that has perplexed befuddled and flummoxed deaf educators for hundreds of years. Why is reading so difficult to teach? What is it about the alphabetic code of English traps deaf children, youth and adults into lives of illiteracy? Is hearing really necessary to learn to read?

Interestingly, deaf children of deaf parents learn to read more easily than most deaf children of hearing parents. This is because deaf children with deaf parents learn sign language early and upon this language base they can build English language skills in reading and writing. By logical extension, it would seem that deaf children would only need to be taught sign, then base English on that sign. But this does not always happen so smoothly. This is because most deaf children are learning both sign and English at the same time and this slows their development.

Live Science
Live Science

Another aspect of learning to read and write revolves around classroom instruction. In preschool and kindergarten classes there is a lot of  matching activities where children match letters to sounds, words to pictures, signs to words, rather than having children read storybooks and texts. Now there is nothing wrong with these matching games as children often enjoy them.  But the focus of quality reading instruction should focus around shared book reading–both provided by the teaching in translations of stories into sign, and by independent book reading by the child on their own. But how can a deaf child read a book if he or she does not have the vocabulary?  That is the Catch-22. Indeed, many deaf children do not have the vocabulary to independently read storybooks on their own. However, there are picture books with simple words and simple phrases that teachers and parents can use develop in children a love and enjoyment of holding a book, or an e-book, and reading a story.

Guardian U.K.
Guardian U.K.

There are numerous reading paradigms that reading researchers bring to the table, in the journals and at conferences. For instance, do deaf children use phonology or do deaf children bypass phonology and go directly to print? Do signing deaf children use a special kind of visual phonology, using the repetition and rhythmic features of ASL and fingerspelling? Neuroscientist Laura-Ann Petitto thinks so. Petitto and her work with other cognitive scientists, linguists and psycholinguists, bilingual researchers, literacy researchers and neuroscientists at the Visual Language Learning Lab ( VL2 lab) at Gallaudet are producing research findings that may send reading instruction into new exciting directions.

Today, while researchers in deaf education are seemingly oceans apart, in their views about reading acquisition and development, they are in the same boat. Deaf educators do have common ground. Their common ground is that they agree of the harsh penalties and social injustices we impose on the Deaf community when we do not teach young deaf children how to sign, read, write, think and reason. And one only has to visit a deaf inmate in a state prison or city jail to meet these casualties of our educational system, whom we failed to teach how to read.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

14 thoughts on “Casualties of our Educational System: The Illiterate Deaf Inmate

    1. I am Deaf and disagree you Jean F. Andrews wrote a “deaf children of deaf parents learn to read more easily than most deaf children of hearing parents”. That’s N-O-T fully true. Which best deaf or hearing parents but Doesn’t matter. That’s an important deaf children using some ASL dictionary books at home more easily than Florida School f/t Deaf and Miami Dade Public Schools f/t Deaf did not fully of teachers using ASL without ASL Books. Individual teachers love or ignore depend on deaf children. Please, Will all of you watch on “You Tube-Johnny Belinda in 1948” and “You Tube-Redefining D-E-A-F” both VERY good!?


  1. Let me make remind that I was a special student and attended at Gallaudet University for ten months. My teacher want my group (English class) to Ole Jim for House of Doctor host: Harlan L. Lane is a Professor of Psychology for the Deaf. He got some collector, research and analyze for one year in 1987-88. He interview and interrogate all of who persons write some books for Deaf and magazines for Deaf for many years to 1988. He found that it in more 75% false and less 25% true. Yes, I notice it. It’s more 75% false make any in USA-who d/Deaf people are innocent and illiterate…. I want say, Thank Harlan L. Lane for helping us to understand…………


  2. Yes, I agree that if a deaf child is given ASL materials at home such as
    an ASL dictionary, bilingual books etc. than they can make progress in reading no matter if their parents are deaf or hearing.

    The point I was stressing in the blog was that deaf parents provides their deaf child with early and full access to ASL…..and typically deaf children of hearing parents have to wait on their parents to learn ASL.

    about your second comment. I have read Harlan Lane’s work in psychology of the deaf, also in art of deaf people…..I did not know he worked with deaf in prisons.


    1. Thank you! Who person is Carl Schroeder and teacher with my English class. He told us about Carl contact Harlan Lane for one year before Harlan hired the House of Doctor of”Ole Jim” in 1987-88. Carl was control and responsibility. For me, I know nothing because I just entered in the Gallaudet University, first time. So now, I know lots of better. Some time ago, I studied a psychology: Social Problem (2 times), criminology, and homicide/criminal in Miami Dade College plus combination -for Deaf in my laptop to improvement at my home than before. Keep I self-sudied at my home, sometime…


      1. I remind, again. My group and me seat and listened who is Harlan Lane on lecturer! Harlan tell all my group plus [ I could not remember how many Deaf/Hearing people for question/answer from outside]. I guess around 200 or more in no room. Who Deaf person stand his name is McCay Vernon and his wife Marie Vernon. That is him and his wrote some books of Deaf Crime. Should you (Jean Andrew) ask Harlan Lane and McCay about it? I met Harlan Lane at Gallaudet U., and Deaf way I, few times. I could not able entered in the largest room but full people by Deaf Way I. So now, I do not know what do Harlan and McCay share!


        1. I communavigate and massessment(*) d/Deaf individual students and people in the schools, jobs and where live ours home. Make mistake in “Wrong person, wrong place, wrong thing”. Please, Will you look for your computer and search: ?
          (*) “Deafinitions for Signlets and “More Deafinitions!” by Ken Glickman.
          I believe bet who d/Deaf children and adults are illiterate in not ours fault. Because where the ASL/Deaf culture books in the school/home?
          I will like to say, Thank Ken Glickman for good books….


  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post and for linking to my piece too. It makes sense to me that a deaf child with a strong and unimpeded language base in ASL (or international equivalent) would develop literacy skills more readily than others who miss language in the first year or two, as was the case for my daughter (late diagnosis). I’m sure there are other advantages to this foundation, such as to emotional wellbeing. Very interesting, thanks again.


      1. Yes there are many advantages to early access to ASL and that is well documented in the research literature.

        However, we must not loss sight of the fact that our aim is to help children who do not have this early advantage. They come to school at age six or seven and their parents are often so frustrated with speech and hearing clinics who despite the best intentions have not been able to promote a basic language with their deaf children. In our reading acquisition research with families we have found them to be simply busy…with work, with family life, that many do not have the time to learn another language. It is a challenge of our profession to provide parents with training that fits into their schedule such as through YouTube, videophones, and the internet. One strategy we have found is using “Adapted Little Books,” These are short English phrase books that are translated into ASL (short stories about 2 to 3 minutes) that build a common core vocabulary in ASL and in English. These materials are free to parents and teachers.
        Our deaf children are learning ASL and English at the same time and this is our teaching reality that we must address. Instead of saying…”you should have…or if only you were a deaf mother…etc. etc. Those are dead-end thoughts.


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