By Jean F. Andrews
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.
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.
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.
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