The Penny

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.

[Thursday, October 1, 2009]

How Do Profoundly Deaf Children Learn to Read?

This is the first of what I would like to make a series of summaries/commentaries on journal articles relating to speech, language, and literacy. My professional interests are deafness, phonology, and autism, so expect to see those topics show up. I guess I will call this Research Is for Everyone, Volume 1.

Here's the citation:
Goldin-Meadow, S., & Mayberry, R. (2001). How do profoundly deaf children learn to read? Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 16, 222-229.

Most hearing children learn how to speak pretty easily, but many hearing children struggle with learning how to read. They must learn how the spoken language they already know relates to the printed words on a page. They use the sounds of the language (phonology) to figure out the printed words. Of course, they already know the meanings of the words. For example, they know that the sounds "mmm," "ah," "mmm" mean that wonderful woman who gives them juice and lets them watch cartoons. It's just a matter of figuring out that "mmm"=M, "ah"=O, "mmm"=M. So they need to know the spoken language (here, English). And they need to know the phonology (sounds) of the spoken language relates to the printed letters/words.

Deaf children have limited access to English phonology, because they don't hear it well. This includes with hearing aids and cochlear implants. If they need extensive therapy in order to learn a language, they obviously do not have full access to it. Deaf children also have limited access to English language concepts (mainly because of the whole phonology problem).

Only 15% of white deaf high school graduates read above a sixth grade level. The numbers are lower for black and Hispanic deaf high school graduates. Hard of hearing children, even with mild to moderate hearing losses, also read below the level of hearing children. Most deaf children with hearing aids and cochlear implants are in that mild to moderate hearing loss group, even worse if they have unilateral hearing (just one ear). We are not talking about ASL-using children, either. These numbers were consistent throughout the years of oral-only deaf education.

Again, deaf children do not have full access to the phonology (sounds) and language (structure and meaning) of spoken English. It doesn't matter what technology they use to hear.

Deaf children born to deaf parents tend to read at a higher level than deaf children born to hearing parents. Why? They have a native language. They are able to develop competence in their native language (which they have full access to), and they are able to apply their language learning skills to written English. But how? ASL and English do not share a phonological system. ASL and English are totally different languages.

Deaf children born to hearing parents typically are not exposed to ASL. If they are exposed to any sign language, it is usually a form Manually Coded English (MCE), such as Signed English or SEE. The problem with this is that exposure to the language is usually poor quality. Parents will typically sign only when directly communicating with the child, so the child misses out on all of the language that a hearing child overhears. That's a lot of language. Also, parents will often mess up their signs if they try to talk and sign at the same time. Another issue is that children may not be exposed to language early enough. Sometimes their parents wait to introduce signing until they "give them a chance" to be learn to speak. If they wait until the child fails to learn to hear well enough to learn spoken English through listening, the child has lost time that really cannot be made up. That child would not attain native proficiency in any language, meaning neither ASL nor English. All of this adds up to a group of children who often do not have the language skills necessary to learn to read.

So... if deaf children do not have enough access to the phonological code of spoken English, and they do not have a firm foundation in the English language, how can they learn to read? How do deaf children with deaf parents do so well, with much fewer interventions?

The first question to ask is: Do deaf children need to learn the phonological code in order to read English? The answer turns out to be no. Counterintuitive, isn't it? Orally trained deaf children in the sixth grade and up were studied (this article quotes at least eight other articles for these data), and the researchers found that they did not actually use phonological information for reading. And here's a kicker: ASL-using deaf college students used English phonological information for rhyming tasks! Some deaf high school students did use English phonology while reading; others did not. And we're talking about good readers. Who did not use or (apparently) need English phonological knowledge.

OK, so phonology may help some kids, but more deaf children learn to read without using phonology. What about the other problem, that deaf children do not typically have age-appropriate spoken English skills? And why would ASL-using deaf children with ASL-using deaf parents read better than deaf children with hearing parents?

One study examined deaf children ages 7 to 15, who were educated using simultaneous communication, meaning an MCE and spoken English at the same time. The deaf children with deaf parents signed ASL at home. The deaf children with hearing parents used spoken language at home. There were no differences between the two groups (deaf of hearing, deaf of deaf) in nonverbal intelligence and speech production. The researchers presented the children with stories and questions about the stories, three different ways: ASL, MCE, and written English. The children could answer the questions any way they wanted (so they could watch an ASL story and answer in MCE, read English and answer in ASL, etc.). On the ASL stories, of course the deaf of deaf group did much better than the deaf of hearing group. On the MCE stories, they were about equal. On the written English stories, the children ages 7-9 did about the same. The deaf of deaf and deaf of hearing all answered about half of the questions correctly. But this changed with age. By the ages of 13-15, the deaf of deaf group answered nearly all of the questions correctly. The deaf of hearing group was still getting about half correct. ASL did not prevent these children from learning to read, and spoken English did not help these children learn to read. They went to the same school, with the same method of instruction. They were equally intelligent and spoke equally well. Their home language was the only difference between the two groups. It looks like ASL helped the deaf children learn English literacy.

So what do we do?

It looks like a strong language foundation is the most important thing--any language. A deaf child does not need to know spoken English in order to read English. This is great for deaf children of deaf parents. They have built-in language dispensers. Deaf children with hearing parents are at a disadvantage, and they will need interventions. They will need early exposure to fluent users of a language they can access. (None of this "wait a year until his implant is activated before laboriously teaching him a language that he will never have full access to.") But look at hearing children who struggle with reading. Learning language is not enough. (I would argue that many of these children have difficulty with language, but that's a topic for another day.)

Children need to learn the mapping/relationship between the language they know and print. It could be the mapping between spoken English and written English. It could be the mapping between ASL and written English. The teaching process seems to be different for hearing and deaf children. One technique that can be used is called "chaining."

Chaining is where you show the printed word, the spelled word, and the sign. Often an initialized sign is also used. The example given is the word "volcano" (this example assumes that the children understand the concept of what a volcano is). Write the word on the board. Fingerspell the word. Sign "volcano" using a V handshape. Sign "volcano" the regular way (C handshape). This is to make it obvious to the children that all of these things (writing, fingerspelling, initialized sign, ASL sign) mean the same thing. Deaf teachers already do this, and hearing teachers should, as well. 

To sum up:
-Children must learn a language before they can learn to read. Deaf children who use ASL are often better readers than deaf children who use MCE or spoken language. Deaf readers often use a visual code rather than sound-based phonology when reading. Spoken phonology is not necessary for deaf children to learn to read. But as deaf children improve reading ability, they seem to improve phonological ability. So phonology does not seem to be dependable as far as reading. Language IS.
-Children cannot learn a first language through print. The printed code leaves out a lot of information that spoken or signed language has. Written language is not interactive. It is not a natural way to learn language (funny, I don't remember the article discussing this, but it's in the summary).
-Children need to be taught to read. Learning to read is different than learning to speak/sign a language. Learning to speak (for hearing) or sign (for deaf) a language is easy. No effort required. Effort is required to learn to read. It must be taught. Chaining is one strategy. We need more strategies.


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