Imagine Max’s ability to learn to read

Imagine being asked to read a passage in a language you have never heard. You wouldn’t know how to pronounce anything or what the symbols mean.

Let’s look at ways you can teach deaf students with language barriers like these.

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Barriers for Deaf Students

Good reading skills rely heavily on exposure to a rich language environment. Much of a child’s preparation for reading success begins at birth. Now take a child like Max who was born deaf. Max’s parents have learned American Sign Language (ASL), a language completely separate from English with its own grammar and rules. His parents tell him stories and label the world around him to introduce him to new vocabulary.But the language he is exposed to is not English.

When Max enters kindergarten, he does not have an understanding of the alphabet, letter sounds, or blending. The stories he’s been exposed to have been translated into ASL, which does not sufficiently prepare him to understand English text or for word play like rhyming.Although Max’s ability to learn to read is not determined by his hearing loss, he will have barriers to break through because of his limited exposure to hearing the English language.

Hearing Loss

About 12,000 children are born with hearing loss each year in the United States. Although deaf education has improved significantly, many deaf children continue to have major barriers to reading and writing in English. It takes special effort from parents and teachers to expose them to English, because they don’t hear it constantly in their environment.Some deaf children will attend a school for the deaf, where teachers are trained to instruct students in reading. Deaf students in a mainstream setting will most likely need specialized instruction in language arts to keep up with their hearing peers.It’s important to mention that with advances in technology, more and more deaf children are receiving cochlear implants.

Cochlear implants allow a deaf child to hear. If cochlear implants are implanted early enough, the students can catch up to their peers and develop language skills like a typical hearing child. This means that they will benefit from the same reading instruction that their peers receive in the regular classroom. This lesson does not necessarily address this population of deaf students.

Teaching Deaf Students to Read

Deaf students, like their hearing peers, will benefit from sound reading instruction that focuses on phonics, phonemic awareness, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. Many techniques used for deaf children are also used for hearing children, because they have been proven to be effective for most learners. Some of the tips and strategies for teachers of deaf students include the use of ASL, because that is the child’s primary mode of communication.Keep in mind that these strategies are designed for children at different ages and abilities, as well as varying degrees of hearing loss. It is up to you as the teacher to determine which strategies are best suited to your student and classroom.

  • Use visuals to teach letters, sounds, and blending. The use of flashcards, pictures, and charts will add a visual to your instruction that will help support your lessons.

    Make letter books, displaying the letter and pictures of words that begin with that letter.

  • Use manipulatives to involve another sense. When segmenting words, have your student use small candies or blocks to represent sounds. For example, when sounding out the word book, the student would practice by moving a block with each sound, b-oo-k.
  • Reinforce English by retelling a story.

    Teachers should first sign the story to make sure the student understands the main concepts, then retell the story a few times using more fingerspelling to introduce English words. This will help a student understand the meaning of vocabulary words in context.

  • Tell stories in a literal or visual way. Deaf students will most likely not pick up subtle meanings in text. It is important that the teacher translates stories in a literal way to make sure the student does not miss out on any clues or details.

    It may also be helpful to act out the story to provide a more engaging and visual form of instruction.

  • Connect ideas to the real world. Make sure that you give plenty of examples to help the student relate to different characters or events in the story.

  • Assess through data collection and informal testing. Teachers need to make sure what they are doing is working. There is no way to know if your student is progressing unless we assess the student’s knowledge and make adjustments along the way.

Lesson Summary

Hearing loss affects thousands of babies born each year. Due to the nature of their disability, deaf children do not get exposed to a rich English language environment, because they cannot hear the words, sentence structure, and flow of speech. This puts deaf children at a disadvantage when it comes to learning how to read.Teachers can help their deaf students by including visuals, using American Sign Language (ASL) to describe vocabulary, and making connections to real life. The strategies may help deaf students understand text in a more meaningful way.

No matter how proficient a deaf individual can communicate in ASL, they still live in a hearing world. Their success in college, ability to get a job, and transition into becoming an independent adult will be largely affected by their ability to read.


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